Parkersburg, (West) Virginia, was first settled permanently in 1785 by Capt. James Neal and other kinfolk and neighbors from Springhill Township, Fayette County, Pa. First chartered by the Virginia Assembly in 1800 as Newport, the town was rechartered in 1820, when the legislature recognized its change in name and authorized a trustee form of government.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Parkersburg had a population of 2,500, having doubled in size during the 1850s. The completion of the southern branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to the town in 1857 increased the size and importance of Parkersburg, then the largest Ohio River town between Wheeling and Cincinnati.
It was the railroad that made Parkersburg strategically important during the war. There were two depots - an inner and an outer one - a roundhouse, repair shops that were vital to maintaining the railroad's rolling stock, telegraph office, two-story freight shed, two steam operated elevators that serviced the loading dock, a railroad stockyard, and a wharf along the Little Kanawha River.
Parkersburg in 1861 was mostly confined to the area that is now the downtown section. Several hotels such as the luxurious Swann House hosted travelers and military officers. The area near the Little Kanawha River was notoriously grimy and lawless, especially on Saturday nights. The town's only full-time policeman, George Creel, had difficulty maintain order at times. This section was noted for its saloons, brothels, and seedy boarding houses.
The Civil War unalterably shaped the character of the city. By 1870, the population had increased to over 5,500. A building boom, including construction of fine homes north of the business district, changed the face of the city. An oil and gas boom soon transformed Parkersburg into an industrial center, where entrepreneurs fashioned a grand and glorious gaslit society.
(upper right) Parkersburg, Virginia, as painted by Lefevre J. Cranstone, in 1859. (Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University)