- Glass Blowing and Community Building: A History of Morgantown, West Virginia’s Sunnyside Neighborhood, 1890–2013
Morgantown is the home of West Virginia University (WVU), but it is also home to Sunnyside, a 130-acre neighborhood today dominated by student housing with a notorious party scene. Within the past year a tremendous change has taken place in Sunnyside’s building stock and skyline. To accommodate space for an 8-story, multiuse complex designed to house 950 students, 39 single-family homes were demolished within one city block. Development began at a fast pace, and the community took notice. Fearing the total loss of Sunnyside’s colorful and often overlooked history, Amy Bertsch (WVU class of 1988) contacted university officials to learn whether the university was actively preserving Sunnyside’s past. This inquiry led to Professor Jenny Boulware embracing Sunnyside as a case study for her graduate-level Local History Research Methods course. Students selected various periods of significance and conducted extensive research in original documents (for example, census reports, court and tax records, newspapers, maps, photographs, and city directories). Students unearthed long forgotten themes, periods, people, and structures. From craftsmen to students, Sunnyside’s residents embody a rich history of skill, service, and activism.
First envisioned as an oasis amid the chaos and violence that defined frontier life after the American Revolution, Morgantown, West Virginia, has grown into a noted healthcare center and home of West Virginia University. But long before WVU undergraduates called the city home, anxious settlers and newly arrived immigrants saw Morgantown as a riverside haven where hard work could turn dreams of a better life into reality. Established in 1783 by Colonel Zackquill Morgan, who believed the settlement would protect local residents from raiding Native American war parties, the small town on the banks of the Monongahela River grew rapidly during the antebellum years.1 By [End Page 65] 1838, Morgan’s settlement boasted a population of 650 and official incorporation under Virginia state law, providing the city with tax revenues and a formal governance structure. The Civil War temporarily slowed development, but not long after Appomattox, on February 7, 1867, the newly installed West Virginia legislature established West Virginia Agricultural College, later renamed West Virginia University, in Morgantown.2
While West Virginia University slowly grew from these humble land-grant origins to become the city’s largest community stakeholder and one of the most influential institutions in all of West Virginia, transportation improvements in the 1870s left a more immediate impact on the Morgantown area. Lock and dam navigation projects on the Monongahela River, along with the arrival of the railroads, made the region’s raw materials readily accessible to out-of-state business interests and markets, spurring rapid industrialization and increased oil and gas exploration.3 Glassmaking soon emerged as a key industry in the Ohio and Monongahela River Valleys, adding to the economies of cities such as Wheeling, Parkersburg, and Charleston.4 By World War I, glass producers statewide employed 9,000 workers who produced goods valued at over $14 million a year.5 In Morgantown, the glass industry revolved around the Seneca Glass Company, an Ohio-based firm that moved to the city in 1896 to enjoy easy access to river transportation, natural gas, and sand. The company constructed a sprawling factory complex on Beechurst Avenue in the Sunnyside neighborhood, north of the Morgantown city center, which within the year employed 250 people.6 Seneca’s craftsmen and workmen labored to produce high-grade thin lead, blown, bar, and table glassware, well aware that the company faced stiff competition from the city’s nine other glass factories.7
Morgantown’s growing industries affected nearly every aspect of local life and encouraged new housing projects and reforms. The city’s population rose at a blistering pace—from 2,000 in 1900 to 13,000 in 1920—as workers flooded the labor market and created new neighborhoods for their families.8 Many day laborers barely earned the wages needed to support themselves and their dependents, but skilled workers became emerging members of the middle class, as...