Living in Fairmont
In North Central West Virginia, this friendly city draws people in with unique entertainment, recreation, and food.
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There’s a new view of downtown Fairmont. Just off of the new Exit 136 on Interstate 79, buildings jut out of green hills, and not one, but two grand bridges take visitors across the Monongahela River in and out of Fairmont’s charming downtown streets. Nearly 19,000 people live in this northern West Virginia city, where Italian food is king and there’s no excuse for boredom.
The city was established in 1820, first as Middletown in Monongalia County. The Virginia General Assembly chartered it Fairmont (short for Fair Mountain) in 1843. The city is known for perhaps the earliest celebration of Father’s Day—held on July 5, 1908, in honor of more than 200 fathers who lost their lives in the Monongah Mining Disaster months before. The mine tragedy of 1907 is the worst mining disaster in American history—as many as 500 workers and children were killed. Exhibits on the coal industry, as well as the glass and other industries, black history, and Civil War, can be found at the Marion County Historical Society & Museum in Fairmont. This free museum was originally home to Marion County sheriffs in the early 1900s and is a treasure trove of artifacts. History buffs will also appreciate the Marion County Telephone Museum in town.
Old homes in Fairmont inspire awe and intrigue with their sheer size and architecture. The Shaw House on Morgantown Avenue is significant as the early 1900s residence of noted attorney Harry Shaw. The Tudor Revival-style, brick home is now often rented for showers, reunions, and weddings. The High Gate Carriage House is another unique wedding venue and Tudor Revival-style home, with half-timbering, stucco wall cladding, and clay-tile roof, built in 1912. High Gate is the former home of coal baron James Edward Watson and once hosted President Taft. The residence was named for its grand, iron gates and fencing around the sprawling mansion.
Over the years, Fairmont has raised its fair share of great people, too. The city claims known politicians and athletes now spread all over the U.S., as well as famous natives like gymnastic star and Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton, who still calls the city home; John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace; and Johnnie Johnson, known to many as the founding father of rock ’n’ roll; among others. Johnnie was born in 1924 and became known for his piano playing. Legend has it that the song “Johnny B. Good” was written about him, and music lovers can check out The Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Festival in town each summer, featuring top entertainment and great food.
When Weirton native Vera Sansalone, now executive director of Main Street Fairmont, moved to Fairmont in 1993, she encountered a depressed town. “I can remember walking down the street and there was garbage on the sidewalk you had to kick out of the way. On one corner, the tops of buildings were ripped out. There was a toilet hanging out of one of the buildings. It really looked bad,” she says.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Vera says, there wasn’t a lot of pride in Fairmont. But over the past two decades, building owners, developers, and city officials stepped in. Main Street Fairmont was incorporated in the early ’90s to combat the deterioration of downtown. As historic lights, decorative banners, benches, and trash receptacles were put in place, people stepped up to revive the city. Now Fairmont is a hub of local business. Also in the early ’90s, the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation was established, and NASA opened facilities in 1993 in Fairmont, just off of the interstate. As the home of a growing technology park, new jobs continue to come to the city in the area of research, development, and information technology.
These days, travelers hop off the interstate to find a direct route—via the new gateway connector off of Exit 136—to local shops like Aspire Uniqueness and restaurants like C.J. Maggie’s American Grill, a lunch and dinner hot spot that’s open seven days a week. As visitors drive into town, they pass the Marion County Convention & Visitors Bureau—a new building made of stones from the historic children’s home that was torn down. In March, the new visitors center had 1,700 people stop by for information, according to Marianne Moran, executive director. “I can’t even imagine what Memorial Day to Labor Day is going to be like. It’s going to be crazy,” she says.