Until the start of the Civil War in 1861, Charleston continued to experience growth in industry and population. The salt industry had been established for over 50 years, the first natural gas had been struck, and coal had been discovered. The coal was being used to run the salt works, which became one of the world’s leading producers of salt at the time.
The Civil War interrupted life as usual in Charleston and changed everything. As in many states, especially border states (between the Union and the Confederacy), loyalties were divided. The Confederate army defeated the Union Army in the Battle of Charleston in 1862, but the Union came back some six weeks later and remained in control of the city until the end of the war. Unfortunately, due to the ravages of war, Charleston’s salt industry was destroyed.
Though Virginia had already seceded and become a Confederate State, the Union held the northwestern part of the state fairly firmly. Suddenly, citizens and city leaders alike were bringing up the issue of becoming a state. In 1863, less than a year after the battle of Charleston, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the Northwestern half of Virginia should be its own state. West Virginia officially seceded from Virginia on June 20th, 1863, becoming the 35th state in the Union. When that happened, it became the first state and the only state in the history of the United States to split from another state.
Since Charleston was such a large and important city in the newly formed state of West Virginia, it was chosen as the state capital. Over the next 13 years, however, state operations moved between Charleston and Wheeling in the northern part of the state. The citizens of the state finally decided on Charleston as the final and permanent location for the state capital.
The first capitol building was erected eight years after this decision, truly establishing Charleston as the center of state governmental activity. After less than 50 years, this structure burned down, and the slipshod structure that replaced it followed suit six years later. Luckily for the citizens of West Virginia, the process of designing and building a new capitol had already begun.
At a cost of just less than ten million dollars, the new state capitol building was dedicated by then governor William Conley on the 69th anniversary of West Virginia’s statehood in 1932. The current capital building is made of buff limestone and marble, and is graced by a dome higher than the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. In the late 1980’s the dome was again gilded in gold, restoring what is arguably the most recognizable image of Charleston, WV.