The Community of Beckley

Beckley Post-Herald
August 21, 1972

Beckley Charter Much Changed Since Inception

Editor's Note: The following article is the text of a speech that Peter Laqueur presented to the Raleigh County Historical Society Aug. 10. Laqueur used for sources information from Harlow Warren, Mrs. Dorothy Amick and the files of Beckley Newspapers Corp.

By Peter A. Laquerur

History is a field that has always fascinated me, partly through the influence of my family, which is full of amateur historians and a few professionals. My brother presently is getting his PH. D. in history at Oxford.

My interest in history has not really been the scholarly pursuit, but more of a hobby. Wherever I have gone, I have made it a point to learn something about the history of the area, its people and its growth.

My interest in the history of Beckley stemmed from two main sources, the main one being Hal Scott, whose friendship and wisdom I have long respected.

Listening to him tell stories of Beckley and Raleigh County in the early part of this century has always fascinated me. He always told me enough to make me go and dig a little deeper.

The second and equally important influence is Dorothy Amick, who actually inspired me to do my first articles on Beckley when I told her of the 100th anniversary of the 1872 Beckley Charter last Feb. 29. It was from this that I got the real bug." [sic]

I was immensely happy when I was asked to speak before this group because it offered me that opportunity to dig a little deeper and find more background on the development of this great city - Beckley.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the early history of the city, but I shall review it from the beginning, when Gen. Alfred Beckley came here from Philadelphia in 1836 with his first object being to create a new town. After two years of labor, the Virginia Assembly established the town of Beckley.

There really wasn't much to it. It was a fork in the road and had, at the most, five families in a 20-mile radius. Five trustees were appointed to run the city but they did not have much to do because actually there was no town. Legally the town existed but concretely it did not.

The first duty of these five trustees, Alfred Beckley, Clarkson Prince, William Prince, John Bailey and Richard McVey, was to lay off the area chosen for the town and to designate streets and alleys.

The town was to be no larger than 30 acres and the five trustees had the power to make any laws and rules that they felt were necessary.

When the trustees first met, the area was, as John Beckley, Alfred's son, wrote, "a howling wilderness." Little is known of what all these men did.

Evidence of a layout for the town dates back to 1848, when Beckley filed his "papermap" with the Fayette County Circuit Clerk. Much of what he designed still exists today and no doubt accounts for our traffic problems.

While these men were working on developing the town of Beckley, General Beckley already had grander plans - that of a new county with Beckley as its seat of justice.

The general always dreamed of the town becoming a major agricultural center and the seat of justice.

Two years before Raleigh became a County in 1850 (formed from Fayette County), the general donated a tract of land, where the present courthouse stands, with the understanding that this land would belong to the people of Raleigh County as long as Beckley remained the county seat.

Thus when Raleigh finally became a county in 1850, Beckley became the county seat and remains so to the present. Only once was it challenged - when there was a movement to move the county seat to Lester - but this was defeated by the citizens in a special election.

During this early time little is known of what took place. The Civil War broke the calm atmosphere of the community, which was still in its infancy.

It was not until 1872, when the second charter to the city was granted by the West Virginia Legislature, that Beckley, then known as Raleigh Court House for a short period, began to take the shape of a town.

This charter designated offices for the city and Beckley found itself with a mayor for the first time. Who he was was [sic], no one knows but it could have been John Beckley, Alfred's son.

The year of 1872 not only marked the new charter but also saw the first economic stirring in the city.

First there was the new state constitution and secondly, the opening of a railroad, the C&O, which ran from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio Valley and came within 10 miles of Beckley.

During this time, Beckley had grown some, but the area around it grew more rapidly. There was little action in the city and there was also little, if any, official law. There was no police chief until John Williams became the first one in 1887 and even then, he was a one-man force.

We move now briefly to the 1894 charter, which allowed for the position of treasurer but otherwise made no changes.

It was not until the turn of the century that Beckley began to move. Between 1890 and the next charter of 1908, the city and county grew rapidly and prospered.

The first coal mine was opened in the county in 1891 and soon thereafter many more followed. Business grew so much that a bank was finally established in Beckley in 1899, with the McCreery family as the principal founder.

The charter of real importance to us was the 1908 charter granted by the Legislature Feb. 1, 1908. This charter changed the status of Beckley from a town to a city and outlined in detail the various officers the city should have and what the duties of these officers would be.

This charter made provisions for mayor, recorder, treasurer, police chief, assessor, health officer and street commissioner and five councilmen.

All officers except police chief, treasurer, assessor, health officer and street commissioner were to be elected by the citizens.

Once this charter was effective, city elections were held and they were, according to several reports, rather heated. Who actually won is matter of conjecture. One report shows Joe L. Smith to be the winner and another shows Robert B. Robinson winning.

Robinson died before taking office, thus passing the office to the recorder, Lucian Davis, who later resigned in 1911. Most persons agree that Davis was mayor and that Smith took office in 1910 and resigned in 1912 to become a state senator.

The mayor and the council had a big job - that of financing the paving of principal streets such as Main, Neville and Third Avenue. Their prime concern was to get the new city out of the mud and out of debt.

One particular incident during these early years that I enjoy concerns the matter of cows in the city streets.

The time was 1924 and it was a May council meeting. The chambers, then on South Fayette Street, were packed. The issue was whether cattle were or were not to be allowed to roam free in the city.

Several years earlier, an ordinance had been passed prohibiting this but the pro cattle people were so strong that it was rescinded.

The vote was close after long debate. Councilman Joe Smith was absent and the remaining four voted two "for" and two "against". It took the vote of Mayor Hugh Miller to prohibit cattle in the city.

Although there seems to be much information on Beckley during the early period, many of the official documents were lost through the great fire in 1912, which nearly burned down the entire town. It destroyed over 20 buildings, mainly on Neville, Prince and Heber Streets.

In many ways, the fire was a blessing to the city. Gone were the fire traps and dilapidated buildings. The town, in rebuilding, became a city and more modern bigger and better church and business buildings were erected on the ruins of the fire.

Business in Beckley was booming with large land companies coming into the area, new rail lines being laid, coal expanding - and much more. It headed into the late 20's with a shot in the arm and foresight. While the nation was struck by the depression, Beckley was not hit as badly as the rest of the country.

It was in the latter 20's - April 26, 1927 - that the fifth charter was issued to the city of Beckley by the Legislature. This charter is basically the one under which we operate today, although changes have been made.

This charter attempted to streamline the government of the city. It combined the offices of recorder and treasurer and lodged much greater power in the hands of the mayor.

It relieved the mayor of the duties of police court chief and provided for such a person to be appointed by the mayor with consent of the council. It also gave the mayor authority to appoint firemen.

This was the last charter passed by the Legislature; further changes in our charter have been done either by resolutions of council or special elections.

The 1927 change was brought about through an organized citizens group.

It upped the salaries of the official family by providing $2,500 for the recorder-treasurer, $1,200 for the police judge and a minimum of $600 for the mayor. Council members were to be paid $5 for each meeting they attended, not to exceed two meetings per month.

This charter remained in effect until Aug. 3, 1954, when the voters approved certain changes which we shall discuss shortly.

The period of 1927 to the next charter change saw a great deal of progress being made in Beckley. It was now becoming the center of Southern West Virginia and competed only with Bluefield for this title. By 1930, the population of the city had jumped to 9,357 and by 1940 there were 12,852 persons in the city.

Beckley became known as the "Smokeless Coal Capital" as more and more coal operations were opened in Raleigh County, centering operations around Beckley.

Beckley was blessed then, as it is now, with many individuals who had a lot of faith in the city and a lot of foresight. Paved streets were pushed out in every direction, many costly homes were built and large investments in business and industry were made.

As the city grew and prospered, citizens began to look at their government and decided that changes had to be made. In the middle 40's, citizens groups began to look into ways of changing the charger so that government would be smoother and more efficient.

Under the 1927 charter, the recorder-treasurer was an elected position. There were no wards as we know them today; all councilmen were elected at large. There were no primaries, rather, nominees were selected in party conventions.

The big issue in the charter revision was a city manager type of government.

Many individuals felt that the operation of the city had come to a stage where a part-time mayor was not enough - Beckley needed a full-time individual to run and operate the fast growing community.

The commission appointed to study the revisions came up with the following recommendations: that primaries be held for the nomination of municipal offices; that the city be divided into not less than five nor more than nine wards with a councilman from each ward and two at large; extension of terms from two to four years; that a police judge be elected; that the recorder-treasurer be appointed instead of elected, and a permissive clause that would allow a city manager type government to be put into operation.

It was quite a struggle with long council meetings, citizen discussion and a lot of lobbying. When the voters went to the polls, they defeated the change, 1,147 to 834.

This, however, did not deter our far-thinking citizens. The discussions on changes were constantly brought up again and again. In the last term of Mayor W. A. E. Burke, another special committee was appointed to propose changes in the charter.

This was presented in 1951 to the council, which debated and debated the matter, finally deciding to let the Political Science Department of West Virginia University go over the proposed changes and make recommendations to the city.

For two years, the council held onto the proposed changes, doing nothing about it. It took the courage and determination of Councilman Clarence L. Bibb to get the matter before the public eye once again.

This time the major issue seemed to be the primary issue. The Democrat City Executive Committee had endorsed the primary form of nomination but the Republican committee had not. The council therefore refused to bring up the matter. Finally in August of 1953, both parties agreed and the matter was settled.

The first primary was held, nominating Elmer Davis as mayor for the Democrats and George B. Chambers for the Republicans. Nothing was decided, however, on other charter changes. This had to wait until another year.

Toward the end of 1953, the council held public hearings on the proposed charter changes which posed five main, basic changes: a four year term for the mayor and council; a ward system for the city; a permissive city manager clause (once decided, never to be changes unless through an act of the Legislature); appointment of a city recorder-treasurer, and the changing of the election from the first Tuesday in October to the fourth Tuesday in May and the terms of office to begin on July 1 instead of Jan. 1.

The council was ready to adopt these changes providing there were no objections raised at the meeting, but, once the chambers were packed, three individuals, the fire chief, the police chief and one citizen outlined objections, forcing the council to hold an election.

The election was held Aug. 3, 1954, and the citizens adopted the changes, giving us our present form of government. With this new change came a redefinition of powers of the officers of the city but not greatly changed from the 1927 charter.

Today Beckley is still a progressive and forward-moving community. Although the U. S. Census Bureau says we lost population, the city seems to be bursting at its seams. Housing is critical and if traffic is any mark of growth, the Beckley has grown.

The state and federal governments look to Beckley as one of the three growth centers in West Virginia.


West Virginia Archives and History