'A Small Town That Doesn't Know It's a Small Town': Taking a Look Back at Wheeling's 250th

Jan 24, 2020

On a sunny day in early September, hundreds of Wheeling residents, state lawmakers, and the Pride of West Virginia, West Virginia University’s marching band, all came out to Main St. in Wheeling to celebrate an important milestone in the city’s history: 250 years.


James Fry headed up  Wheeling’s 250th commission, and he wanted to show Wheeling’s big city in a small package feel in the ensuing celebration. “We’re a small town that doesn’t know we’re a small town. Because in my lifetime there were upwards of over 60,000 people in this area. But we have many of the attributes from the 19th and 20th century that make us feel bigger than we are,” Fry said.

The parade wasn’t the only event that the city put together, there was also a costume ball at the beginning of the year, a fireworks display to celebrate 170 years since the construction of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, and other events meant to remember a storied past.

Wheeling’s 20th Man

One of those events was reliving a radio speech given by Harry H Jones in 1936, who was Wheeling’s only practicing African American lawyer at the time. The speech, which dealt with systemic racial inequalities faced by the black community at the time, was read by the Wheeling YWCA’s Cultural Diversity and Outreach Director Ron Scott. The speech was part of a program created for the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books Series and the Wheeling 250 Series. The presentation was then delivered throughout schools in the region. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, one out of every 20 persons living in wheeling is of african descent. This twentieth man is not a newcomer or an alien.  For his ancestors were settled by force in virginia one year before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. No biracial clash has ever taken place in this city’s history. Due largely to the liberal ideology of the whites and the splendid conduct of the colored people. But justice and candor require attention to the handicaps suffered by Wheeling’s 20th man,” Scott recited.

The Ohio County Public Library made the full speech publicly available.

A Storied History

Wheeling is half the size it was in its industrial heyday, but like many towns that sprung up during early white settlement, it had a modest beginning as mentioned by Wheeling Historian Travis Henline.

“Wheeling at the time it was founded was nothing but a frontier outpost. I mean you had just a few families who were settled here like the Zane’s and the McColloughs and a few others,” Henline said.

This first settlement happened in 1769 and was named Zanesburg after one of the founding families. A century later Wheeling would experience a boom during the industrial revolution because of its prime location on the Ohio River.

“So now you have the Ohio River, a major conduit for thousands of years for people, comes together with the National Road which brings people by wagon and by foot across the mountains to the Ohio River and then you have the the B&O Railroad which connects us to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. All of that makes us a gateway to the west and a transportation hub, I mean that’s a huge part of our history,” Henline said.

The B&O Railroad finished construction in 1853, ten years before West Virginia became a state, which the city of Wheeling had a hugely important role in.

“Well without Wheeling there would be no West Virginia. Because we are strategically located in the Northern Panhandle. When the conflict of the Civil War began we are here in the comfy confines of this strip of land between two very powerful Union states in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Henline added.

This location made Wheeling the prime location for the capital of the reformed government of Virginia after the state seceded from the Union in 1861. After two years, Wheeling would become the birthplace, and capital of the then new state of West Virginia, making it the only city to have been the capital of two different states.

While Wheeling didn’t remain the capital of the state, it was still an economic powerhouse, earning the nickname “Nail City” because of the amount of iron manufacturing in it.

But all things must come to an end, and Wheeling’s economic boom is no different.

Wheeling Today

“So Wheeling in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that’s when you see a lot of the industry is closing down and it’s moving out. You had the interstate coming through, you had the retail centers, the mall in the 70’s and the highlands later on that kind of kill the commercial things happening in downtown Wheeling. Some of the jobs leave, so the people leave,” Henline pointed out.

Many of the industries that became synonymous with Wheeling like Wheeling Steel or Marsh Wheeling Stogies, had either moved or completely closed their doors by the 2000’s. This lead to a pretty bleak reputation for the city.

But the current mayor of Wheeling Glenn Elliott points out, there are still some victories in recent years worth celebrating.

“One of the issues we have with downtown is that people judge it to what it was in 1950 when it was a retail hub. If you look at cities all across the rust belt, downtowns are no longer the retail hubs they once were,” Elliott said. “All that’s moved to malls and shopping plazas in the suburbs. But if you look at actual employment numbers, downtown Wheeling is booming in terms of the actual number of people working there every day, you just don’t see them because they’re at their desk or workstations.”

Wheeling 250th ‘Leave Behind’ Items

While the celebration mainly focused on one off events, there were a few items the Wheeling 250 commision wanted to leave behind. These “leave behind” items included a new flag for the city, a set of murals commemorating the river, the rails, and the road that made Wheeling a transportation hub, and a children’s book. The latter is one of James Fry’s personal favorite accomplishments on the 250 commision.

“Well I’m extremely proud of the children’s book that was just released in time for the holidays this year which is called Once There Was a Mouse. It was written by Cheryl Ryan Harshmen, and illustrated by Robert Vilamagna. It’s meant for little kids, who I think will enjoy it, and I don’t want to spoil anything. That I think is… as the Rotary Club who funded the publication of the book pointed out, this is celebratory, its charming, but it also plants a seed in small children who will be in their fifties when Wheeling celebrates its 300th anniversary and I think that’s pretty meaningful.”