Elizabeth Kee Federal Building, Bluefield, WV
Location: 601 Federal St, Bluefield, WV 24701
The following history of the City of Bluefield was taken in large part from "Outline History of Bluefield" in "Historic Resource Survey of Bluefield West Virginia" commissioned by the City of Bluefield and conducted by consultants Michael Gioulis and Michael J. Pauley, 1985. The text has been adapted and revised to reflect conditions in 2016.
For most of the 19th century, the site of what is now the city of Bluefield, West Virginia, was the location of two large farms: the Davidson Farm and the Higginbotham Farm. Upon the discovery of the Pocahontas coalfield, the Davidson family offered an eighty foot wide right-of-way across their land in order to entice a railroad to lay track to the area. In 1881, construction began on the Norfolk and Western Railroad line along this right-of-way and stretching from Radford, Virginia to Pocahontas, Virginia via Bluefield, with the intent of accessing and shipping coal from the newly discovered coalfields, one of the richest coal deposits ever discovered. In addition, the coal produced by the Pocahontas coalfield was and is of the "smokeless" bituminous type and offered particularly high heating value. The Norfolk and Western was able to begin coal shipping in June of 1883 and a small station was established on the Higginbotham Farm. The station was called "Higginbotham Summit," shortened in 1884 to just "Summit." In 1886-87, a post office was established and the name of the community changed from "Summit" to "Bluefield."
A telegraph office was established in 1887 and, more importantly, in this year the Norfolk & Western Railroad chose Bluefield as the division headquarters for its Pocahontas Division. In 1888, the Norfolk and Western Railway moved into Bluefield in a big way, constructing a passenger station, a ten-stall roundhouse, extensive smith and machine shops, several scale houses, a wooden freight station, and its division headquarters building. In constructing its yard, the railway used Bluefield's topography to its advantage and constructed the yard on a "hump" in order to create a natural gravity-based switching yard, an efficient system that was later widely imitated but generally had to be artificially constructed elsewhere. The railroad also constructed several cottages to house the new employees who moved to the community. As a result of these changes, where there had been about fifty people living only five years before, there now were nearly one thousand. The railway had to import workers because, at this time, the town was unable to provide enough workers to supply its operations.
During the following year, 1889, Bluefield's movement for incorporation came to fruition. At the time of its incorporation, Bluefield had a population of 1,775. The first of Bluefield's building booms began in 1895, at which time the City Council prohibited "hogs from running wild" - a certain sign that civilization had arrived.
Due to its increasing size and importance, a movement began in the 1890s to attempt to petition to have the county seat of Mercer County moved from Princeton to Bluefield. An election was presented to the local populace with this question in 1898 and again in 1906. Both times, the election failed. However, following the 1898 defeat, Congressman C.P. Dorr introduced a bill in Congress to provide for a federal building in Bluefield. In November 1901, the city's efforts to attract the Southern District Federal Court were successful. City Hall was leased to the federal government for court purposes, but the actual new Federal Building that is the subject of this report was ultimately not constructed for another nine years.
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, Bluefield's economy continued to boom. The profits of the Norfolk and Western Railway continued to climb and its operations in town expanded. The Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company was established. In 1910, the city had acquired a population of 11,188, almost tripling in only ten years. The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 was particularly severe in Bluefield but, regardless, the city continued to grow and showed a population of 15,292 in 1920. Perhaps the most striking representation of the prosperity of Bluefield during the 1920s was the construction of the West Virginian Hotel in 1923. At twelve stories, it was built as and remains today the tallest building in West Virginia south of Charleston. It was the most prominent of several high-rise buildings erected downtown during this era. As a result of all this growth, Bluefield had established itself as the commercial, industrial, and social center for the coalfields of southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.
Through the city's history, downtown developed from north to south, with the oldest buildings located primarily along Princeton Avenue facing the railyard and newer buildings spreading down "The Avenue" (Bland Street) into the heart of downtown and away from the historic transportation artery along the railyards. A major event in the development of downtown occurred in 1902 when the last large parcel of privately-owned real estate was sold: Higginbotham Hill itself. The hill was soon cut away and downtown was allowed to expand to the south. The seven-story Matz Hotel, the six-story Law & Commerce Building and, most importantly to our story, the new Federal Building, were constructed on this newly available land during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
After weathering the Great Depression, Bluefield boomed again during World War II and the post-war era. As a result of a general strong economy and an accompanying boom in the coalfields, Bluefield reached its peak population of 21,560 people in 1950. During World War II, the Pocahontas Coalfields produced as much as forty percent of the national coal consumption and, as a result, Bluefield is said to have appeared as a target on Hitler's rumored American bombing list. By 1960, over sixty million tons of coal per year passed through Bluefield's facilities. At its height, the Pocahontas Division coal operations of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, centered in Bluefield, involved 143 mining operations and 3,000 railcars along 200 miles of track. The dispatcher at Bluefield handled an average of 125 trains per day.
During the mid-20th century, Bluefield was home to a very prominent political family, the Kee family. John Kee (1874-1951) moved to Bluefield in 1910 in order to practice law. During the 1920s, he was elected to the State Senate twice. After unsuccessfully running for Congress in 1930, he was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1932 for what would be the first of ten consecutive terms. When John died in office in 1951, his wife Elizabeth Kee, who had been his executive secretary since 1933, was appointed to succeed her husband. Elizabeth went on to be elected to six consecutive terms in the US House of Representatives. She was the first woman member of congress elected from West Virginia. She was also the first Representative in the state's history to be elected without opposition in either the primary or the general election (in 1958). Elizabeth did not seek re-election in 1964. That year, her son James was elected to take her place in the same Congressional seat. James Kee was subsequently elected to three more terms until defeated in 1972 as a result of re-districting.
The Federal Building in Bluefield has borne Elizabeth Kee's name since 1976, in recognition of her and her family's contributions to their home community and southern West Virginia. As mentioned in the Physical History section of this report, the building received a major addition and renovation in the late 1950s as a result of extensive lobbying by the Kees to secure funding for this work during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
After its high point in 1950, Bluefield began a slow but steady decline. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mining required enormous amounts of manual labor. That labor began to be taken over by machines beginning with coal loaders in the 1920s but especially with the adoption of the continuous mining machine during the 1950s. The mechanization of the coal mines occurred simultaneously with the decline of the railroads, which together brought economic hardship to all of West Virginia. The faltering of these two industries, which had been the twin pillars of Bluefield's prosperity, brought about a decline in the economic life of the city. The grand Avenue of downtown Bluefield was declared obsolete in the 1960s and demolition of many buildings was undertaken by the Urban Renewal Authority, including the grand stone passenger station. In 1973, a large fire swept Bland Street, destroying more beloved buildings. The construction of the Mercer Mall in the 1980s well outside the city further contributed to downtown's collapse. The economic and population decline has continued to this day. In 2010, Bluefield had a population of 10,447, less than half of its peak population.
Despite its long decline, Bluefield retains remnants of both major elements of its historic economic base. The Pocahontas Coalfields continue to produce coal, which continues to pass though Bluefield, and the Norfolk & Western (now the Norfolk Southern) Railway continues to operate a major maintenance base and yard in town. Bluefield State College, founded in 1895, also remains an important economic anchor.
From the standpoint of its architectural heritage, Bluefield remains much more intact than many cities in West Virginia and the nation that have experienced similar declines. Many of the ornate structures from its past remain and together form an impressive downtown skyline. While some of these structures are unused, several of them have been adapted or repurposed and continue to be in use. Civic pride and a strong sense of the past guides the city's residents and has led to grassroots efforts at improvement. For example, a campaign to raise two million dollars to restore the local movie theater, the Granada, as an events center has nearly reached its goal as of late 2015.
The Elizabeth Kee Federal Building is a major example among Bluefield's substantial collection of historic buildings. While its interior has lost its historic integrity due to changes made in the mid-20th century that completely altered its character, the west (original) portion of the exterior was restored in 1996 to its original design and, as a result, has high integrity.