Randolph County’s Courthouse War

Posted by | October 31, 2017

Randolph County is the largest in West Virginia. Timber rich, today much of it is in the Monongahela National Forest. And that wealth of natural resources set the stage for the Courthouse War of the 1890s between the towns of Beverly and Elkins.

Prior to 1898 Beverly was the county seat; one of the oldest east of the Mississippi River. Beverly was a conservative rural southern town in 1890 much like any town of the South.

Beverly WV Court houseBeverly, WV Courthouse. Undated sketch.

But that year U.S. Senator Henry Davis, who was also a prominent coal and timber man, came to Randolph County seeking to deploy resources. He fell upon an area just north of Beverly as a site for a railroad junction from which he could center his operations. Before 1890 the area that was about to become Elkins was home to a scattered rural community known as Leadsville, where the farmers’ corn was loaded on boats and floated down river.

Elkins was incorporated in 1890 and renamed for U.S. Senator Stephen Benton Elkins, Davis’ son-in-law. Senator Elkins was a man used to getting his way: he was secretary of war under President Benjamin Harrison and later chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission under President Theodore Roosevelt. (The original Davis and Elkins estates are now the site of Davis and Elkins College.)

Together Davis and Elkins promoted their agenda of business, industry, and commerce, much in keeping with Northern ambitions and enterprise, in direct contrast to Beverly, the home of the old conservative South.

The new citizens of Elkins began a campaign to have the county seat moved to Elkins. The first county wide referendum was held in 1890 and was defeated. Beverly built a new courthouse in 1894 in the hopes of hanging on to the county seat, but this building was burned down in 1897 under suspicious circumstances.

The court records were returned to the old courthouse for safekeeping. This event revived the efforts to have the county seat moved to Elkins. On the third vote the balloting was close enough to have the election referred to the courts.
A number of Elkins supporters, fearing this would cause endless delay, gathered with weapons to make a surprise assault on the old courthouse in Beverly, intending to move the records themselves.

“Bands of armed men were trained to defend their towns,” says the Elkins version of the story. “Beverly residents heard of the plan and gathered to defend the courthouse and town” is the view from Beverly.

Elkins WV Court houseElkins, WV Courthouse, ca. 1915.

“At one point a special train was formed at Elkins to attack Beverly. The attack was averted, though, by a speech given by C. Wood Dailey, chief counsel for the Western Maryland Railroad,” says the Elkins narrative.

“A delegation of [Beverly] community leaders, particularly Dr. Humboldt Yokum, persuaded the Elkins faction to give up their fight and avoid bloodshed,” counters the Historic Beverly website. Beverly resident S.L. Baker, who later served two terms in the State Senate, also served as a mediator to help solve the county seat controversy.

The court ultimately ruled in Elkins’ favor, and the county records were ‘peaceably’ moved to Elkins about 1899,though resistance in Beverly was still stiff.

“Explaining the struggle to control the courthouse in Randolph County, a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter observed that ‘under other circumstances a county seat war might be a mere passing event,’” notes Ronald L. Lewis in Transforming the Appalachian Countryside “but in Randolph County ‘it stood for everything.

“It was the meeting of the old and the new civilization,” a conflict between ‘tradition with all of its sentiment and modern industry with all of its disregard for tradition.’ It was a ‘collision between the young men who believed in business…and the old men who have veneration for their home and the home of their ancestors.’

“The contest was so spirited because it was ‘the ruthless assault of nineteenth century progress upon the posterity of the pioneers’ who settled in the mountains generations before.”

Beverly’s Dr. Yokum, it should be noted as a postscript, by 1912 owned not only his home at Beverly, but several lots of land in Elkins.

sources: Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, by Ronald L. Lewis, University of North Carolina Press, 1998

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