History of the City of Williamsburg

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Williamsburg became a town about the same time as the county was formed in 1818.  The land was donated for the courthouse by Samuel Cox.  At the sametime, he offered lots for sale for the formation of the town.  The lots were laid out by Col. Gillis, a surveyor.


Williamsburg was first known as “Cox’s Crossing.”  At this time a ferry was being used to cross the Cumberland River and was owned and operated by Samuel Cox.  The site for the town was probably selected because of the three fresh water springs nearby which furnished an abundance of good drinking water for the entire Williamsburg settlements.


The town was once called Whitley Courthouse and its first postmaster was James H. Early.  He was chosen on July 16, 1829.  It was called this by the Post Office Department until about 1870-71. The first school in Williamsburg was located in the ballroom of the Samuel Cox home and was held there until 1869.  The Cox home was situated near where the branch bank of the Bank of Williamsburg is now located, on Main Street.

In 1820, the town of Williamsburg had 20 people in it.  In 1830, the census listed 50 in 1840, 75 people were listed; 1850 showed a total of 93 people.  By 1860, it contained 125 people and in 1870, it had a population of 139.


On January 16, 1871, Mr. C. W. Lester opened a subscription school in Williamsburg.  He had 24 students.  Writing for the local newspaper in 1909, Lester stated, “…quite a number of our most progressive citizens were students at my school.” Mr. Lester wrote that when he came to Williamsburg in 1871, the town consisted of not more than 20 houses around the public square.  The courthouse and the clerk’s offices were separate houses.  Both were constructed of brick.  The other houses were built of lumber, except one or two were built of hewn logs.  There were three stores in town owned and operated by A. J. Curd, S. L. Harmon and M. A Moore, each of the stores carried a general stock of goods.  There were two hotels in the town, one located near where the health center is now situated: the other, fronting the public square.  One of the hotels was operated by Curtis Blakely; the other by M. A. Moore.  There was not nine hundred feet of sidewalk in all the town.  There was no school house nor church, there was not a daily and but few weekly newspaper.  The post office was known as Whitley Courthouse.


For more than 50 years the new township remained a backward, awkward and virtually inaccessible area of less than fifty families, but circa 1880 the town began to change.


Beneath the feet and over the heads of the people of Williamsburg existed a treasure of unexpected importance to feed the insatiable greed of the Northeast:  coal and timber.

With this wealth in the South, the Northern industrialists began to cast a lustful eye upon the coal-and-lumber-rich areas of the Appalachian Mountains and Southeastern Kentucky was no exception. From Jay Gould’s office in downtown Manhattan in the heart of New York City he signed an agreement which changed the history of Whitley County forever.  He decided to use the L & N branch of his Union Pacific Railroad to connect this area with the outside world.


In 1882, the L & N was to Livingston, on July 1, 1882, the track reached the north bank of the Cumberland River.  Within weeks, the coal and timber of Williamsburg was headed north and the money, affluence and culture of the north was headed south. Williamsburg and Whitley County were aroused from lethargy after the Lebanon-Knoxville branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was completed to Jellico, Tennessee, and the Southern Railway company had completed its branch from Knoxville to Jellico in 1883.


With the advent of the railroad, industry began to flourish in Williamsburg, and Whitley County.  The Kentucky Lumber Company was established, and built a large sawmill and planning mill near the confluence of Briar Creek and Cumberland River.  The Jones Lumber Company was established at the point where Watts Creek flows into Cumberland River.  The Phares Lumber Company of Philadelphia built a saw mill in Williamsburg.  A company from Brooklyn, New York, built a stave factory and a coppershop in Williamsburg.  The building of the railroad, saw mills, stave mills and coppershop caused a great influx of people, and the town and county began a period of rapid growth.There was much rejoicing by the people of Williamsburg and those out in the settlements at the coming of the railroad. 


Depot 1900's

King's Mill



With Depot Street becoming a business district and the town becoming more than a jail and courthouse, the mandates of society began to take hold. On December 8, 1886, the first promise of city government took place. “The free male inhabitants of said town above the age of twenty-one years” were allowed to vote in Williamsburg’s first election.  A board of trustees( a forerunner of today’s city council) was elected and W. H. Parker was elected to serve as the first “Chairman” of Williamsburg. These trustees voted in twenty-one ordinances into law mostly dealing with the regulation of livestock and the prohibition of “bawdy houses” and gambling in the town taverns.


The first recorded meeting of the city government was held at the courthouse on June 4, 1894.  W. H. Watkins was mayor with a salary of $75 per year.  Charles Martin was city clerk with a salary of $60 per year and the treasurer was paid $40 per year.  Watkins served until 1898, and was succeeded by J. M. Blakely, served from 1898 to 1902.


From 1894 to 1908, 122 ordinances were adopted by the city.  A board of health was created in 1895.  In 1898, the city authorized a 20 year electric light franchise and also authorized a telephone franchise.  In 1907, Dr. Gatliff was given permission to build a sewer line and allowed Henry King to install a water line down Third Street to the corner of Third and Main. Ordinance #119 regulated the construction of buildings and provided for the construction of sidewalks on Main Street from Cumberland River to Depot Street and South Fifth Street. The walks were to be made of flagstone quarried from mountains opposite the new bridge over the Cumberland River and from brick made at Cooley Brick Plant.


It was also during this time that the newly established Congregational Church began to become the object of opposition and dissent. Formed in 1878, the church was of a predominantly northern and liberal nature and their stands on black rights and the scriptures did not settle well in the town.  On October 30, 1885, the Mount Zion Association on Baptist was formed and they referred to the teaching of the Congregationalists as “foreign” and urged the community to form Baptist schools to compete with the established Congregationalist schools in Whitley County and Williamsburg.


Williamsburg InsitituteOut of this desire for Baptist education, Williamsburg Institute was formed by a group of Williamsburg’s elite families. The names of Gatliff, Siler, Mahan, and Ellison were penned to a petition to the Kentucky Baptist convention for assistance in building a college for students of the Cumberland Mountains.  This activism led to the creation of Williamsburg Institute-later, Cumberland College.


With the business district, schools and churches established the small, infant city of Williamsburg began to develop a growing reputation as a “boom town.”  A series of hotels-many of which were lavish-began to tower above the unpaved dirt streets.

During this period of time, the main part of Williamsburg was near the depot which was located on Fifth Street, near where the First Baptist Church now stands.  In 1905, the Depot was moved to its present location on Main Street.  This helped bring business downtown.  The Mahans and the Curds had already built buildings there. Sidewalks were laid from the bridge up to the Depot and on Fifth Street.  The flagstones used were quarried from the mountain which is across from the present bridges in the city.  Brick was also used from the Cooley Brick Plant.


The first annexation of territory to extend Williamsburg occurred March 10, 1896.  Ordinance #111 accepts a street given to the city and Williamsburg Institute by Dr. Gatliff.  This street would give access to the brick cottages built for students attending Williamsburg Institute.  These cottages were known as “Brick Row” located on Circle Avenue and are still standing. 


Whitley County Courthouse

Overlooking Williamsburg


1908-1928:  “The Golden Period”

J. B. White was elected mayor, effective January 1, 1908, and served until January 1, 1914.    Mayor White’s administration was a successful one.  With the financial help of Dr. Ancil Gatliff the town was extended.  Sidewalks on Main Street were built of flagstone and also on Fifth Street, on Elm Street to the Graded School Building, and out to Slab Town.  Main Street was graveled and the lighting was improved. 


On January 5, 1914, a permit was given to Dr. Gatliff to run water lines, through the streets and alleys of the city providing he would agree to extend the water mains to any part of the city where revenues would justify,with all these improvements there was a price for the property owners to pay.  The city council ordered County Judge J. C. Lovitt to build a sidewalk on his adjoining property.  Then on March 11, 1912, the council was ordered by the judge to move their meeting place from the courthouse.  As a result, the council had to find a new meeting place and they chose the Nelson Building which served the purpose until years later under the Herman White administration when the meetings were moved to the city hall.


Dr. C. G. Ellison( 1914-1918) was elected mayor to take office January 1, 1914.  This administration was hampered by a split council.   Mr. Weesner, Mr. Bradley and Mr. Mounce were refused a seat on the Council and were replaced by a vote of the remaining council members.  The three council members thrown out of office sued and regained their seats after about one years time.  The administration was hurt somewhat by this incident.


At a Council Meeting on September 10, 1917, Dr. Gatliff proposed to donate his water plant to the city, with some stipulations, the Council accepted his offer.  The sale of a gas franchise to the Raymond Hudley Corporation and a telephone franchise to Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company were made at this time. Main Street from the river bridge to the depot was rocked and screened which removed the mud and dirt.


Town Bridge

Winter in Williamsburg

Highway 25W

to Williamsburg


J. B. White’s (1918-1922)  was elected mayor for his third term.  The population of Williamsburg was given as 2,004 in 1919.  At a Council Meeting on January 21, 1918, another gas franchise was awarded and the first Ford Fire truck was purchased.  Main Street from the Cumberland River bridge to the depot was paved with asphalt, the curbs with concrete.  With the improvements of South Tenth Street, Main Street was connected with Jellico Road.  Main Street was also connected with the Corbin Road at the Bridge.    When Mayor White died August 28, 1921, L. P. Lay finished his four months term.


Pete Weesner(1922-1926-1930) was elected mayor for a term.  The street improvements begun under Mayor White were continued.  The iron fence surrounding the courthouse was removed and the streets were widened, the curb was of concrete, and the streets paved with asphalt.  A modern water system was built and an electric power plant was built to replace the one which was destroyed by fire. On October 11, 1926, a contract was given to the Kentucky Utilities Company to furnish lights to the city.   Mayor Weesner was instrumental in getting the passage of a $50,000 bond issue to build the present Williamsburg Grade School.


The Whitley Republican of March 2, 1927, states:  “Mr. Weesner became our second mayor to die in office.  Due to his foresight, our splendid water system was constructed and many of our streets paved.  Mr. Weesner possessed all the strength of character and sincerity of purpose that emphasizes his life, a genuine, all-around man, unselfish, and always ready to help others.  There was nothing artificial about him; he was frank, open, and natural; therefore he was respected, admired and loved.” “From an unsightly village of ill-kept streets and few convenience he watched it grow into one of the most modern and beautiful cities of the state, and every step of the growth has been marked by a touch of his own hand.  He was truly a town and community builder.”


An economic geography map conducted in 1920 showed the small town to be the richest city in Kentucky with the seven ruling families living in the city limits to each have more than $1 million-many much more.

By the end of World War I, an air of intellectuality, culture and religion permeated the once-backward town and the boom of coal, lumber, three banks, grocery companies, a knitting mill and a street full of hotels led to a feeling of respectability in Williamsburg. Then came the “Great Depression.”




It may have been that no banks failed in Williamsburg as they did in Corbin and Jellico, it may have been the in proportionate number of wealthy landowners in Williamsburg, but for whatever the reason the depression did not destroy this city as it did others.


In 1934-1935 Federal Government Programs began to alleviate the unemployment. There were the CCC, the WPA, and the RFC, to mention a few.  A number of WPA projects were undertaken.  Included were sewer lines on Sycamore Street, and sidewalks.

WPA Projects

Addition to Williamsburg School


Whitley County Jail



In 1946 money was needed, and parking meters were installed on Main Street, scales for weighing coal came into existence, there was an increase in privilege license fees, and taxes and water bills were collected thoroughly.  After acquiring the State Highway Office Building and Garage from the State Highway Department, the city offices were moved from the Nelson Bldg. to the new building and all unoccupied space was rented in order to get the revenue for the city.  At this time a new city fire hall was built and fire truck and garbage disposal truck were purchased.  




Williamsburg was growing and the boundaries were extended.  On July 7, 1947, an ordinance approved the first general map of the city, and on August 4, 1947, the first traffic lights were installed at the intersections of Main and Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets.   The Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce was organized April 7, 1947. 





 When Mayor White started his third term in 1949, the city had begun a program of economic rehabilitation.  In 1952, he purchased a tract of land owned by Judge Tye for the construction of a city park and swimming pool. White was later defeated in a bitter political battle with 1954’s mayor, Virgil Bailey who, along with his slate of Council members, defeated White and the entire sitting council.

Through the stewardship of Mayors Bailey, Johnny Reynolds, and Greer Burnett, the city continued to refurbish itself at a slow but steady pace.  The federal government had stepped in to provide money for urban renewal and much-needed repairs and expansion to basic services such as sewer, water and paving projects were accomplished with the help of governmental agencies.


Begun with Burnett’s term in office, it was not until the executive direction of Mayor Foster Lane that the Urban Renewal plan was finalized and implemented.  Through the program, the Roper Company came to town, sewer and water lines were extended to outlying areas, a new county jail was built, a new water plant was a reality, and by the time of the Paul Estes administration, Jackson Mall and the Downtown Plazas were constructed.


It was the business people, the banks, the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the city administrators who gave Williamsburg its renaissance during this period, but then it has always been the people of Williamsburg who pulled this scruffy little backwoods watering hole of a century ago up to become a town with a past and a city with a future.







During Mayor Lane's administration a new location for the Whitley County Jail was arranged with the Urban Renewal Commission and HUD.




In 1976 Williamsburg celebrates the Bicentennial celebration and defeats an attempt to sell alcoholic beverages in the city.


1977:  The coldest New Year’s in recorded history struck in Williamsburg with 17-degree temperatures.  The city announced a deficit of $300,000.  To conserve energy during the national energy crisis stores cut back their store hours.  Mayor Foster Lane resigned and Paul Estes becomes acting mayor.


1978:  Cumberland College won the NAIA District 32 championship.  The old Whitley County Jail was torn down.  The Williamsburg Nursing Home was opened and Heck’s came to town.


1979:  State money is received for the construction of a new Williamsburg City School.  Six fires in three days destroy along with homes, Food Town and the college Psychology Building. Two suspects are charged in a bank robbery at the Riverside branch of the Bank of Williamsburg.


1980:  A tornado sweeps through town killing two.  Keller Industries closes down, Williamsburg’s tax rate is lowered by four percent.  Considered the best football team in Williamsburg’s history, the Jackets finished 8-3 losing to Cumberland in the finals.  City officials, with scissors in hand, cut the ribbon the new Williamsburg Water Plant located on Croley Bend Road.


1981:  Thousands of acres of Williamsburg and Whitley County burnt due to wild fires.  Dr. James H. Taylor was inaugurated as President of Cumberland College.  Williamsburg beat Cumberland to win their first district championship in 17 years.  Copies of the Ten Commandments were placed in all schools in the Williamsburg and Whitley County school systems.


1982:  A burglary ring which had terrorized the city businesses was broken.  A new $1.7 million dollar bridge was proposed for Williamsburg.  Williamsburg football kicker Beth Bates become a local media star.  The Bank of Williamsburg built a new building.


1983:  Family Medical Center opens in Williamsburg.  The last remaining member of the family of Founder Ancil Gatliff, Una Gatliff Mahan, dies at 91.  Classes begin in the new $4.2 million dollar City School.  Dynamite explodes and destroys the Williamsburg Meat Processing Plant. 



1984:  The Williamsburg High School Cheerleaders take second-place in the nation.  A weekend of tornadoes and floods evacuates 45 families.  One of the oldest and the most historic homes in Williamsburg, the Gatliff Estate goes on the auction block.



1985:  Mayor Paul Estes resigns, Barbara Neubert is acting mayor. The historic Gentry Hotel is torn down.



Roper announces that it will close down.  Donnie Witt is elected Mayor of Williamsburg.


Since 1985 Williamsburg has had four different mayors.  Each having contributed to the improvement of Williamsburg.  During this period of time many things have been accomplished such as:  Ground is broken for the new Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport.  The opening of the Kentucky Splash Waterpark in the Hal Rogers Family Entertainment Center.  Williamsburg Mayor Bill Nighbert is selected as President of the Kentucky League of Cities.  The announcement of the new $19 million dollar Judicial Center to be built in Williamsburg and the new plans for the $1.5 million dollar City Hall Building has been revealed.


Proposal for the New City Hall



Information for this has been complied from:  “Whitley County, Kentucky History & Families” and The Whitley Republican News Journal.