CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The opening scene in Charleston's West Side story was not a pretty one, according to presenters taking part in a recent program titled "Historic Glenwood: A Window on the West Side" at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School.
The development of the land fronting the Kanawha River and backed by steep hills just west of the Kanawha's confluence with the Elk River began in the 1840s and 1850s, with the creation of five plantations that relied on the labor of more than 70 slaves.
Until late in the 19th century, "everything west of the Elk River was the country" to townspeople living east of the Elk in Charleston, a community of only 1,520 people in 1860, according to Billy Joe Peyton, chairman of the history department at West Virginia State University.
That perception began to change after barrel-maker Adam Littlepage developed a 1,200-acre farm around his massive, still-standing 1845-vintage stone mansion facing the Parkersburg Turnpike (now Washington Street West) near Kanawha Twomile.
At about the same time that Littlepage was organizing his plantation, lawyer and magistrate William Gillison was establishing a 200-acre plantation on a neighboring tract. In 1848, James Carr, a native of Ireland, established his Edgewood estate in the vicinity of present-day Edgewood Drive and the Edgewood Country Club. Seven years later, physician Spicer Patrick carved out his Forest Hill plantation on 410 acres of land not far from the West Side street and bridge that bear his name.
In 1857, George W. Summers II bought the 366-acre Glenwood estate and mansion house that James Laidley built five years earlier, and further developed it as a plantation.
According to 1860 census records, Summers had 14 slaves, Littlepage 9, Patrick 22, and Carr 21. Gillison owned six slaves himself, and with others, co-owned 59 more who had apparently been put to work elsewhere.
"Charleston at that time was a southern town," run in no small part by influential salt makers with southern roots, said Robert Maslowski, a retired Army Corps of Engineers archeologist, now on the faculty of Marshall University's graduate humanities program. "Nearly all of the elite in Charleston, even those in some of the more modest homes, had house slaves."
Although slaves had been used to process salt in the Malden area east of Charleston for decades, it wasn't until a suspension bridge was built over the Elk in 1852 that it became practical for the five businessmen-turned-farmers to establish plantations west of town and commute to offices in the city.
Maslowski said the five West Side plantations were laid out in a manner that allowed each owner to have about 150 acres of prime bottom land on the flats along the Kanawha River, with the rest of their properties extending northward into the West Side hills.
While both Summers and Patrick owned slaves, both also opposed secession from the United States as delegates to Virginia's secession convention in 1861. In fact, Summers, a lawyer, four-term member of Virginia's House of Delegates and two-term congressman prior to the Civil War, spoke in favor of the gradual emancipation of slaves as early as the 1830s, yet kept several of his own slaves until the end of the war.
Summers' political balancing act caught the attention of the newly elected Republican administration in Washington. In early 1861, in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward posed the idea of appointing Summers to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court to help secure support from southern-state Union loyalists.
During the war, Summers remained at his Glenwood estate, where he apparently kept a low political profile.
A neighbor, Harley Hunt, who bought the neighboring Gillison farm, was also a slave owner as well as an apparent supporter of the Union cause. According to an oral history of one of his former slaves, Nan Stewart, recorded during the 1930s as part of a New Deal writers' project, Hunt hid in the woods "for seven days and seven nights" after southern soldiers occupied Charleston in 1862.
According to Stewart's account of slave life on the West Side, unearthed by Peyton, slaves at the Hunt plantation had Saturday afternoons off, and tended their own garden plots, sometimes hoeing them by moonlight, to earn cash.
As a child at the Hunt plantation, Stewart was required to sew, piece quilts and clean brass. "But most of the time," she said, "I sat with the old ladies and lit their pipes and toted them water in gourds, and gathered the turkey eggs and guinea eggs," which sold for ten cents per dozen.
In September 1862, at the end of the Battle of Charleston, Stewart and several of her family members escaped to freedom by following Col. Joseph Lightburn's Union force out of the Kanawha Valley and into Ohio via an Ohio River ford at Buffington Island near Ravenswood.
After the war, a period of land speculation took place on the West Side.
Twenty-three-year-old entrepreneur and West Point alumnus John Brisben Walker arrived in Charleston in 1870, fresh from a brief hitch as a military observer with the Chinese army. Walker was the son-in-law of David Hunter Strother of Martinsburg, who wrote and illustrated for Harpers Monthly magazine under the pen name Porte Crayon. Soon after coming to Charleston, Walker founded a weekly newspaper, the Charleston Herald, and hired Strother to serve as its editor.