For much of the 19th century, the site of Bluefield was the location of two large farms, the Davison Farm and the Higginbotham Farm.(2) A nearby settlement, consisting of a mill, church and schoolhouse, was known as Graham. There was also a small fort for defense against the Shawnee Indian tribe that was located across the Bluestone River.
In 1881, construction began on the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) line to ship coal from the newly discovered Pocahontas Field east to the industrial markets.(2) By June 1883, the N&W was starting to ship coal out of the field from several early mines that had been set up to the north of Graham. A small station, at first a discarded railroad car, was established on the Higginbotham Farm called Higginbotham Summit, shortened in 1884 to just Summit. At this point, Summit had just 50 residents, but growth led to the relocation of a cemetery on what later became the N&W general division office to the Davidson Farm a year later.
A post office was established in 1886-1887 and the name of the growing village was changed to Bluefield, which was reportedly chosen by Mrs. Hattie Hannah for the luxurious growth of chicory and bluegrass in the area.(2) A telegraph office came in 1887 and Bluefield was declared a division point on the N&W.(1)(2)
The land beneath the region lay the largest and richest bituminous coal deposit in the world. Bituminous coal burns slower, and is therefore more cost effective. The first seam was discovered near Pocahontas, Virginia and was first mined the 1880s. The first mines opened near Bluefield, Harman, War and Pocahontas in what was called the Pocahontas Coal Field that helped drive the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and fuel the U.S. and British navies during World War I and II.
In 1888, the N&W constructed a formal passenger station at Bluefield, along with a roundhouse and shops.(2) The location of the yards was important as it was the top of the mainline once the N&W was extended to Columbus, Ohio from Norfolk, Virginia. With an elevation of 2,557 feet, and a properly graded yard, it permitted gravity switching from either direction.(1) By this point, Bluefield boasted a thousand residents.
The burgeoning demand for the bituminous coal led to a boom in the local economy, bringing with it emigrant European workers. Passenger travel along the N&W to Bluefield increased 317% from 1887 to 1888, and Bluefield was known as the city “that sprang up overnight.” It was known as the city with “a little bit of Chicago, a little bit of New York and a whole lot of Pittsburgh,” the latter in reference to Bluefield’s unforgiving topography.(1) A freight station was constructed by the N&W in 1889.(2)
An election was held on November 16, 1889 on whether or not to incorporate Bluefield into a city.(2) The vote overwhelmingly was in favor of incorporation, and on November 20, a petition was made to the county Circuit Court for a certificate of Certification for the City of Bluefield. That was granted and the first Bluefield city election was held on January 2, 1890. At the time of incorporation, the population was 1,775.
In 1909, the N&W relocated their general offices to the Bluefield Inn.(1) By 1910, traffic on the line was seven times that of the 1889 traffic.
The first building boom for Bluefield came in 1894. In that year, the People’s Bank of Bluefield was organized, and a year later, the Elks Opera House was constructed.(2) Bluefield College for blacks was formed in 1896 and street lights came to the city a year later.
In 1905, a second city charter was adopted, and the city boundaries were expanded to accomodate expected growth.(2) The Coal and Coke Building was built in that year, followed with the Law and Commerce Building in 1907. Other notable events include the formation of the Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company in 1908. By 1910, Bluefield had a population of 11,188.
While Bluefield continued to grow, it did so at a less feverish pace – becoming known as an established city rather than one with a wild west mentality. The U.S. Courthouse and Office was built in 1911, along with the Hotel Matz. Three years later, the Colonial Theater was formed, the Flat Top Bank Building was constructed and Commercial Bank was established.(2) The crowning achievement for Bluefield came with the erection of the West Virginia Hotel in 1923, a 12-story Renaissance Revival tower set amongst the rising hill behind it. A new city hall was built in 1923, and a municipal stadium was completed two years later.
Bramwell, to the north, featured more millionaire’s per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Bluefield was home to the most automobiles per capita in the nation, which experienced the first traffic jams at rush hour.
Post-Depression, Bluefield prospered with the fortunes of the Pocahontas Coal Field. The Appalachian Power Company Building was completed in 1939, and suburban development began to spread south and east. By 1950, Bluefield reached 21,560 residents.
- United States. Dept. of the Interior. Municipal Building of Bluefield, West Virginia. Comp. Rodney S. Collins. Washington: National Park Service, Jan. 1979. 7-8. West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. Article.
- United States. Dept. of the Interior. Bluefield Downtown Commercial Historic District. Comp. Michael J. Pauley. Washington: National Park Service, Jan. 1979. 7-8. West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. Article.
- “Bluefield.” West Virginia Review. Vol 1., No. 8. May 1924. Print.
- Bluefield Chamber of Commerce. Bluefield, West Virginia: The Gateway to the Nation’s Storehouse of Great Wealth. Lynchburg, Va.: J.P. Bell, 1911. Print.
- Bluefield Chamber of Commerce. Bluefield, West Virginia: Nature’s Air Conditioned City – Half a Mile High. 1941. Print.
- “Semi-Centennial Anniversary Issue 1889-1939.” Bluefield Daily Telegraph. 1939. Print. (Archives of Larry Akers.)
- “Bluefield – Princeton Issue.” West Virginia State Magazine. July 1951. Print.
- Johnston, David E. A History of the Middle New River Settlements and Contiguous Territory. Huntington, Wv.: Standard Printing. 1906. Print.
- Land-O-Hills Trade Area Dictionary. Beckley, Wv.: Beckley Newspaper Corp. 1957. Print.
- McCormick, Kyle. The Story of Mercer County. Charleston: Charleston Printing Co. 1957. Print.
- Mercer County Centennial Association. Centennial Review and Souvenir Program of Mercer County. Bluefield. 1937. Print.
- Rankin, John Rogers. The Early History and Development of Bluefield, West Virginia. Morgantown, Wv.: M.A. Thesis, West Virginia University. 1948. Print.
- West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State. Charleston: WPA Writers Project. 1976. Print.
- West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia. Jim Comstock, ed. Richwood, Wv. 1976. Print.