West Virginia’s location in the attractive Appalachian Mountains certainly hasn’t hurt the Mountain State’s reputation as one of the best places to visit in the USA. In addition to its stunning scenery, West Virginia also has countless interesting small towns to explore, many of them boasting well-preserved historic districts. Not only are these destinations pleasant to look at, but they also offer those interested in history a fascinating look at the people, places, and events that shaped not just the state’s history, but also that of the country.
The best of these towns are home to well-preserved historic districts that contain references to everything from the ancient Native Americans who first inhabited the land to the later battles that were fought here during the Civil War period. From early colonial settlements to booming railroad hubs, these towns have seen it all.
Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, it’s for good reason that Harper’s Ferry tops our list of the best small-town historic districts in West Virginia. Harpers Ferry simply oozes references to American history, a fact that’s only heightened by its stunning natural beauty. Only a 90-minute drive northwest of Washington DC, much of the town has been preserved as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, an area full of historic sites, museums, and trails that brilliantly tell the town’s history.
One of the most pivotal events here was John Brown’s raid on the town’s armory in 1859 in an attempt to incite a slave revolt. The remnants of the armory, as well as John Brown’s Fort where he and his men barricaded themselves, stand as important landmarks and must-visit sightseeing destinations.
Just a few miles upstream from Harpers Ferry and you’ll come to another important historic town in West Virginia: Shepherdstown. Reputedly the state’s oldest town, it was established in 1762 and is definitely one of the prettiest towns in the region. Here, the tree-lined streets of Shepherdstown Historic District feature numerous buildings dating from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, including one of the best known, the Entler Hotel. Constructed in 1786, this lovely red brick building now houses the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.
Just steps away is the Shepherdstown Opera House, a revived entertainment venue that opened in 1909 and is still used for performances to this day. Also of note is the James Rumsey Monument, which commemorates the launch of the world’s first successful steam-powered boat on the Potomac in 1787.
Charles Town is situated in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and was named after its founder, Charles Washington, younger brother of the first U.S. President, George Washington. A perfect day trip from Washington DC just over an hour’s drive to the east, this charming destination in fact boasts two distinct historic districts worth exploring. Downtown Charles Town Historic District is home to colonial-era landmarks including the Jefferson County Courthouse, famous as the place where abolitionist John Brown was tried after his raid on Harpers Ferry.
South Charles Town Historic District is no less interesting. Consisting of 145 historically significant buildings, many pre-dating the Civil War, here you’ll find the elegant Perkins House, built in 1891 and the scene of John Brown’s later execution.
Here’s one for all you wellness enthusiasts: Berkeley Springs. Established in 1776, this historic spa town, named after its warm mineral springs, quickly built a reputation for the healing properties of its waters, drawing early enthusiasts from across the founding states. Formerly known as Bath, the springs were often visited by colonial elites prior to independence, including George Washington, a frequent visitor.
You can learn more about this rich history at Berkeley Springs State Park. Situated in the town center, here you’ll find the Old Roman Bathhouse, a stately building constructed in the early 19th century that houses nine individual bathing chambers filled with natural spring water. Check out the George Washington Bathtub, a stone-encased spring that marks the spot where the first US President supposedly bathed. The town is also home to Berkeley Castle, a striking 19th-century replica of a European castle built by German stonemasons.
Located in the heart of West Virginia and a popular jumping-off point from which to explore the spectacular George Washington & Jefferson National Forest, much of downtown Lewisburg is included on the National Register of Historic Places. A stroll down Washington and Jefferson streets will take you past numerous perfectly preserved 18th and 19th-century structures, including the lovely Old Stone Presbyterian Church. Built in 1796, it’s one of the oldest churches in the state.
The town’s role in the Civil War is also recognized, most tellingly at the Confederate Cemetery. Be sure to also check out the Lewisburg Carnegie Hall, one of only four Carnegie Halls still in continuous use globally.
Buckhannon is located in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains and is just a short drive east of the I-79 highway. Although often overlooked, the Downtown Buckhannon Historic District is well worth taking the time to explore. Consisting of 57 buildings, you’ll see a range of architectural styles from Queen Anne to Colonial Revival. One of the best is the Upshur County Courthouse, built in the 1890s and a stand-out historic structure that makes for a wonderful selfie backdrop.
A few steps away, Pringle Tree Park is an interesting nod to the town’s origin story. Legend has it that brothers John and Samuel Pringle, British deserters from the French and Indian War, took refuge in a large sycamore tree here.
A scenic drive west of Lewisburg will bring you to the town of Hinton, a spot that’s popular for its being where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. Founded in the late 19th century as a hub for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, the town’s historic district offers a charming array of well-preserved Victorian-era buildings. Standouts include the Hinton Historic Railroad Depot, which now operates as both a museum and an Amtrak stop.
The Hinton Railroad Bridge is another landmark from this era. Spanning the New River, this early example of a steel bridge makes for a wonderful photo, while just outside town the Sandstone Falls, the largest waterfall on the New River, offers another scenic diversion.
The Final Word
West Virginia is home to many charming small towns that are rich in history. Several of the best have even established historic districts offering a local and authentic glimpse into the state’s past. From its early settlement to its important role in the coal and railroad industries, check out these small West Virginia with the best historic districts for ideas and inspiration.
Source: World Atlas