(Alexander Creel Tavern)

One of the First Buildings in St. Marys


Creel Street and Riverside Drive, St. Marys

(Photo by John Triplett, 2003.)

     The CAIN HOUSE, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (6/25/80), was built by Alexander H. Creel, the founder of St. Marys. It was one of the earliest buildings in St. Marys and no history of the town can be complete without mentioning it. Currently owned by Charles & Kitty Gorrell, the building is reportedly for sale.


"The historic Creel Building, viewed from Ohio River and junction of
Middle Island Creek, marks the site on which George Washington landed, October
26, 1770 and of the founding of St. Marys, W.Va. by Alexander Herbert Creel in 1849."

(Postcard provided by Jim Ruckman.)

     The origin of the CAIN HOUSE is described in the context of the history of St. Marys, as presented in Chapter V of A History of Pleasants County, West Virginia, by Robert L. Pemberton.


     In the Revolutionary War every colony was expected to remunerate its own soldiers, and Virginia adopted the plan of paying them off so far as possible with grants of land in her western territory, of which she claimed an almost unlimited area. These grants were called warrants, and were issued to the soldiers on request, so it happened that while Patrick Henry was governor of Virginia many warrants were given under his hand. A few of these tracts were actually settled upon by the grantees, but most of them were disposed of for small sums to speculators, and the land now occupied by St. Marys was transferred by the original grantee to another party without having been occupied by him.

     The first owner of the tract was a certain Henry Thomas, who transferred his title to a William McClerry, and he in turn to Stephen West, and afterwards by West's heirs to the father of Alexander H. Creel, the founder of St. Marys. The original warrant to West on file in the court house at Clarksburg, but has recently been copied into the records of Pleasants County. We here give an exact transcript of it:

     "Patrick Henry, Esquire, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
     To all to whom these Presents shall come, Greeting:
     "Know ye that by Virtue and in Consideration of part of a Preemption Treasury Warrant No. 1501, issued the 28th day of August, 1781, there is granted by the said Commonwealth unto Stephen West, Assignee of William McClerry, who was Assignee of Henry Thomas, a certain Tract or Parcel of Land containing 700 acres by Survey, bearing date the 13th Day of may, 1785, lying and being in the County of Harrison on the lower side of Middle Island Creek, and bounded as followeth, to wit:

     "Beginning at a Sugar Tree and Buckeye Tree on the Bank of a Gut made by the Ohio river and said Creek, and running thence down said Gut with the Meander thereof 374 poles to a Sugar Tree and Buckeye Tree on Bank of said River, thence S. 65 degrees E. 312 poles to a White Oak, N. 21 1/2 degrees E. 373 Poles to a White Oak, N. 61 1/2 degrees 212 poles to a Poplar, N. 76 degrees, W. 80 Poles to the Beginning, with its Appurtenances.

     "TO HAVE AND TO HOLD the said Tract or Parcel of Land, with its Appurtenances, to the said Stephen West and his Heirs forever.
     "In Witness Whereof, the said Patrick Henry, Esquire, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, hath hereunto set his Hand, and caused the Lesser Seal of the said Commonwealth to be affixed, at Richmond, on the 2nd Day of October, in the Year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-six, of the Commonwealth the Eleventh.
     (SEAL) "P. Henry".

     This tract embraced all the land from the mouth of the creek to the alley south of Creel street, extending back to about the low gap where A. J. Underwood resides, and from there to the LaRue farm and back to the starting point, including what later became the farms of Samuel Barkwill, Silas Gallaher, Solomon Bills, Charles Bills and Joseph Hubbs, in addition to the original territory of St. Marys.

     On the 26th of May, 1849, Thomas Browse says he rode to Creel's and laid off the lower half of St. Marys. A few days later, June 8, he rode down to Edmund Riggs's Jr., for the purpose of laying off lots for a town. "Old Mr. Riggs and his brother Edmund, and Abner Martin was there sick. Edmund Riggs was undecided, so all labor was lost."

     It will be recalled that Alexander H. Creel came from Eastern Virginia in 1834 and was said to have bought the land known later as Pickens Bottom. The following curious legend has prevailed concerning this, but so far as we have been able to learn it has no authenticity; however, it is as interesting and perhaps as authentic as many of the stories related of cities greater than St. Marys.

     It is said that Mr. Creel, who was engaged in business along the Ohio, was traveling by steamer to Wheeling. In his sleep one night a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to him and directed him to look upon the Virginia side of the river.

     "There," said she, "you will behold the site of what some day will be a happy and prosperous city."

     Awaking, he opened the outer door of his state-room. Illuminated by a brilliant moon he saw clearly the lower end of Middle Island and beyond it a spacious cove surrounded by a rampart of densely wooded hills. Marking the place well in his mind, he proceeded on his journey.

     The memory of his vision never left him. He returned and bought the land. For some reason unknown, he was temporarily diverted from the purpose of founding a city there, for he sold the tract to Hugh L. Pickens, and located a mile below at the mouth of Greens Run; but in 1849 he came back, repurchased that portion of the land on which St. Marys was first marked out, and devoted his energies to the fulfillment of his dream, naming the place in honor of the Mother of Our Lord.

     The legend is faulty in the fact that the land was not originally bought by Alexander H. Creel, but by his father.

     Is the absence of any definite light on the question, it is reasonable to suppose that the certainty of forming a new county brought Mr. Creel back to this location. There would have to be a county seat, with a court house and a suitable area for a town, and all that was out of the question at Vaucluse, albeit the latter place afforded a better landing for steamboats. But the possibility of the railroad was also to be considered, and there was a strong probability of the Baltimore and Ohio coming down Middle Island creek and crossing the river on a bridge, so as to shorten the distance to Marietta and connect there with the proposed railroad to Cincinnati.

     So in 1849 he employed Thomas Browse to mark out the town. There were then only three or four houses in the neighborhood. One was owned and occupied by Edmund Riggs, Jr., just below the town; another was on the brow of the upper terrace, Second street, on the site now occupied by the offices of Dinsmoor & Company; a log house near the present court house and another log house near Third and Lafayette streets. It is very likely that McKinney had a store near the landing.

     The town was laid out regularly in the shape of a parallelogram, the southwestern boundary being an alley, then Creel street, Lafayette, George, Washington and Clay streets, the last forming the northeastern limit. Beginning then with First street along the river, next is Alley A, then Second street, then Alley B and lastly Third street. The town lots were of generous size, 80 by 160 feet; the streets 60 feet wide and the alleys 20 feet. George street was extended up the upper terrace to an acre donated by Mr. Creel on which the court house should stand.

     Such was the general plan, but for many years it remained only partially carried out, the reason being that it overlapped property which did not belong to Mr. Creel. The Gallaher farm extended diagonally across Clay street from Second to the river bank. and two other small parcels of land embraced the proposed lots from Second street along Washington to the river, and it was not until many years later that these streets were fully opened. That is to say, for a long time First street extended only from Creel to Washington, and Second street above Washington was narrowed to but little more than the width of the county road into which it merged.

     The first county road came down the banks of the Thoroughfare from the ferry over Middle Island creek, traces of it being noticeable fifty years ago, lined on one side with fragments of a post-and rail fence. The road has been washed away or overgrown with trees and the remains of the fence carried off by high water. This road continued along the river bank through the narrows below town to Vaucluse, but every vestige of it has disappeared.

     The activities of the village for many years centered on Creel street, at the western end of which was the steamboat landing. The first building erected, according to old inhabitants who have been consulted, was the large frame house on the corner of First and Creel streets now owned by H. A. Carpenter. It was built by Logan Brothers and occupied by them as a mercantile store. This was about 1850, possibly 1849. At the same time was commenced the large brick building on the opposite side of Creel street, occupied by A. H. Creel as a store and hotel - or tavern, as inns were then designated, now for many years known as the Cain House.

     Other houses built about that time were the Exchange Hotel, on the north side of Creel street; the Commercial Hotel across the alley from it and nearly adjoining the Logan store; the Isaac Reynolds home on the corner of Second and Lafayette streets, and the first M. E. Church South, on the site of the present structure. All of these, except the church, are still standing. Other buildings now existing, nearly competing in antiquity with those mentioned are the Aaron Doutt house and the houses occupied by J. C. Noland, William Hughes, J. M. Imlay, Mrs. R. A. Gallaher, W. L. Neely and the George Kelsall store and residence.

     Alexander Creel was a believer in roads. He had caused the road to be constructed from Vaucluse to intersect the old State Road and the Northwestern Pike, and now he saw the necessity of having a good road to the East from St. Marys. There was an old road, the remains of which may yet be traced, from the Ellenboro Pike at the top of the hill through the Gallaher estate, but it was very rough and had almost insurmountable grades. It climbed the hill from the Pike near the residence of Andrew Boley, followed the ridge through the Barkwill farm to the house built several years ago by Thornton Hooper, then northward, passing the spring on the Gallaher hill, along the ridge and slanting down through the strip of woods to the present farm road on the Gallaher land, following that down Gallaher Lane until it intersected what is now Second street at the Sycamore street corner.

     The new road effected by Mr. Creel is the one now used, coming down the north side of Barkwill's hollow. Recent road engineers have pronounced it a work of great skill, providing an easy and steady grade for the distance of a mile and one-eighth. It was no uncommon thing, said one who came here about 1851, to see from thirty to forty teams coming into town over the Ellenboro Pike, bringing merchandise of all kinds from Clarksburg and points farther east. Great wagons, drawn by four or six horses, came dashing down the hill at breakneck speed, making the sharp turn on the face of the hill without drawing rein.

     And one can easily picture to himself the scene on Creel street, where were located the stores and warehouses, the postoffice, the taverns and the boat landing. What a bustle each wagon must have occasioned, with the unloading and sorting out of the freight, some consigned to the local merchants but most of it to be laden on a steamboat for transportation down the river. The teams had to be taken care of, the thirsty and hungry drivers had to be refreshed, and the inns or taverns were probably noisy until late at night with drinking and singing, for from all accounts those husky teamsters had a way of their own and maintained it.

     It is to be remembered that in those days strong liquor was freely used, and was sold by the drink or the quart in the regular stores just as any other commodity.

     The establishment of the county of Pleasants and making St. Marys the county seat had the effect of practically depopulating Vaucluse, all persons of that community engaged in business removing immediately to the new town. The buildings, flimsy structures at the best, were left to decay, and most of them were swept off by floods, so that in a few years all the houses along the river had disappeared and there were left only three or four little habitations situated in the gorge of the run well above high water. Nothing remained but the high-sounding name, which still serves on the railroad time cards as marking a stopping station for passengers to and from Newport, directly across the river.

     The first mercantile firms of which we have any record in St. Marys were McClure & Watson, Logan Brothers and Hopkins & Oils. A tailor shop was kept by a Mr. Core, a resident physician was Dr. Bottom, and Isaac Roby operated the Ferry over the creek near its mouth, selling annual passes at four dollars a year. As early as 1853 there was a tannery, operated by a Mr. Myers, but owned by Logan Brothers. Mr. Myers was succeeded by Richard Towzey, who bought the business in 1860 and kept it going until 1866, when it was purchased by the King Brothers, who later removed to Washington, D.C.

     Mr. Towzey was perhaps the most erudite man in the county. He was born in England in 1806 and came to America in 1833, preaching the Gospel for twenty-five years as minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1855 he came to St. Marys, where he remained until his death on August 21, 1889, in the 84th year of his age. For a few years he labored in the tannery and then taught school, while serving at times as mayor or recorder of the town. He was a man of very pleasing manner, and delighted in conversation of either a literary or a theological turn.

     In 1855 Mr. Myers is mentioned as postmaster of the town, while James Bailey had become postmaster at Grape Island.

     For some years the chief business of the town was handling the freight brought in by teamsters from the east, but this was seriously threatened by the completion of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad to Wheeling in the latter part of December, 1852. To forestall the intention of building a branch line of this road to St. Marys or Parkersburg, a movement was set on foot in Marietta to construct a line on the other side of the river. Capital was subscribed, the right of way secured and work was actively commenced in the year 1853. A large part of the proposed road was graded and stone bridges and culverts built, when the plan collapsed. At this day the traveler may see the great fills and cuts and the stone work of that abandoned project.

     Disregarding this enterprise, the Baltimore & Ohio company began surveying for their branch line, and completed it to Parkersburg on May 1, 1857. This put an end to the ambition of St. Marys as a great shipping port. Creel's vision of a large and prosperous city faded, and for years the county seat remained only a dirty and squalid village of less than two hundred people, with no special industry until sometime after the close of the Civil War, when suddenly it became of some importance in the manufacture of oil barrels.

     In the first twenty years of its existence the town had only grown up to George street along Second and to Washington street along First. Every business house was on Creel street, and the few dwellings above that street were very noticeably scattered, each standing on its large lot of eighty foot frontage. The farm house of Samuel Barkwill, on the corner now occupied by the First National Bank, was the only building within the town limits above Washington street, and back of it an apple orchard extended to the bank of the Thoroughfare. The square on which the Odd Fellows Hall stands was all vacant and was used as a ball ground.

     In 1872 the town was incorporated by an act of the Legislature, but the privileges not being satisfactory, on petition of the mayor, Richard Towzey, and others, the charter was repealed in 1876. Four years later, in 188O, it was again incorporated, this time by the Circuit Court. Robert Patterson was elected mayor and Daniel W. Reynolds recorder.


Bed, circa 1850, from the Cain House.
Owned by Donna Drinko.

     Donna Drinko, the daughter of Emery James and Edna Estelle (Morris) Drinko, owns a bed that was purchased by her parents in 1920-1921 from the owners of the Cain House. According to family legend, former slaves slept in the bed in the slave quarters, a building southwest of the Creel House. However, it is more likely that servants, not slaves, resided in the former slave quarters when the building served as a tavern, run by Zachariah Cain.

"A little info on the Slave Bed from Cain House. The bed is 4'4" wide, 6'9" long, measuring from outside of frame.

Sleep area (within the frame) 4'2" wide, 6'2" long, (top of rail to floor) 21 inches, and (top of mattress to floor) 26 inches. This includes a 1 inch Foam Rubber Mattress and a Feather Bed Mattress.

The side rails are connected to the head and foot frames with spikes. They are similar to railroad spikes. They are square, approximately 5" long, 3/4" thick, very similar to the letter T.

The round connecting opening in the head and foot frames are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, with horizontal nails or spikes in the middle, to lock the rails in place.

I had the bed repaired about 3 years ago, but, after sleeping in it a few times, one of the rails slips out of place. I think the head of the spike is worn down so much, it cannot stay locked in place, or the repairman may have put it too far inside the rail, as it is about 1/8 inch shorter than the others."

     Donna Drinko's mother, Edna, was born in St. Marys in September 1899, the daughter of James J. Morris, a veterinarian, and his wife, Laura Alabama Keller. They lived 3 blocks from the Cain House, on 3rd Street, Route 2, the main highway running north and south.

     "My father was from Jeannette, Pennsylvania and had moved to St. Marys to work in the Glass Factory. He and my mother married and had five children, three boys and two girls, of which I am the youngest and now the only one left. Of course, I do have nine nephews and nieces, one son and I'm not sure how many great nephews and nieces. I've lost count of them, I am sure there at least 20 and some of them still live in St. Marys."