Historic Charles Town West Virginia Walking Tour
This walking tour explores historic Charles Town, West Virginia and includes numerous historic homes and buildings as well as several museums.
Martin Delany was born in Charles Town, West Virginia and went on to become one of the most influential African Americans of the 19th century. Delany was an abolitionist, author, editor, physician, and the highest-ranking African American officer in the Civil War. Martin Delany was also instrumental in supporting Frederick Douglass and shaping the famous leader's thoughts about the extent to which African Americans could support nonviolence without accommodating the violent regime of chattel slavery. Delany is thought to be the first black nationalist in America.
The Old Opera House is a historic performing arts center in Charles Town. It opened in 1911 under the direction of Annie Packette, a prominent local who sought to bring more culture to the community. The opera house hosted a number of plays, vaudeville shows, minstrels, sporting events, and film screenings before closing in 1948. In 1973 the building was donated to the newly-formed Old Opera House Theatre Company which worked to restore and refurbish the old theatre. It reopened to the public in 1976 and today hosts a variety of plays along with an art gallery and acting, dance, and singing lessons. The Old Opera House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Established in 1865 by the Freedmens' Bureau, the first African American school in Charles Town was located in the Achilles Dixon home. The school located in the Dixon home was named the Liberty Street School, and employed a local Storer College graduate to teach the students. In 1867, Jefferson County began its own system of black education, and by 1874 constructed a brick school house on Harewood Road, now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. The students were moved from the Achilles Dixon home to the newly constructed Page-Jackson High School.
The Webb-Blessing House is one of the oldest stone structures built and owned by free African Americans in Jefferson County. This structure in Charles Town consists of two homes that were combined together in the 19th Century. The Webb-Blessing House was purchased by the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society in 2003, and the organization is in the process of renovating and restoring the home.
Born near Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), John Yates Beall was a Confederate naval officer and saboteur during the Civil War. For several months in 1863, he led guerrilla naval operations against federal targets in the Chesapeake Bay. Operating from a secret headquarters in Mathews County, Beall and his men captured U.S. merchant ships, destroyed a lighthouse, and severed underwater telegraph cables. In September 1864, he led a failed raid to free Confederate prisoners of war held on Johnson’s Island on Lake Erie. Later that same year, federal troops captured him at Niagara Falls while he was working with a small group of saboteurs to derail federal trains transporting Confederate prisoners of war. On February 24, 1865, he was executed at Fort Columbus on Governors Island in New York Harbor. His body was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. In 1870, relatives reinterred his remains in the Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery in Charles Town.
The Jefferson County Museum is located in historic downtown Charles Town and shares a building with its partner organization, the Charles Town Library. Since its founding in 1965, the museum has been dedicated to fostering the understanding and love of history. The museum is committed to the acquisition, preservation, and exhibition of artifacts and documents of historical value and relevance to the county and the region from early Native American activities and the European colonization in the 1700s through the 21st century war on terrorism.
In 1902, Arthur Davenport bought the Carter House, removed it, and built the Jefferson Hotel. A group of Charles Town businessmen formed the Jefferson Hotel Corporation in 1945 and purchased the Jefferson Hotel property with the intention to provide Charles Town residents with restaurants, lunch rooms, barber shops, beauty parlors, and refreshment facilities in connection with the hotel. Only white men were welcomed fully to the hotel and its amenities. Women had to use a separate entrance (note the sign “Women’s entrance” on the far left in the image behind) and African Americans were barred from staying at the hotel.
The Jefferson County Courthouse was originally built between 1803-1808 in Charles Town on a plot of land donated by Charles Washington. It was replaced by a larger structure in 1836. Due to damage incurred during the Civil War, the Jefferson County seat was temporarily moved to Shepherdstown, and then moved back to Charles Town in 1872. The Jefferson County Courthouse is famous for housing two treason trials: John Brown's trial after his raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, and the trial against unionizing coal miners from Logan County in 1922. Today the courthouse remains in operation and is open to the public. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Though it was torn down in 1919, the old Charles Town jail was where John Brown was held before his hanging, sitting diagonally across from the courthouse. John Brown was taken by Robert E. Lee and his men on October 17, 1859 and transported to the jail while awaiting trial. He remained there until his hanging on December 2, 1859. In it's spot now stands the Charles Town post office.
New Central Restaurant, originally Central Restaurant, was located on the first floor of Charles Washington Hall in Charles Town. Nicholas Carson, mayor of Charles Town from 1948 to 1968, bought the restaurant in 1933 and operated it for 52 years. This white-owned restaurant was segregated for many years. African Americans were not allowed to eat in the restaurant and black cooks had to enter the building through a back door.
The Bank of Charles Town is the oldest business in continuous operation in Charles Town. Since incorporation in 1871, it has operated under the same name.
The Star Lodge #1 / Old Stone House is one of the oldest buildings in Charles Town, being constructed during the in 1790s by John Locke. Purchased in 1927 by the Star Lodge Number 1, Queen of the Valley Lodge Number 1558, the Old Stone House became one of the oldest African American Freemason Lodges in the country. The Star Lodge Number 1 was eventually purchased by two African American organizations and is currently used for Charles Town's African-American Culture and Heritage Festival.
St. Philip's Episcopal Church congregation first organized during the late-1860s, seeking to construct an Episcopal church for the Charles Town community. By 1887, the church was completed. Shortly thereafter, St. Philip's provided three different schools that served the congregation and community: St. Philip's Parochial Industrial School, St. Philip’s Academy, and St. Philip’s Sewing School. Unfortunately, the school struggled during the Great Depression and closed as a result. St. Philip’s also served as an emergency hospital for African Americans during the 1918 Influenza epidemic, during which hundreds of blacks and whites died from the highly contagious virus disease.
With African Americans no longer enslaved in the turn of the century, many African Americans looked for organizations or places where they could prosper. Many of them joined churches and organizations where they could loudly express their thoughts and bond with their peers. The Galilean Temple was built in Charles Town on June 6, 1885. The Galilean Temple, now known as Fishermen's Hall, was built for African Americans; specifically the local tabernacle of the Grand United Order of the Galilean Fishermen. The Galilean Temple also encouraged black enterprise in Jefferson County.
In 1866, Page Jackson High School became the first publicly funded school for African Americans students in Jefferson County. The first Jefferson County Branch President of the NAACP was Professor E. M. Dandridge, science teacher at Page Jackson High School and later the school principal. Page Jackson High School was a symbolic structure for African Americans during that time period in Jefferson County by signifying a stepping stone for becoming successful during a time period where it was frowned upon to educate African Americans. Today, the Page Jackson High School building is home to the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Happy Retreat, also known as Mordington, was the home of Charles Washington, youngest brother of George Washington. Though he inherited the property in 1752, he did not construct the mansion and move in with his family until 1780. Following Charles's death in 1799, the house was sold to his son-in-law, Thomas Hammond. The house stayed in the Hammond family until 1837, after which it passed through several hands until it was purchased in the 1960s by Mr. and Mrs. William Gavin.
Built in 1891, the Gibson-Todd house was designed by the architect Thomas A. Mullet. While the building has gotten attention over the years, the site is better known for being the place where John Brown was hanged following his trial. John Thomas Gibson was the first occupant of the house after it was completed. His granddaughter, Frances Prakette, married Augustine J. Todd and donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house is now privately owned.