Vision, guts, investment, persuasion–it takes a lot of nerve to turn wilderness to farmland to city.
1700s: Forts clear the way for business; charter and survey organize settlement
Beating Back Wilderness
Pioneers had it rough in western Virginia. On top of raw frontier and territorial disputes with natives, by the 1750s the French and Indian War had erupted. These are the challenges the Decker party of 40 settlers faced in 1758 when it built a village at the mouth of what we call Deckers Creek. Details are obscure but, by some accounts, a band of Delaware and Mingo natives attacked in mid-October 1759. They killed many of the squatters and destroyed harvest and homes, along with all chance that our city be named Deckertown. Though King George III promised natives in the Proclamation of 1763 he’d stay east of the Alleghenies, ambitious settlers pressed westward. What it took to advance into that volatile environment was forts—lots of them:
1769 Fort Pierpont: near the Cheat River
1770 Fort Cobun: at Dorsey’s Knob
1772 Fort Morgan: at the present site of Morgantown
1772 Fort Dinwiddie: north at Stewartstown
1773 Fort Martin: north on the Monongahela River
1774 Fort Burris: in what is now Suncrest
1774 Fort Kern: in today’s Greenmont
The imposing presence created by these forts cleared the way for commerce. By 1776, Michael Kern operated a boatyard at the mouth of Deckers Creek and a gristmill in today’s Lower Greenmont.
1800s: Infrastructure, education, WVU, beginnings of wealth and style
There to Here
Morgantown wasn’t always so accessible, of course. One 1700s road came northwest
from Winchester, Virginia and crossed the Potomac River at Westernport, Maryland. It continued west to cross the Cheat River at Dunkard Bottom, join up with Deckers Creek, and from there wind along to Morgantown on the path of today’s State Route 7. It was a packhorse road and was later upgraded to a wagon road, and pioneers used
it to bring supplies from Winchester.
The men who built our early roads had to fell trees and grade rocky soil with rough tools. People who traveled them had to ford creeks and rivers and often paid tolls. Roads established in the early 1800s included the Monongalia Glades Road, which ran south out of town via Smithtown to Clarksburg on what is part of today’s State Route 73. The Brandonville & Fishing Creek Turnpike came from the Maryland line by Brandonville, near Bruceton Mills, to cross the Cheat River at Ice’s Ferry and on to Morgantown—the path Interstate 68 follows today. It continued west to the mouth of Fishing Creek at New Martinsville on the Ohio River. A Beverly and Morgantown Turnpike was constructed from the Pennsylvania state line near Fort Martin, crossed the Monongahela River at Collins’ Ferry, on to Evansville east of Grafton and then to Beverly south of Elkins—mainly, today’s State Route 92.
WVU started building its campus just a few years after it was commissioned in 1867 as the Agricultural College of West Virginia. First came University Hall, in 1870. Now called Martin Hall and home to the Reed College of Media, it stands with Woodburn Hall, built in 1877, and Chitwood Hall, built in 1893, to make up the university’s iconic Woodburn Circle.
Other early buildings still standing include the first library, dating to 1902, now the Stewart Hall administration building, and the on-campus residence built for university presidents in 1905, now called Purinton House. In the decades since and right up to the present, WVU has had a strong hand in the building and rebuilding of Morgantown.
Elmer Forrest Jacobs
Few people have contributed as lastingly to the character of downtown Morgantown as architect Elmer Jacobs. After training and working in Pittsburgh, the Preston and Monongalia county native made his career in Morgantown starting in the 1890s. He was prolific, and his structures give us a window into a gracious, sometimes opulent past. Here are just a few we still admire today:
1900-1950: Grand downtown institutions, better infrastructure
A Higher High
Developers took advantage of the Roaring ’20s to improve High Street. In 1924, local businessmen George and John Comuntzis opened their 1,300-seat Metropolitan Theatre between today’s Fayette and Wall streets. Designed by Wheeling architect C.W. Bates and constructed over two years at a cost of $500,000, the theater was a tribute to New York’s larger Metropolitan Opera House. The vaudeville venue wowed patrons with classical adornments and four 2,700-piece crystal chandeliers imported from Czechoslovakia.
The Met was among the first theaters in the country to be air conditioned. Then, in 1925, a coalition of several local business interests opened the eight-story Hotel Morgan a few blocks down High Street. Elegantly appointed, with satin upholstery, crystal chandeliers, and a lavish, high-ceilinged ballroom on the top floor, the hotel was declared “Grand!” by the Morgantown Post. Maybe it was that grandness that led Warner Brothers to site its Art Deco movie house next door. The Warner opened in 1931 with a spectacular 50-foot vertical marquee illuminated with more than 6,000 light bulbs of different colors. With that event, High Street was transformed in less than a decade from a sleepy thoroughfare to a high-class entertainment and lodging destination.
Competing traction companies operated a rollicking system of electric streetcars in Morgantown in the early 1900s. Trolleys buzzed north along the river to the glass factory in Seneca and south to neighborhoods and workplaces in Durbannah and beyond; they hummed along above Deckers Creek to the tin mill and other factories in Sabraton and eventually even out to coal mines in the western part of the county. Faster and more affordable than horse-drawn transit, trolleys opened living and work options for residents and must have enlivened downtown on weekends, too. That romantic era was short-lived: The streetcar gave way to the gasoline-powered automobile and bus by the mid-1920s.
“Farm lands are cheap but city improvements cost money.”
If development is vision, guts, investment, and persuasion, J.W. Wiles had it all—especially the persuasion. In the circa 1903 prospectus promoting residences in South Park, Wiles Hill, and other rising suburbs, developer J.W. twisted home buyers’ emotional arms. “For years people waited and yearned for a location where the city could concentrate its best citizens and its finest residences,” he wrote of South Park. Five investors had paid for a bridge across the Deckers Creek ravine, he wrote, and the Morgantown Bridge Improvement Co. bought up land in South Park and planted hundreds of shade trees. “Seven miles of sewer pipe and one mile of paved street were soon laid,” he enthused. He pressed that “best citizens” appeal: “Are you not a little more ready to listen to a man who buys in South Park than one who buys a ‘Cheap John’ lot in a ‘Cheap John’ addition?” he asked in a 1902 newspaper advertisement. The opportunity wouldn’t last forever. “In two years you won’t know the place. And then how much do you suppose one of these lots will cost?” Buyers wouldn’t regret it. Given restrictions on ownership, “If your lot is in South Park, your neighbor is sure to be a good one.”
When Ferdinando Pitassi came to the U.S. in 1896, immigration officers couldn’t understand his name. So he renamed himself Thoney Pietro, like the Italian “pietra,” for stone.
Just 18, Thoney was already an accomplished mason in Italy. He joined his brothers in Pittsburgh and, by 1900, his bricklaying prowess was so apparent that co-workers timed him at an astounding 136 bricks per minute, on average, for over eight hours.
When Thoney and his wife took a trip upriver to Fairmont, the sight of Morgantown gave him a nostalgic feeling for home, and the family moved here in 1911 to set up home and business. His Pietro Paving and Construction Company paved our main roads in brick: High and Spruce streets and University Avenue downtown, among many other examples. His bricks are still exposed on Park Street in South Park. The company became a regional general contractor, operating statewide and in Pennsylvania.
Thoney built several structures in Lower Greenmont, including the Sons of Italy house, now rentals, and a large, elegant buff brick Tudor Revival home for his family on Kingwood Street. His best known structure around town is “Thoney’s Castle” on Tyrone Road, near Cheat Lake: 23 rooms on three levels, with stone arches, turrets, patios, and a marble fireplace, all built to look like a castle he’d seen in Italy as a boy. The castle’s $200,000 cost is often compared with $55,000 for Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemporary Fallingwater. Thoney’s family lived at the castle from 1933 until 1949, when they donated it to the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church.
1950-2000: Modernization of institutions and infastructure
Places of Wellness
Morgantown’s first long-lasting hospital was built in 1901 at the corner of Willey and Prospect streets, near where a Dairy Mart stands today. Promotional materials for the 35-bed for-profit City Hospital and Training Center noted that streetcars—which passed through the factory districts—“arrive every few minutes, making it very convenient for accident cases.”
But the Women’s Hospital Association came to see the need for a nonprofit community hospital, and it successfully made its case to the community and raised the funds. When the newly outfitted 50-bed volunteer Monongalia County Hospital opened in 1922 in an unused part of the county poor house on Van Voorhis, the New Dominion enthused about its “three large wards, already partly filled up, two inviting sun parlors already fitted up, and six private rooms,” as well as its operating rooms, kitchen, and spacious nurses’ quarters. The county took control of that hospital in 1929 and changed the name to Monongalia General Hospital, and soon opened a modern, $250,000, 100-bed facility in 1940, still on Van Voorhis with expansions in the 1940s and 1950s.
Meanwhile, in 1951, Governor Oakey Patteson chose Morgantown as the site of the university medical school. The 400-bed University Hospital doubled the number of beds in the Morgantown area when it opened in 1960. City Hospital had turned nonprofit in 1950, and it merged with Monongalia County Hospital to become Monongalia General in 1972, leaving just two hospitals in town.
Monongalia General constructed a new, 250-bed facility in 1977 at its current location off of West Virginia 705 and has since made several major expansions and modernizations. And University Hospital was replaced in 1988 by Ruby Memorial Hospital, with West Virginia University Hospitals frequently adding and updating services and facilities.
“It seems like the cranes have never left the hospital,” says longtime WVU administrator and former Morgantown mayor Ron Justice of WVU’s commitment to expanding the Ruby campus rather looking at locations outside the city boundary. “Rosenbaum Family House, the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, the Eye Institute—that hospital property has probably done more than any other project to create economic activity here.” He acknowledges the level of choice residents have. “What community can you find anywhere that has two quality health care systems like we do in Morgantown?”
Not many decades ago, it was hard to get a loan for a big development project. Banks were limited by federal regulators. “When you’re a $20 million bank and you can lend 15 percent of that—the ratio varies depending on the strength of the economy—$3 million is the ceiling for a loan,” says retired Morgantown bank executive Barton Loar. “That’s pretty big, but it doesn’t fund a mall or a coal mine or a timber plant.” Banks were also limited by the state’s prohibition on branch banking: No pooling of capital from multiple sites in the same banking company. “So banks cooperated,” Barton says. “I used to originate loans here that I shared with banks in Fairmont and in Kingwood. I’d book a loan and sell a piece of it to them.”
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that West Virginia allowed countywide, then statewide, branch banking. Soon, mergers began. “As city banks gobbled up the little country banks, those offices were operated as branches and the capital was pooled in the city banks so they could lend big amounts of money,” Barton says.
Barton was senior lending officer at an expanding First National Bank of Morgantown when Glenn Adrian and Mark Nesselroad—as Glenmark Associates, developer of nursing homes—first approached him for a loan in the mid-1980s. “We had a lot of capital,” Barton says. The new lending capacity supported the beginnings of large-scale development.
“I always had the attitude that the bank could make things happen,” Barton says. “I have a reputation of being an aggressive lender. I’ve made a lot of loans and I’ve made my share of mistakes. Sometimes you take the risk even though it’s really a long shot.”
Barton is humble about his own successes, but touts others’—for example, Suncrest Towne Centre and University Town Centre. “Those are major life-changers in this market,” he says. “They’ve brought in retail that we would not have gotten any other way.” He appreciates development that preserves, too. At First National Bank, he oversaw the bankruptcy sale of the Seneca Glass Company facility on Beechurst. Today, he manages the former plant as the Seneca Center (page 34) with co-owner Jerry Hall. “I think a community gains perspective and cachet by saving its old properties,” he says.
In the 1960s, city-planning theorists began designing people-mover systems that combined the convenience of the automobile with the safety and efficiency of mass transit. When the federal government decided to promote these new Personal Rapid Transit systems, interest from WVU industrial engineer Samy Elias and pressure from West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd got traffic-bound Morgantown chosen as a federal test site. Started in 1970 with a building estimate of $15 million to $20 million and completed in 1975 at over $60 million, the Morgantown PRT system was considered at the time an expensive flop—yet 40 years later, after an early Phase II expansion and regular modernizations, about 15,000 people ride the PRT every school day. Still one of the very few PRT systems in operation anywhere, its iconic cars and tracks draw the study and admiration of visitors from around the world.