A few years ago, there was a series on the History Channel called “How the States got their Shapes” that asked questions like… Why does West Virginia have two weird panhandles? (For Union control of the B&O Railroad, of course.) And why does Michigan control the Upper Peninsula? (Compensation for giving Ohio the Toledo Strip.)
We could easily ask similar questions about this area. Why is downtown Gallipolis a few miles south of the more logical site opposite the mouth of the Kanawha River? Why was Pomeroy crammed into such a narrow stretch of land between the river and cliffs? And why do Point Pleasant, Gallipolis, and Pomeroy look so different despite 200 years of history, industry, and family bonds? The answers of all three reach back to the founding of our cities.
Point Pleasant, the oldest of our three sister towns, was settled and laid out in 1784 by the Lewis family, part of the slave-owning landed gentry of Old Virginia. Though solidly middle class east of the Alleghenies, these small-time slave owners like the Lewis family idolized the Tidewater aristocrats like the Lees and Washingtons, and in the Ohio Valley, they saw a chance to expand their power and wealth.
Like Gloucester Courthouse, Point Pleasant was designed to be little more than the marketplace for the surrounding plantations and seat of local government, with the real power controlled by the outlying plantations like Roseberry and Poplar Grove. And though slavery ended in 1865 and industry eventually came to Mason County, Point Pleasant for the most part developed according to that original plan. Even as recently as the 1980s, much of the local political power was held by major landowners and farmers, and much of Main Street’s business was due to the stockyards and farmers coming to town.
This is why our courthouse has always been at the intersection of the county’s three major roads heading north/south and east, why the head of Main Street is at that same intersection, and why our city on two major rivers didn’t have a true riverfront until Main Street Point Pleasant built the current Riverfront Park.
Gallipolis, on the other hand, traces its roots to France and New England. The French 500 settled here in 1790, intending to build a major Catholic city complete with a grand cathedral opposite Point Pleasant, but when they arrived, they found out that their deeds sold to them by the Scioto Company were worthless. The true owner, the Ohio Land Company, sent carpenters and woodsmen from Marietta to help them get settled on a site further south near Chickamauga Creek, but as they didn’t truly own the land, the settlers’ hopes of a grand city were quickly dashed.
This original settlement was where the City Park is today, and after the Northwest Territory officially opened to settlement in 1795, it was bolstered by New Englanders moving west. These two groups didn’t have much in common, coming from different backgrounds and speaking different languages, but both the French and New Englanders knew the value of town greens and common land.
At first, the fields and woodlands surrounding the town were plenty, but as time went on, the town expanded. The settlers built new, sturdier homes, and before long, the old cabins were cleared out to make way for a town green, today’s City Park. A public landing was built at the foot of the green, and whereas Point’s economy was designed to serve local agriculture, Gallipolis’ was to serve river traffic, with taverns and retail businesses being important parts of their business district surrounding the green.
And finally, Pomeroy was the last established of our three towns, laid out in the 1830s by New England industrialist Samuel Wyllys Pomeroy and his son-law, Valentine B. Horton. They came here to develop the seemingly endless coal and salt reserves, and as anyone in those industries could tell you, it’s all about location. Salt wells can be bored anywhere above the brine pool, but you need easily accessible coal to fire the furnace. You don’t want to increase your cost by having to ship coal a great distance or dig a shaft several hundred feet just to reach the seam, and this is what made Pomeroy the perfect location.
In the cliffs along both sides of the river, the local coal seams came straight to the surface and, even better, they were only a hundred feet from the riverbank. Easily accessible coal, check. Room in the narrows to build salt furnaces, check. A major river to ship the salt and excess coal, check. Homes could be built along the hollers and ridgelines, and that’s all you need for an industrial town.
Coal banks and salt furnaces were opened near the mouths of Kerr’s Run, Naylor’s Run, Sugar Run, and Monkey Run. A bustling business district grew in the middle of those four to serve the workers, and it eventually became large enough to justify making it the county seat. Neighborhoods grew up those four hollers and along Lincoln Heights, and everything faced the river, the source of the town’s business, industry, and wealth.
And so within a span of 20 miles, you have three wildly different historic towns: a southern market town, a riverboat stop and merchant’s town, and a transplanted New England mill town. All have their own unique and quaint feel, and together, as a united tourism destination, they could be unstoppable.
Information based on the general histories of the three towns and my own interpretations of their landscape and architecture.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at email@example.com.