Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tribute to Wheeling West Virginia

They closed the tunnels to East-bound traffic last week. All traffic from Ohio into Wheeling now must take the 470 detour around the mountain. The west bound tunnel is still open, so my travels to and from Second Cup Cafe have remained uninterrupted.

But the closing of the tunnels has led me to think about the geography of Wheeling West Virginia. The city starts at the foot of the Ohio River. Between the banks of the river, and the short blue ridged mountains rising above, huddles the small city of Wheeling, West Virginia. It has all the trappings of a once wealthy area. It's not rare to see a four storey stone house at the shore of the river with beautiful stained glass windows. But most of these once glorious mansions are sagging now, or have been cut up into four to six apartments. You step into the homes and plaster is drooping from the ceiling and abrasive non-slip paper has been nailed or stapled into the once grand staircase.

Independence Hall, The old Capitol Building in the Old Capital of West Virginia.

The old Independence Hall is now a museum, and the old post office is now a community college. There is a park by the highway that was built by the local Shriners chapter. Now, the slides are covered in grafitti, and the house next door is burned and charred from an old fire. The windows are boarded up, but the roofless structure is as open as the playground.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge

The whole town is cuddled against the river like a dog by the fire. Over that river stretches the old stone bridge. If you walk across that bridge, you'll find yourself on Wheeling Island where the houses are just as beautiful and just as sadly aging. There is an old brick town hall on the island, and on the north-west corner are painted black lines. It looks as if a giant grew up on the island, and his parents marked his height each year by sketching a small black line on the town hall. Those lines are almost all far above my head, and each line has a date next to it. They mark the floodwaters of past years.

Flood on Wheeling Island - 1923

Infantry at Camp Carlisle on Wheeling Island during the Civil War.


Most of Wheeling sits between the river and the mountains, but on the other side of the mountain are hundreds of homes and mom and pop shops. You can buy just about anything at the Consignment shop on National road, but half of the stuff they just leave out on the lawn, rain or shine. There is a garage across the street with chairs piled on top of each other inside. The windows are dark, and the inside hasn't been disturbed in years. The windows have spray painted words dripping down them and the building reads: "Retired. Thank you for your bisness!"

There are signs of life in Wheeling. The children dashing across the street at three o'clock when school lets out. The handful of teenagers sitting outside Second Cup Cafe smoking and drinking. The people walking down around Colemans Fish Market on a nice day looking into the Antique shops piled to the ceilings with old bits of junk and treasure.

Center Market - Coleman's Fish is still here, and the market hasn't changed at all. People still come down to shop and eat at Coleman's.

There are cars climbing the backs of the mountains, or zooming through the tunnels. It's a nice city. It's becoming home to me, and I'm growing to like it here. It's an old city, and like an aged boxer, you can tell that it was once proud and strong. But now, it's mostly a lingering city. There are plenty of people who believe in this town, and they are here hammering and prying at the old homes, replacing hundred year old leather waiscoating with paint and installing central heating in the sandstone basements. But the rebuilders are few, and as we drive through the streets of Wheeling every Saturday knocking on doors and dropping off meals, I can't help but think of the place this once was and wonder if it ever will be again.

Maybe when they finish the tunnels, the traffic will come back and maybe more cars will stop. Maybe visitors will go to the Lebanon Bakery to buy some authentic Baklawa. Maybe they'll go to Laters for a crepe, or DeFazio's for stone baked Pizza's in the hundred year old stone oven.

Then again, maybe they'll drive right past and see the McDonalds sign standing above the buildings of Elm Grove. They'll pull off the exit and pass by the drive through and get back onto 70. And those that do, will probably never know that they just drove past the Osiris Mansion where the Shiners are now, and where George Washington once had a ball.

Osiris Temple

I don't blame them. In fact, there is a part of me that's glad. When I go to Uncle Pete's, there is a part of me that feels glad that the average passerby doesn't know how good their reubens are. I feel like I'm part of a small club. A small little club of people who know the treasures in Wheeling. I feel like I've found something precious, and part of me wants to keep it secret. Part of me wants to pick up a hammer to fix the porch on the house across the street, but another part of me wants to keep this small aging town just the way she is.

4 comments:

Tim 2 said...

Pretty cool, I love history and old buildings!

This new design is great!

Mom Elek said...

Very interesting the way you have a keen appreciation for the Wheeling of THEN and of NOW.

goldie222 said...

Thank you for your kind words about Wheeling... I lived my childhood up till age 21 in Wheeling.. I loved this town, my town... There were approximately 55,000 people living in Wheeling when I left to experience Los Angeles in 1964...

It was a fun town and easy to get around... Plenty of wealthy people still lived there... My family was not one of them... However, we enjoyed our lives there, very middle class, living on Park View... Every day we would walk to Wheeling Park to swim or explore the Park... It was a good life for us growing up where we did...

So-- thanks again for being kind to our struggling old town... Always a love!


Unknown said...

Just a few corrections on WV Independence Hall. It was the old "Custom House" built in 1859. It was home to the Post Office, office of Francis Pierpont and a federal court room on the 3rd floor. It is known today as WV Independence Hall, has been restored to 1859 appearance and is open daily as "The Birthplace of WV and Civil War museum. The Custom House was the capital of the "Restored Government of Virginia", but never the capital of West Virginia. That building is located on Chapline Street.
The old B&O railroad, directly across the street, is now WV Northern Community College. The post office was never located there.
Not sure what this is referring to....There is a park by the highway that was built by the local Shriners chapter. Now, the slides are covered in graffiti, and the house next door is burned and charred from an old fire. The windows are boarded up, but the roofless structure is as open as the playground.

Thanks