West Virginia Independence Hall
In 1831, Wheeling, Virginia was designated a Port of Entry by the United States Congress. This means that visitors from other countries could come all the way up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to Wheeling before they would have to stop to pay import duties. Between its founding in 1769 and the Civil War, Wheeling evolved from a frontier outpost, dominated by Fort Henry, to the major commercial and transportation center of the Upper Ohio River Valley.
With the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in the early 1850’s, economic growth in Wheeling made it necessary to build a structure to house custom offices, a new post office and a federal courtroom. This imposing structure on the corner of Market and 16th Street was located between the railroad station and the point where the National Road spans the Ohio River over the famous Suspension Bridge. In 1854, the US Congress appropriated money for a facility to be built in Wheeling. Ammi Young, supervising Architect for the US Treasury, was hired and construction began in July 1856 and the Custom House, now called Independence Hall, was completed in 1859 at a cost of $96,000.
Wheeling’s Custom House featured rolled iron beams in its skeletal frame, a technique that later led to the construction of modern skyscrapers. In an early attempt to make structures fireproof, builders used iron for staircases, shutters, exterior doors, roof, beams and columns. The central heating system brought the heat to the courtroom through ducts inside the iron columns. The custom house was one of the first buildings in Wheeling to contain the new invention of central heating and flushing toilets.
The cellar or lower level of the custom house was completely open. The original furnace was fired by coal, and it is said that during the prohibition, liquor was stored in and sold from the furnace. During the Civil War, this cellar was a military armory. Thomas Hornbrook, the collector of Customs, also used this area for the sale of firearms and ammunition, much to the discomfort of the Governor and the Editor of The Intelligencer, who had offices in the building.
Governor Pierpont used this building as his office during the time of the “Restored Government of Virginia.” It was at his east window that he composed the telegram to President Lincoln urging him to sign the bill for West Virginia statehood. In December, 1862 Lincoln receives the statehood bill for the creation of new West Virginia and on December 31, Lincoln signs the bill and West Virginia achieved statehood on June 20, 1863. Contrary to popular belief, Independence Hall was never the capitol of West Virginia. It was the capitol of the “Restored Government of Virginia from 1861-1863. The US government recognized the existence of the “Restored Government of Virginia” at the second Wheeling convention in 1861. The executive branch recognized the restored government when President Lincoln granted Governor Pierpont’s request for more troops. The legislative branch recognized the restored gov’t when the House of Representatives seated John Carlile, William Brown and Killian Whaley as congressman from the Restored Gov’t. In 1861, the general assembly of the “Restored Gov’t of Virginia” elected Waitman Wiley and John Carlile as US Senators from Virginia. The U.S. Senate made this election legitimate when it replaced Senators Hunter and Mason with Wiley and Carlile. Legislators not convinced of the constitutionality of the Restored Gov’t of Virginia” argued the legitimacy of seating Willey and Carlile. Delegates at the convention, however, felt that the state government in Richmond no longer existed due to succession, which left state positions vacant and that the people had the right to change a corrupt government. Recognition by President Lincoln and the federal government laid the groundwork for the legitimacy of the Restored Gov’t of Virginia and the western counties future bid for separation to form a new state.
Independence Hall is the site of the first WV Constitutional Convention and the first and second Wheeling Conventions. Wheeling is the only city to serve as the capitol of two states, and West Virginia is the only state formed from the Civil War… a state born of conviction, a state born for advocating for and defending the United States of America rather than the seceded states of America. Western Virginians were very committed to the Union in a state that left the Union, and Wheeling was the center of this rebellion.
Following statehood, the government moved their offices to another structure in Wheeling and the Custom House continued to be used by the federal government until its sale of the original building in 1907. After major structural alterations were made as various tenants occupied the once grand offices, the state of WV purchased the structure in 1964. Now programmed and maintained by the WV Department of Arts, Culture and History under Commissioner/Curator Randall Reid-Smith and, with the assistance of the Independence Hall Foundation, the Hall is a part of the state museum and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and in 1988, the birthplace of WV gained recognition as a National Historic Landmark.
Currently, Independence Hall has many exciting exhibits including 14 original Civil War battle flags, the original post office, Governor Pierpont’s and surveyor Hornbrook’s office and of course, our beautiful restored court room.
Today, there are many programs, events, meetings and causes in the works at Independence Hall, including the efforts that raised money to relocate the largest Civil War monument in the state to the side yard of Independence Hall in May of 2019, the grand Soldiers and Sailors monument, dedicated in 1883 to the men who fought and died in the Civil War.
The museum is open Tuesday thru Saturday and admission is free. If you haven’t been to Independence Hall, you are missing out on the history of the Civil War and the birthplace of the 35th state. After all, Independence Hall is the most historic place in West Virginia!