By Lee Chottiner
Francis Harrison Pierpont, the Father of West Virginia and the architect of statehood, arrived in Wheeling Friday in the bed of a white pickup truck.
But he won’t stay there. By Saturday, Pierpont will stand on a pedestal outside West Virginia Independence Hall, the place where he presided over the Wheeling Convention of 1862, which established the Restored Government of Virginia that led to the birth of West Virginia.
From that pedestal, he will remind future generations of West Virginians and the visitors to the city of the historic events that happened inside.
Pierpont is actually a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of the famed statesmen. It will be unveiled at noon at the corner of 15th and Market streets. The four-foot base for the statue has been in place for a week.
The unveiling falls on June 20, West Virginia Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the state’s creation. It’s also the day of the Wheeling Arts Fest.
The $135,000 statue was created with public funding and private donations, is the culmination of a two-year project, according to Jeremy Morris, director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area, who has been shepherding the effort.
“It’s been about two years since we commissioned it. We’re looking forward to having it in the ground. The base was set last week. I’m really looking forward to having this project set and be done.”
Gareth Curtiss, a sculptor from Montana, was the artist commissioned to cast the statue. He was selected from a field of 21 artists from across the nation, including four finalists who were each paid to create an 18-inch maquette (miniature sculpture). From those works, the final selection was made.
Curtiss’ previous work includes many historic- and biblical-themed statues and monuments from all eras of American history.
“He’s done pretty amazing work across the country,” Morris said of the winner.
While the legislature allocated $40,000 ($20,000 from each house) for the statue, the balance was raised through private donations raised over the past year.
Morris said many individuals were involved in raising the money, including Margaret Brennan, a local historian and retired Central Catholic High School teacher; Dr. Joseph Laker, professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University; Rebecca Karelis, historian at Wheeling National Heritage Area; Travis Henline, director of West Virginia Independence Hall; and Robert Villamagna, assistant professor of art and director of the Nutting Gallery at West Liberty University.
A staunch opponent of secession, Pierpont, a lawyer and politician, became the governor of the Restored Government of Virginia following his unanimous election by the Wheeling Convention. Under his leadership, the Wheeling government called for a popular vote on the question of a new and separate state, which took the name, West Virginia.
The statue to be unveiled Saturday is not the only monument to Pierpont. In 1910, West Virginia donated a marble statue of its founder to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol at Washington.
To Morris’ knowledge, no statue of Pierpont has ever before been erected in West Virginia.