The Time Virginia & West Virginia Literally Got Married

PHOTO: Bluefield, West Virginia, Courtesy of Carson Maynard
PHOTO: Bluefield, West Virginia, Courtesy of Carson Maynard

Written by Jeremy T.K. Farley

The 1863 divorce between Virginia and West Virginia has been well documented and is credited for fueling a border state rivalry that is now over 150 years old.

Interestingly, just like Appalachia’s Hatfield and McCoy‘s from a generation earlier, the story of these warring peoples would not be complete without a Romeo and Juliet style love story between the opposing state’s offspring, two different cities.

This interstate love story is complete with a marriage ceremony and all.

In the late 1880s, surveyors for the Norfolk and Western Railroad began plotting a course for the railway line that would be used to extract Appalachian lumber and coal from the mountains. The original survey party selected an area just a few miles on the Virginia side of the state line to serve as the railway’s docking yard and plans were soon made to lay out a city in the Virginia wilderness.

This city would be named after Philadelphia capitalist Col. Thomas Graham and in 1884, Graham, Virginia, was officially chartered as a town by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Unfortunately for Virginia, further examination discovered that the railroad stopping point would be better suited a few miles to the east, just across the state line in West Virginia and within five years time, the City of Bluefield, West Virginia, was officially chartered.

In the years ahead, Bluefield, West Virginia’s population would explode from 1,775 residents in 1890 to 19,339 in 1930. A surge of growth brought on by a West Virginia “coal rush” that was comparable to the gold rush of California a half century earlier.

Frederick Kimball, president of the Norfolk and Western Company, described the coalfield as the “most spectacular find on the continent and indeed perhaps of the entire planet.”

PHOTO: Locomotive at the Bluefield Railway Yard in Bluefield, West Virginia. 1920.
PHOTO: Locomotive at the Bluefield Railway Yard in Bluefield, West Virginia. 1920.

By the early 1920s leaders in Graham, Virginia, had every reason to believe that the ever expanding city of Bluefield, West Virginia, would soon, “swallow up” their town and in an effort to show solidarity and their willingness to work with their neighbors just across the state line, leaders in Graham proposed a radical idea: marry the two cities together.

In the summer of 1924, the idea was put to a referendum and as the votes were tallied, the people of this Virginia small town were in agreement to accept this marriage proposal.

Only July 12, 1924, representatives from Virginia and West Virginia gathered in a city park that is dissected by the state line to publicly declare the eternal union between Graham, Virginia, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

Making the affair an even greater spectacle was a local couple, one from the West Virginia side of the line and the other from Virginia, who had agreed to get married during the ceremony — thus solidifying the betrothal.

The bride, Ms. Emma B. Smith of Bluefield, West Virginia, served as the Mountain State’s representative in the ceremony, while her husband-to-be, Mr. L.W. Yost of Graham, Virginia, represented the Commonwealth in a ceremony that concluded in Emma’s last name changing and L.W.’s town’s name changing.

Both couples were flanked by their respective state’s governors, Ephraim F. Morgan of West Virginia and E. Lee Trinkle of Virginia. Gov. Trinkle was a native of nearby Wytheville, Virginia.

Mercer County Commissioner Bill Archer said the event drew a crowd of 10,000 people, capturing national headlines and was covered by newsreels of the day.

Commissioner Archer said that he had the opportunity to meet the bride, prior to her death.

“Mrs. Yost was a very articulate and nice person,” adding, “She was also a humble and unassuming woman.”

That July afternoon in 1924, a love struck mountain couple walked away with a common name, commitment to a lifelong partnership and an agreement to stand together on even the darkest of days — as did two coalfield mountain communities.

It is no secret that this region has seen brighter days and undoubtedly the feverish passion of this romance escaped many years ago, but like an aged and weathered couple who has seen triumph and struggle, the two Bluefields of Virginia and West Virginia remain true to their marital vows made nearly a century ago.

Here’s to another century of cooperation and commitment. Here’s to Bluefield.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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