The Real Elk City
by Tighe Bullock
The name “Elk City” has had a popular resurgence in the last couple years, but few people, even life long West Siders, know the whole story. So here’s a snippet.
Elk City was formed by act of the West Virginia Legislature in 1893, complete with its own mayor, city council, and municipal charter. The original city ran from the Kanawha, up the Elk River to Mary Street, west to the base of Watts Hill, and then south along Glenwood, back to the Kanawha. Streets coming from the Kanawha River were generally named after states, while streets parallel to the river were named after West Virginia counties.
The historic district is nationally recognized as a neighborhood that has significantly affected the development of our collective history. Although Elk City was eventually annexed by Charleston in the early 20th Century, it has maintained much of its original character. For example, did you know the cute little limestone structure on Tennessee Avenue (the one connected to BB and T Carson on the corner of Lee Street) used to be a public bathroom? You can still see where the men’s and women’s entrances were. Or that the BB&T Carson Building used to be a firehouse? The current elevator shaft was originally a hose drying tower.
Here’s another good one. Did you know the Staats Hospital was originally built by the Knights of Pythias? The Knights of Pythias lived by the example of Damon and Pythias, two men from Greek history who so exemplified the characteristics of loyalty, honor, and friendship that the tyrant Dionysius spared their lives. If you look at the very top of the Classic Revival building (complete with Tuscan columns and metopes), you can see Damon and Pythias in the form of caryatids guarding over the west side; one in the garb of a Roman Centurion and the other in the flowing tunic of a philosopher. Look up the story. It involves pirates.
Elk City was also the sight of a significant battle during the 1862 campaign whereby the South, led by General Loring, took Charleston from Union Colonel Lightburn. The Union was pushed back to Elk City, where they blew the bridge at Washington Street and set up their last major defence of Charleston. Batteries of artillery were set up all along Elk City to fire across the Elk River at the pursuing Rebels. Although Johnny Reb was successful this time (they flanked the position by sending cavalry up the Elk), Charleston ended up changing hands multiple times before the war ended.
This same road (we call it Washington Street as it passes through Charleston) is actually one of the oldest major roads in the country. Called the Midland Trail because it went west through the middle part of the country, credit has been given to General Andrew Lewis for making the road passable for horses and supplies (although it was an indigenous trail prior). General Lewis built the road in 1774 (less than a year before Lexington and Concord), from Lewisburg to Point Pleasant, to head off an indigenous army led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk. The Greenbrier Militia intended to rendezvous with an English contingent under Lord Dunmore. However, the English were suspiciously late. Many historians believe the English had hoped the Natives would finish off the Greenbrier Militia, as they believed that a revolution by the colonists was imminent. And of course they were right. So, our little Washington Street was built to fight what many consider to be the first battle of the American Revolution.
Elk City has fascinating secrets hidden everywhere. You just have to know where to look.