WHEELING - It's common knowledge among many residents that Wheeling was once a significantly larger city and economic hub before modernization and foreign outsourcing choked local industry.
From before the Civil War through the second half of the 20th century, Wheeling saw much industrial development. But when local workplaces could no longer compete, many buildings decayed beyond adaptive reuse.
Recognizing it as a vital part of Wheeling history, many city leaders took initiative to ensure industry will not be lost in the past. Along the way, they created a number of impressive attractions that can rekindle memories for older generations and provide a learning experience for younger people.
Photo by Zach Macormac
The statue commemorating Wheeling native Walter Reuther, who is credited with making the United Automobile Workers union a major force, stands as an important monument to Wheeling’s industrial past.
"This historical preservation is critical for future generations because these buildings tell the story of Wheeling," said Mayor Andy McKenzie during his February State of the City address.
Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and leader of a future citizen-run preservation group set up by the mayor, said a number of groups are dedicated to keeping the spirit alive.
"We (WNHAC) have partnered with the city of Wheeling, Regional Economic Development Partnership, Wheeling (Convention and Visitors Bureau) and other groups on the redevelopment and restoration of Orrick, Stone Center and the historic Capitol Theatre. ... We also support partner organizations that promote and interpret Wheeling's history like Friends of Wheeling, Victorian Old Town Association, South Wheeling Preservation Alliance, Ohio County Library's Wheeling Room and Lunch with Books Program," Morris said. "We provide support to statewide organizations like the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia and the West Virginia Association of Museums, by having members of staff serve on their boards. These organizations promote historic preservation and heritage statewide, representing Wheeling through those efforts."
He also cited the Facade Loan Program with which WNHAC and the city partnered to help property owners fix up historic structures.
Some of the most prominent displays of local industrial heritage, Morris said, include the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, "perhaps the greatest engineering feat of pre-Civil War America," and once a major commerce route; the B&O Railroad Passenger Station now used by West Virginia Northern Community College; the Schmulbach Building, West Virginia's first "skyscraper" and former home to Wheeling Steel; and the renovated Wheeling Stamping building, which the Orrick law firm occupies.
Other industries survived in some capacity. Mail Pouch tobacco company still stands today, and Swisher International operates in the former Mail Pouch plant in South Wheeling.
A company that has produced molds for Cambridge, Westmoreland and Imperial glass companies since 1939, Island Mould and Machine in Fulton still produces under that name.
The Wheeling Waterfront, which still shows remnants of the original wharf even after a renovation just more than 10 years ago, displays the ultimate example of adaptive reuse. Now named Wheeling Heritage Port, it serves as a peaceful park most of the year, but it comes alive in the summer.
The port acts as host to a number events such as the Wine and Jazz Festival, Wheeling Heritage Music BluesFest, Independence Day activities, Wheeling Feeling Chili Cook-Off, Ohio Valley Black Heritage Festival and Wheeling Vintage Hydroplane Regatta. Dozens of smaller activities such as Friday movie nights and Waterfront Wednesdays also attract crowds.
Some might say green parks and industry do not mix, but without the influence of industrial heritage, Wheeling's park system would not be the same.
Aside from the wide array of resorts features at Oglebay Park, such as the three golf courses, luxury lodging and colorful gardens, the Oglebay Mansion Museum's Weimer's General Store display and Oglebay Glass Museum often show various displays of pre-modern Wheeling.
Wheeling Park has been around since before 1900 and the gates that welcomed guests then are the same that welcome them today. While much has changed over the park's rich history, it still prides itself as the "people's park" as envisioned by its 1920s promoters, Chamber of Commerce President Otto Schenk and businessman-philanthropist W.E. Stone.
While not all could be saved over the decades, many local groups are ensuring the memory will not fade.
The "It's Wheeling Steel" display at the entrance of the Artisan Center and River City Restaurant; Made in Wheeling Exhibit on the second floor of the Artisan Center, spread throughout the gift shop; the Wheeling Steel displays at Later Alligator in Centre Market; Wheeling CVB's Transportation Exhibit; and the interpretive signage along the Wheeling Heritage Trail highlighting various Wheeling industries commemorate the type of vitality the Friendly City had.
Morris noted the praised and often luxurious homes preserved in the various city historic districts also tell a story of a prosperous Wheeling. Walter Reuther, a Wheeling-born labor movement leader of the United Automobile Workers, is noted with a statue at the waterfront for his widespread impact on labor relations across the country.
For a digital collection of photographs, artifacts and advice to preserve Wheeling memorabilia, visit WNHAC's website at www.wheelingheritage.org.