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The Wedding of the Bluefields

By Stuart McGehee


The marriage of Wingo Yost of Graham, Virginia, and Miss Emma Smith of Bluefield, West Virginia, July 12, 1924. Virginia Governor Lee Trinkle, at right, gave the bride away, while West Virginia Governor Ephraim E. Morgan, at center, served as best man. Minister W.E. Abrams officiated.

Marriage photo


It isn’t often that the Mountain State gets the better of the Old Dominion, but one terrifically hot day in 1924, the sudden and unprecedented growth of one of West Virginia’s southernmost cities compelled its Virginia-side neighbor to change its name to honor its rival. When young Miss Emma Smith of Bluefield married Mr. Lorenzo Wingo Yost of Graham, Virginia, amidst the largest civic celebration in the region’s history, the two communities were joined, as well. It’s quite a story.

A small agricultural market town, Graham was founded in 1883 along the upper Bluestone River in Tazewell County, Virginia, several miles from the state line and West Virginia’s Mercer County. The closest thing to a city in Mercer County was county seat Princeton until industrialization – specifically the arrival of the Norfolk & Western Railway and the demand for high-quality “smokeless” bituminous coal from the famed Pocahontas No. 3 seam – changed all of that in the late 1800's. [See “Riding Route 52: The Old Coal Road,” by Su Clauson-Wicker; Spring 2002.]

Coal was the fuel that propelled America from a rural society to an urban industrial giant. Although knowledge of the huge Appalachian mineral deposits had been common since Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, the area’s rugged terrain had impeded exploitation of the “black diamond.” In the decades following the Civil War, however, American industrialists began searching for an abundant and economical energy source to fuel the burgeoning industrial revolution.

So it was that the Philadelphia-owned Norfolk & Western Railway slowly snaked its way into the southern West Virginia hills early in the 1880's. Railroad officials chose a vacant meadow for the site of their Pocahontas Division’s headquarters, at a low rise near the headwaters of the East and the Bluestone rivers. They chose wisely. The gentle hill, or “hump,” as old-time railroad men term it, permitted natural-gravity switching for the long trains of coal cars that would soon thunder through the lovely valley, bedecked with azure fields of chicory for which the city of Bluefield was named.

Incorporated in 1889, Bluefield grew rapidly. As the hub of what quickly became a teeming industrial region encompassing scores of “coal camp” company towns, the new city attracted banks, insurance companies, utilities, and other businesses. Huge wholesale warehouses in the city’s west end stocked the shelves of countless company stores along the N&W line in Mercer, Wyoming, and McDowell counties. A thriving African American district clustered around Bluefield Colored Institute on the city’s north side. Elegant homes for the railroad executives and coal brokers adorned hills to the south, towards the towering edifice of East River Mountain, which commands the valley below.

By the early 1920's, progressive Bluefield was home to 20,000 people, two colleges, two hospitals, a country club, and several massive, 10- and 12-story downtown buildings [see “Bluefield’s Biggest: The Grand West Virginian Hotel,” by Stuart McGehee; Summer 1993], and was the second community in the nation to adopt the professional city-manager form of municipal government. It grew to the west along the avenue paralleling the N&W’s main line, until it threatened to swallow up Virginia-side Graham, whose city fathers feared witnessing their town’s submergence into a mere neighborhood of their new and muscular rival. This spurred the decision to rename Graham, “Bluefield, Virginia,” and created the opportunity for the mother of all civic celebrations – “Greater Bluefield Day,” in the sweltering summer of 1924.

You can read the rest of this article in the Summer 2003 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.