With the completion in the early 1850s of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to the Ohio River, Wheeling being its Western terminus, the city enjoyed an unprecedented boom. By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War Wheeling was in some respects the second city in Virginia.
The need for new buildings was apparent, including the desirability of one to house various Federal agencies in the city under one roof. A building was erected by the government known as the customhouse and post office, completed in 1858.
This imposing structure on the corner of Market and John streets (the latter now Fourteenth Street) [16th St. -- LH] was located between the railroad station and the point where the National Road (now U.S. Route 40) spans the Ohio river over the famous Suspension Bridge.
A. W. Campbell, editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer, was one of Abraham Lincoln's chief supporters in Virginia during the election campaign of 1860. Following Lincoln's election he was rewarded by appointment as Wheeling's postmaster, the post office occupying the ground floor of the Federal building.
In April, 1861, when delegates to a convention in session at Richmond voted to join the Confederacy, most of its members from Northwestern Virginia return immediately to their homes, in wrath and indignation against Secession.
PlanS had already been made by various political leaders "seceding from a secession" as to their course of action, and a hastily called convention of about 430 persons from various counties met at Washington Hall in Wheeling, just a couple of blocks north of the Federal building, in the middle of May, 1861. A three-day convention or mass-meeting was held -- many of its delegates having been chosen rather irregularly -- with much talk but little really accomplished other than to register indignation against Secession and to set the wheels in motion for a second convention the next month, to which delegates were to be selected in a more regular manner.
The June Convention, as it is known, convened at Washington Hall, attended by about a hundred delegates representing fourteen counties. Two days later, through the influence of postmaster Campbell and other Union leaders, the Convention was given permission to use the United States courtroom in the customhouse and post office building, and additional rooms were made available as needed.
One of the first acts of the Convention in this building was the preparation of a document with the title A Declaration of the People of Virginia. It was adopted and signed a week later. By a curious coincidence the Declaration was adopted by a vote of 56 for, with none against, and attention was called to the auspicious fact that there had been 56 signers to the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
However, during the convention the document was referred to simply as the Declaration, but in the course of time it has been spoken of either as West Virginia's Bill of Rights or as West Virginia's Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was signed on June 20, 1861; another coincidence being that this was exactly two years before West Virginia achieved statehood.
The Declaration, among other things, demanded a reorganization of the state government, all of the officers of which had cast their lot with the Confederacy. The Convention adopted an ordinance for the reorganization of the state government, various known as the Reorganized or as the Restored government of Virginia. Francis H. Pierpoint was elected as governor of the Restored Government of Virginia.
The Assembly of the Restored Government met in the United States courtroom on the third floor of the building. Room on the second floor were assigned to the officers of the new state government loyal to the Union.
Provision was made for forming a new state out of Virginia, and in February of 1862 the name West Virginia was selected for the new state.
A constitutional convention to adopt a constitution for West Virginia likewise held its sessions in the courtroom, which from 1861 to June 20, 1863 had the distinction of being the capitol of the government of Virginia loyal to the Union.
When West Virginia finally achieved statehood on June 20, 1863, with Arthur I. Boreman as the governor, Linsley Institute building in Wheeling was selected for the capitol of West Virginia. Pierpoint's Restored government then moved to Alexandria, Va., and no longer exercised jurisdiction over soil now West Virginia.
After June 20, 1863, the customhouse building was used exclusively as the Federal building, its chief offices being the post office on the first floor and the United States district court on the third floor.
Many interesting stories can be told about the building: Many invaluable historic documents are even to this day contained in the cornerstone of the building; a large safe on the second floor with the date 1852, still in working order, was used by the collector of customs but during the War it was turned over for use by the Army paymaster. During the early days of the War a quantity of gunpowder was stored in the basement much to the consternation of the district judge. The building immediately south of the Federal building was used as a military prison, chiefly for the incarceration of civilian prisoners and was frequently called Lincoln's bastille.
Unpaved streets, muddy drinking water, saloons, places of ill-repute, barking dogs which disturbed occupants of the building, clouds of dust in dry weather and mud everywhere in wet, should be noted in reconstructing the life of the people at that time. In mitigation, however, conditions then were as bad or even worse in the National capital city of Washington, D. C.
In about 1870 various architectural changes were made in the building and over the years a section was added facing Fourteenth Street, an additional story added, and the building modernized with the installation of a circular staircase around an elevator.
Immediately after the Civil War and for several decades any number of participants in the stirring events of 1861-1863 no doubt had nostalgic recollections as to the appearance of and the particular uses made of various rooms in the building, what furniture was used and how arranged while it was the capitol of the loyal Virginia government. But, one by one the Makers of West Virginia gradually crossed the Great Divide from whence there is no return. with their lips silenced forever, we must now depend on what records can be found to recreate the appearance of the birthplace of West Virginia.
In the early part of the present century, with the need for larger quarters for a Federal building, a new structure was erected two blocks north, and the abandoned building sold to private interests, this after a half century's use by the United States government. For years it was known as the Conservative Life building.
By the time another fifty years had passed, few people were aware in Wheeling that right in their midst was West Virginia's birthplace. Even the then owner of the building had not the slightest inkling as to the role it had played in the formation of the Mountain State.
Since acquisition by private interests, various portions of the building have been occupied at one time or other by insurance companies, business college, dancing school, opticians, liquor store, restaurant, barber shop, night club, in addition to one and two-room general business offices.
With the approach ofthe West Virginia Centennial, the writer appeared before the Centennial Commission in January, 1958, and pointed out that the building was the birthplace of the state and suggested that as a Centennial project it be acquired by the state as a historic shrine. Later he suggested that it be named West Virginia Independence Hall. We also suggested that as part of the Centennial celebration a special unofficial meeting of the West Virginia legislature be held in Wheeling.
Such a special meeting was duly held on the second floor of the building on April 20, 1963, the 100th anniversary of the date when Lincoln issued his proclamation that West Virginia would become a state sixty days hence. Governor W. W. Barron reiterated and recommended at that time that the building be acquired by the state.
Due primarily to Governor Barron's interest and at his request the West Virginia Legislature appropriated the necessary funds for its purchase and the building was acquired from its then owner in May of 1964.
A group of citizens from the Wheeling area, operating as the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation, Inc., has been set up to restore and to operate the now very much battered building, composed of the following:Rabbi Martin Siegel, President; Delf Norona, Vice-President and curator; E. Douglas McKay, secretary; Miss Virginia Ebeling, treasurer; Senator Chester R. Hubbard, Dr. James C. Hazlett, and Messrs. Wm. M. Hall, Kent B. Hall, Warren F. Morris, C. W. Gutskey, and Martin Rody.
Within six weeks after acquisition by the state an historical exhibit was set up on the second floor of the building dealing with the Formation of West Virginia, and the research and museum committee has propoed that the exhibits when complete will "tell the story" of:
(a) The formation of West Virginia, with stress on events during the years 1861 to 1863; and
(b) the history of the building itself.
The building, now renamed West Virginia Independence Hall, was formally turned over by Governor Barron to the Foundation for operation at a ceremony on June 20, 1964.
Fortunately, the original specifications for the construction of the building and also copies of plans for the building as it was originally built and alterations made in 1870 have been found by the museum committee.
It is proposed to devote the first floor to illustrations, photographs, objects, maps, and accounts of various sections of West Virginia s they were during the period when the building was the state capitol, as well as exhibits showing its use as a customhouse and post office.
The second floor will feature the Governor's office, as well as items pertaining to the formation of West Virginia, using the room once occupied by the inspector of hulls and boilers for an appropriate river exhibit.
The third floor, the United States courtroom, which was used for sessions of the conventions and the assembly of the Restored Government, will be restored to its original condition, based on the contemporary drawing, illustrated here, of the June, 1861, convention in session. The offices on that floor of the district judge, library, clerk's and marshall's offices, will be furnished appropriately with furniture of the period. Exhibits illustrating famous cases tried in the building will also be shown.
Throughout the building, paintings or murals, enlarged photographs and portraits will be used for wall decorations.
Expert technical advice has also been freely given. All that now remains is the Go ahead based on the acquisition of necessary funds.
In one of our history-minded Eastern states it took about fifty years from the time of acquisition of an important Eighteenth Century history building before funds were acquired for putting it into satisfactory condition as a public shrine.
It certainly is hoped that in the case of West Virginia Independence Hall this will be accomplished in very much shorter period of time.
Pamphet in the Ohio County Public Library vertical file, ca. 1964.
Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and funded in part by the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.