If Washingtonians heard that come-on once, they heard it a thousand times, in the first decade of this century. And wasn’t the message tantalizing? Fistfuls of cash, winners grinning ear to ear, about an hour away - who could resist the siren song?
But their advertising blitz planted a seed in my mind – although Charles Town is in West Virginia, it’s closer than you think. I put it on our radar and out we went on Sunday.
Every town has a unique story or two, and Charles Town is no different. We’re introduced to Charles Washington, the youngest full brother of George Washington, and the town’s founder. We step where John Brown was jailed, tried, convicted, and met his maker. We choose from over a dozen and a half historic landmarks. We discover Ranson, a lesser-known twin to Charles Town. And we see once again nature’s beauty.
Charles Town, population 5,250, the county seat of Jefferson and part of the Washington region and economy, is about 70 miles northwest of Alexandria. On the drive in on Highway 9, the uphill climb dramatically ends with a drive over the Shenandoah River, and an awe-inspiring view of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.
Here are the highlights of our trip.
George Washington had five brothers and one sister (Lawrence - half, Augustine - half, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles and Betty). Charles was born at Mount Vernon in 1738. In 1752, he inherited some of the land Lawrence owned in what we know today as the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Charles moved from Fredericksburg around 1780 and built his new home he called, “Happy Retreat.”
A half dozen years later he laid out the town (80 acres on ½ acre lots), and paid tribute to his family members by naming streets such as George, Washington, Lawrence, Samuel, and Mildred (his wife). Virginia awarded the town official status in 1787, known first as “Charlestown.” Liberty and Congress streets are obvious patriotic tributes, and Charles did not forget himself.
Town Square (George Street and Washington Street)
Main intersections in towns and smaller cities are a mixed bag. The history fan learns to realize that not every corner can contain the original buildings.
Charles Town deserves some kind of an award for the intersection of George and Washington. It’s not the names so much as all four corners have legacy and/or public buildings.
Ah, the County Courthouse, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Maybe, but in Charles Town, the Jefferson County Courthouse holds a big story or two. In 1859, John Brown was tried here and convicted of treason. Four years later, the building was destroyed by Confederate artillery. After eight years in Shepherdstown, the government returned in 1871 with a new structure. In 1922, William Blizzard was charged with treason and murder.
Market House/Charles Washington Hall, SW corner (first photo)
Circa 1806 a structure was built at the southwest corner. The first floor was used as a market space and its second floor had an auditorium as well as meeting rooms. Like many places in Charlestown, the market house was completely destroyed during the Civil War.
It was initially replaced by a number of frame buildings. Town fathers decided to construct a more permanent building and in 1874 Charles Washington Hall was built. Since then the Hall has been home to the United States Post Office and to a number of restaurants and businesses. We saw a sign for a Chinese restaurant, closed until March. That juxtapostion seemed odd, but all those lawyers have to eat somewhere, right?
Jefferson County Jail, SE corner
The U.S. Post Office is here now, but in 1861 the county jail occupied this corner. Brown and the six co-defendants spent time in it before and during their trial, and until they left to meet the hangman.
During the Civil War, the jail was destroyed and was rebuilt in 1873 after the county seat returned to Charlestown. That building was torn down in 1919 and the jail was moved to the southeast corner of George and Liberty Streets. In 1920 the United States Post Office was constructed on the former jail site and has been there ever since.
City Hall, NE corner
In 1908 the building here was demolished and replaced by the Farmers and Merchants Deposit Bank. The Bank of Charles Town purchased the property and moved there in the 1930's. Today the building houses the offices of the City of Charles Town.
Jumpin Java, 109 W. Washington
We are on a serious winning streak when it comes to great coffee places on our road trip destinations. Jumpin Java keeps that streak intact with their Black Dog Coffee. I had the Organic Bali Blue Moon. As we speak, I sip and relax to a great taste. The digs for this place are a bit worn down, but very friendly folk and cozy in its own way.
Just steps from the Courthouse on N. George Street lies the Visitors Center. Its in an old firehouse, thus the winding steel staircase. We walked in and were greeted by a helpful and friendly faced man who answered all our questions. When the better half inquired about nearby Shepherdstown, he recommended The Press Room for brunch.
Shepherdstown is about twenty minutes away. We passed through Ranson and then enjoyed the nice Sunday drive. A thing like that is a thing of the past in the big city, so we cherished the moment.
The man was right, a fantastic restaurant at 129 W. German Street. The newspaper font for the sign outside hinted at something special. A tip of the hat to owners Mike & Deb Luksa, who restored what was once a harness-making shop. In the short hallway to the restroom, you can find two framed front pages of The Independent, which ran its printing press and operations here. The six column approach packed a lot on the front page in those days.
Next door lies The Opera House. The two make a lovely pair.
All in all, a lovely trip. Certainly not enough time but enchanting nevertheless. We did see the gaming hall and hotels from the road, but we put our money into the hands of the townfolk, who showed us a good time. Thank you Chaaarles Town!