Our Beginnings

From its verdant low valleys to the towering backbone of the Allegheny Front, 3,000 feet above the North Branch of the Potomac River, Mineral County in West Virginia lies a stone’s throw from Maryland and just a three-hour drive from Washington. Home of Potomac State College and named for its vast mineral resources, Mineral County was a railroad and coal center at the beginning of the 1900s. The county has an area of 329.3 square miles and an estimated 2012 population of 27,956. Keyser is the county seat.

Located in the Eastern Panhandle, Mineral County was part of Hampshire before the Civil War. Local residents were more pro-Union than those living in the eastern part of Hampshire County.

Following the war, in 1866, the new county was created. West Virginia had become a state just three years earlier.

There were skirmishes during the Civil War, and towns changed hands several times, usually only briefly. The village of New Creek, just south of Keyser, was a training camp for Union soldiers from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Mineral County’s Y-junction, where the Northwest Turnpike intersected the New Creek road (now U.S. 50 and U.S. 220), was strategic for troop and supply movements into the Shenandoah Valley.

The present Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was well-known to George Washington. He had crisscrossed the region as a young surveyor and commanded frontier defense during the French and Indian War. In 1755, he ordered a stockade and fort erected in present Mineral County as a defense against incursions by Delaware and Catawba Indians. The original log blockhouse still stands at Fort Ashby.

Many immigrants in the 19th century worked their way across the coalfields of Pennsylvania, down through Maryland, and settled in Mineral County. The area’s population reflects a diverse mixture of Mennonites, German Swiss, English, Scots, Italians (mostly from southern Italy), and Jews. Even Chinese found their way to Keyser in the early 1900s. Elk Garden became home for many Irish, including Flanigans and Faheys, McIntires and McDonoughs, Kilroys and Keegans, Conlons, Kenneys, and Joyces.

Perhaps the most prominent historic figure was the industrialist Henry Gassaway Davis, who began as a brakeman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at age 20 and later associated with U.S. presidents. He lived in Piedmont early in his life, as a storekeeper and railroad agent. Davis later was elected to the U.S. Senate and ran for vice president in 1904, when he and Democratic presidential candidate Alston Parker lost to Teddy Roosevelt. Davis founded Elkins and owned his own railroad.

Davis’s purchase of the famous ‘‘Big Vein’’ of coal atop the Allegheny Front at Elk Garden led to a local industrial boom from the 1880s into the early 20th century. From 1881 to 1923, 315 acres of coal was mined and 2,000 miners worked at Elk Garden. The era was marred in 1911 by the explosion at No. 20 mine, killing 23 miners, fathers and sons among them. High-quality semibituminous coal from Davis’s Big Vein was displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1893 and powered Admiral Dewey’s fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay.

The arrival of the B&O Railroad, which reached the northern part of present Mineral County in 1842 and arrived at a point across the North Branch from Piedmont a decade later, had a major impact. The railroad increased the population in northern Hampshire County, and contributed to the political differences within the county that led to the creation of Mineral County on February 1, 1866. Keyser, named for a vice president of the B&O, was a key railroad point from which coal and produce were shipped. Keyser was selected as the county seat as a compromise between Elk Garden and Piedmont. Keyser earlier had been known as Paddytown, named for Patrick McCarty of County Tyrone, Ireland, who had settled there in the mid-1700s.

Keyser today is the region’s hub. Once home to a B&O roundhouse, its citizens now work in education, agriculture, retail, vocational training, the arts, health care, and at small industrial parks. Major employers include Verso Corporation at nearby Luke, Maryland, and Northrop Grumman at Rocket Center. The opening of Jennings Randolph Lake on the North Branch holds potential for attracting tourists from nearby Baltimore and Washington.

Potomac State College, beautifully situated atop a small hill that once had a fort, is a two-year branch of West Virginia University. Most of the approximately 1,800 students complete their last two years at WVU in Morgantown. Once Keyser Preparatory School, the school was tuition-free in the early 1900s.

Several other Mineral County towns have rich histories. Piedmont, closely associated with the nearby Maryland communities of Westernport and Luke, is the hometown of Henry Louis Gates Jr., of Harvard, a prominent African-American scholar. Piedmont once had a roundhouse and machine shops of the B&O, and its people are closely tied to Verso Corporation at Luke.

Ridgeley was a stockade and fort; Fort Ashby, a frontier post; and Doll’s Gap is said to be the birthplace of Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln. Other Mineral County villages and towns include Burlington, Blaine, Antioch, Beryl, Sulphur, Cross, Fountain, Ridgeville, Short Gap, and Wiley Ford.

Source: The West Virginia Encyclopedia