By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Thirty years ago, back in 1983, there wasn’t any public brouhaha at all when Judge David E. Johnston’s Bluefield mansion was demolished. When Johnston and his family picked up stakes in Mercer County and settled on the left coast in Portland, Ore., in 1908, their Ramsey Street mansion became the nurses’ quarters for the old Bluefield Sanitarium. Three years after the physician-owned Sanitarium became a community hospital and moved to Cherry Street, Johnston’s mansion was razed.
It’s easy to look at Johnston’s record of public service and appreciate why historians admire him. His account of his military service during the American Civil War that he published in 1914 — almost a half century after the war ended — contains incredible detail for a man who was then in his early 70s. But then as now, every detail of Civil War history attracts the interest of scholars and the book is available online for scholars to examine.
Johnston’s ambitious “History of the Middle New River Settlements and Contiguous Territory,” still stands as an important treatise on the region’s early development. The book contains well-researched information related to the early exploration and settlement of the region as well as a great deal of information about Mercer County. “I have had in mind for several years to write and publish a history of Mercer County and it’s people,” Johnston wrote in his introduction to the book.
Johnston had drifted away from public service when he published his New River region history in 1906 and was working as a lawyer for the (then) Norfolk & Western Railway. Johnston opened his law practice in Princeton in 1867 — just five years after Confederate soldiers who occupied the town torched all but a couple of residences. But Princeton was the Mercer County seat of government, and in the 1860s, Bluefield wasn’t a town.
Johnston married Sarah Elizabeth Pearis on Feb. 6, 1867, and they lived in a home on Main Street in Princeton. After only five years of practicing law, he was elected in 1872 to serve as Mercer County prosecuting attorney, and in 1878, he was elected to the State Senate. Two years later in 1880, Johnston was elected judge of the eighth judicial circuit of West Virginia, and served for eight years in that position until he retired from the bench and ran successfully for the 56th U.S. Congress. Johnston, always a Democrat in politics, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889-’90, but lost to a Republican candidate in his 1890 re-election bid. He then returned to his private law practice in Princeton.
During his practice of law, he became active in area businesses as well. Although a later historian, Kyle McCormick, one-time Princeton Times publisher, and director of the state Archives & History Department, debunked the still-circulated story of how Johnston talked Frank James out of robbing the Princeton Bank & Trust in 1882, the story still lingers in local folklore. Johnston was PB&T’s lawyer, and after moving to Bluefield in 1893, Johnston served as the attorney for a state bank in Bluefield.
Johnston started making an impact in Bluefield as soon as he and his family arrived. On June 3, 1893, he was listed as president of the Bluefield Telephone Company, a communications system that linked remote coal camps with businesses in Bluefield. Bluefield Telephone Co., has historic ties to a pair of telecommunication giants including Verizon South (1947) and GTE South (1954).
But it was the railroad work that brought Johnston to Bluefield. He spent a total of 15 years as an N&W lawyer, but only lasted a couple years after the book came out. “The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War,” came out after he moved his family to Oregon. By all accounts, he was a successful businessman in his new home, building up a large and lucrative legal practice and also was active in banking circles.
Why did Johnston move from Mercer County? Of course, any suggestion is merely speculation, but two things happened in the first decade of the 20th Century that would have had made the leadership of the N&W Railway scratch their heads. First, the costly 1901 lease-purchase deal orchestrated by Bramwell banker Isaac T. Mann and his silent partner, Judge Elbert H. Gary, the so-called architect of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel Corp. The railroad lost $6.5 million on that deal.
The second, and more costly development came in 1904 when Henry Huttleston Rogers secretly surveyed the route of the Virginian Railway, and five years later, created a formidable competition for the N&W that was first to the Flat Top Coalfields in 1882, but faced a half-century of competition from the Virginian.
Again, any suggestion that either of those two events had anything to do with Johnston’s move is only speculation. What is known for sure is that during his 40-year stay in Mercer County, Judge David Emmons Johnston had an incredible impact on the way Mercer County evolved into what it is today.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover photos courtesy of Eastern Regional Coal Archives and Bluefield Daily Telegraph file photos.