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Wheeling: The Gateway to the West (1928, West Virginians)

- from West Virginians, published by The West Virginia Biographical Association, 1928.


WHEELING is at once the most typical and unique of West Virginia cities typical in the parenthood of every large social and economic movement in the history of the State, and unique in the fact of her situation. The most northern city in a southern State, the radius of her influence penetrates eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania and many of her important contacts are with northern and eastern interests. 

Founded by courageous and industrious men and women, the city has taken on the character of her progenitors. The sterling qualities of the founders are reflected in the achievements of their successors. The history of Wheeling is replete with instance of the forthright and courageous espousal of the cause of justice and humanity, the unhesitating acceptance of the challenge to take up the gage of battle against the common foe, whether it were hostile Nature, inflamed savage, insane monarch, or rebel fanatic. The industry and initiative of the founders has infused the life stream of her civic organism, making it vibrant with energizing purposes. Favored by the quality of her citizenry and the character of her environment, Wheeling has achieved a position of industrial and commercial leadership in the Upper Ohio Valley, "the Ruhr of America," which might cause the unacquainted to assume that cultural development has not kept pace with material progress. This, happily, is not true. The city has been only less widely known as a center of culture and learning, because of her reputation for industrial leadership. Like the Plymouth Puritans, the early settlers, almost immediately upon their arrival, established schools and churches on the banks of the Ohio, and excellent institutions of higher learning have been maintained in the community for over a century. 


In 1769, Ebenezer Zane and his two brothers came over the watershed that divides the tributaries of the Monongahela river from those of the Ohio, and followed Wheeling creek to its mouth. It was by no whim of fortune that the enchanting knoll above the plain that sloped gently to the margin of the winding creek at the south, and the bluffs overlooking "the Beautiful River", as it was called by the aborigines, at the west, was selected by the Zanes for the site upon which to erect what was to become the metropolis of a great State. One year after the advent of the founders, George Washington passed that way and recorded in his diary the observation that "the location north of the mouth of this creek is very desirable", and true to his conviction, in later years he acquired extensive holdings in the vicinity of what is now Wheeling. There was more than chance in the selection of this point as the western terminus o the National Road, in 1817, and of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, completed in 1853.

Located near the head of navigation on the Ohio river, the most important transportation artery of that day, with fertile valleys radiating in every direction, while under the majestic hills at her back were inexhaustible mineral wealth, and over their crests a glorious growth of virgin forest flourished, the infant city was predestined to future importance. One would travel far to find a spot so supremely favorable. Like ancient Rome and medieval Paris, Wheeling grew up where the caravans of commerce came to a halt at the river's bank, reorganized and found an easy crossing where an island in midstream served as a stepping stone. 

Settled by Virginians who came from the South Branch of the Potomac the frontier village grew by constant accretion from the populations of Pennsylvania, Maryland neighboring seaboard colonies. Pioneers of German and Irish extraction came, attracted by the natural advantages of the region and the liberty-loving, moral, and progressive spirit of the community. The first years were not easy. To the hardships of subduing the wilderness were added the horrors of savage warfare, made more horrible by the degenerate schemes of the British agents and the Tory renegades who equipped and directed their Indian allies against the outposts of the colonies. Wheeling was well represented in the armies of Washington and Gates, offering more than her quota in struggle for American liberty, as she has always done in every great crisis in its defense. But the log settlement about Fort Henry is especially celebrated for the valiant defense of the outpost in 1782 by the forty-two inhabitants, who repulsed a detachment of British soldiers and two hundred and fifty Indians in the last battle of the Revolution. It was during this siege that Betty Zane immortalized the fortitude of our pioneer women by her bold dash from the fort to a nearby cabin where she procured the gunpowder which made it possible for the defenders to withstand the siege. This she carried in her apron through a hail of hostile bullets to the little garrison that must have suffered extinction at the hands of the infuriated savages but for the success that rewarded her daring and agility.


Mystery enshrouds the etymology of the name the city now bears. Tradition relates that "Wheeling" is derived from "weeling", an Indian expression meaning "the place of the human head." The name is said to have been taken from the occurrence of a killing in the region, after which the head of the victim, presumably an Indian, was suspended on a pole, as a symbol of pioneer justice. It was perhaps propitious that the Indian designation for the locality was modified when adopted by the early settlers, being spelled "wheeling, which connotes the wheels of industry that have contributed so mightily to Wheeling's "place in the sun."

The whites at first called the place "Zanesburg". Numerous and appropriate titular appellations have been applied to the city from time to time as it has won wider recognition for each new preeminence. "The Gateway to the West" marked the importance of the community as the most western outpost of civilization and culture in that period when the National Road was the greatest avenue of commerce between the eastern seaboard and the wilderness beyond the Ohio, prior to the railroads and the extension of the highway to Columbus, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. As much in recognition of the inherent humanitarian character of its citizenry, who have always been distinguished for their generosity, as from the circumstance of its location midway in the line that divided the North from the South, Wheeling was known in the dark years of '61 to '65 as "The City of Refuge." The heterogeneous character of its industry has inspired numerous epithets, as "The Nail City", "The Stogie City", et cetera. 

At the dawn of the nineteenth century Wheeling was "a thriving little river town" with a population of 500. In the century and a quarter since the first census, that village has grown to a population Of 74,944 (January 1, 1928). And this does not include the populations of the extra-corporate towns and villages on either side of Ohio which are contiguous with and a part of the industrial and social life of the city. To include these, as they properly should be included to get an accurate notion of Wheeling's just proportions, would be to recognize the actual population of the greater community as including a quarter of a million people. 

On either side of the Ohio river and with a radius of twenty miles the Wheeling district extends up and down the river and over the political boundaries into Ohio and Pennsylvania. In this territory, destined soon to become one great civic area, a expanse of interlacing streets and boulevards delineating the locus of myriad interests, industrial and cultural, Wheeling money and Wheeling intelligence are responsible for such phenomenal development. Auspicious of future greatness are the physiographic and meterological factors in the environment which Nature seems to have given a special favor on the converging valleys which captured the fancy of the early pioneers and determined the orientation of West Virginia's leading city, at the very heart of the system through which the life of the nation pulses. Sixty four miles southwest of the confluence of the Alleghany and Monongahela rivers, at the center of a region which includes three-fifths of the population of the United States, Wheeling is more favorably located than any other population center in the country with respect to natural resources, cheap transportation, and the propinquity of the greatest market in the world for the products of her industry. With vast quantities of water power, oil, coal, limestone, lumber, and natural gas at hand, to mention a few of the natural resources that abound in the Valley of the Upper Ohio, the community was destined from the beginning to be industrial. The gracefully meandering Ohio river, so important in the early years as an artery of transportation, has been greatly enhanced by the hand of the government engineer. Locks and dams have provided a navigable, year-round, nine-foot stage from above Pittsburgh to the Mississippi and the Gulf. River steamers, for a number of years apparently doomed to desuetude, are reappearing in increasing number on the Ohio and promise to provide a convenient and inexpensive medium for the transportation of bulky shipments where speed is not important. The gently sloping terrane, underlaid with limestone, affords good drainage, while the soil is rich in the abundance of its fertility. The variety of the season is such as to relieve the tedium of monotony which characterizes localities where protracted droughts follow periods of perpetual deluge. The elevation is 645 feet. 


Since Thomas Ewing, an itinerant cobbler and schoolmaster, first conducted a class in writing and "summing" for the consideration of food and lodging to be furnished at the regular rate for the number of "scholars" sent by each householder, and in rotation (boarding round), Wheeling has been zealous for the cultivation of the mind. Wheeling was one of the first southern cities to realize the paramount importance of providing for the mental development of her citizenry as essential to material progress. With the adoption of the Virginia free school law in 1846, the municipality was less than a year in providing a district system which has grown and flourished until today the democratic, liberty-loving and far-seeing spirit of the founders is embodied in a thorough, modern, and efficient educational system which affords the children, even of the humblest citizen, adequate general education without cost, and without the inconvenience of going out of the community - Wheeling's primary and secondary schools are equal in the quality of instruction, the scope of their physical equipment, and the variety and adaptability of curricula to any in the United States. Having twenty-four grade school buildings and four high school buildings in addition to excellent privately conducted schools of secondary rank, and an accredited commercial college, the educational system heads into the West Liberty State Normal School located on the edge of the city, and soon to be a full four-year, degree-granting college offering college training to the youth of the city at State expense. Linsly Institute provides both college preparatory work and excellent advanced trades-training to supplement the work of the public trade school established in 1926 and now widely recognized as a model of excellence. For many years, Sisters of the Visitation have conducted here the famous Mount de Chantel Academy, a select finishing school for young ladies, with students from all parts of the country. There are two Americanization schools conducted within the city, one by the Board of Education and the other by the parochial schools. Through these agencies the city is reaching out the hand of good-will, to a multitude of foreign-born adults infusing in them the culture, the ideals and the reverences which have been the corner stones in the foundation of municial progress. Fourteen thousand boys and girls are daily in the halls of learning, under the instruction of four hundred and sixty carefully selected men and women, who are moulding the city's most important resource into a legion of citizens with ethical appreciation, able to resist any disintegrating influences of hyper-industrialism and vouchsafe to the society of the future social stability. 


No community is better than its leadership. In this respect Wheeling has been highly fortunate.

With the traditions of their pioneer ancestors as a basis upon which to build character, through the influence of their institutions of culture, and that community of interest that has been so magnificient in molding their youth, Wheeling's citizenship has been remarkable among industrial cities. With the aggressive energy of a Northern city, the West Virginia metropolis has the gentle atmosphere of the South, an inherent stability and a genial refinement which suggests the society of Old Virginia from which so many of Wheeling's leading families were derived. It is significant that a considerable number of her industries have been developed by individuals of character who have passed their work on to their descendants, thus giving a permanence and inability to these firms. Thus have her commercial institutions often been monuments to the achievement of Wheeling's old families. Any question of the quality of goods produced or the honesty of the prices which afford the prospective buyer a marginal advantage, by nature of internal circumstances and transportation facilities that make them possible, may be answered by reference to the high character of the personnel that man the stores and manufactories.

Situated at the crossroads of transcontinental and Gulf-to-Canada, transportation, Wheeling industries have no difficulties over problems of distribution. Two great trunk lines, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and the Pennsylvania System, and the Wheeling and Lake Erie which connects with the New York Central System afford ideal rail facilities and direct connections with any destination. The freight handled by the Wheeling terminals over these roads last year approximated five million tons. 

The rails and rivers are augmented by numerous electric lines, which extend well into Ohio and up and down the river. The original National Highway passes through the city, and with the completion of a new State road will connect with the Lincoln Highway, which crosses the Panhandle at Chester. When the State Road which follows the Ohio River is completed, Wheeling will be the gateway to countless thousands of automobile tourists entering "the Switzerland of America" from the North. A dozzen motor bus lines operating approximately seventy-five busses utilize the major highways, carrying passengers to and from rural communities and making contact with all great municipalities of the East and West.

Almost from the time when Wheeling was passing from a frontier trading post and barrier against Indian invasion to an organized community, her industrial progress has been uninterrupted. Forty years after the founding of the city in 1789, a number of large manufacturing plants were in operation. The enormous production of handcut nails for which the city became justly famous began in 1818. In the score of years that followed glass factories, rolling mills, foundries, steam flour mills, cotton factories, and a silk factory were established. The next decade added paper mills, saw mills, tobacco factories, bake shops, printing shops, book bindaries, and a number of other ventures. The Wheeling Stogie, the recognized superior of all subsequent imitations, made its appearance in 1840. The Civil War gave a new impulse to Wheeling's industrial growth, especially in the manufacture of steel and iron. Since 1900 industrial and commercial development of the community has been almost uninterrupted, suffering less during depressions than most of her industrial rivals, thanks to her fortunate situation, diversification of activity, and the quality of her citizenship, largely native-born and progressively conservative both in the ranks of capital and labor. There are now more than two hundred and fifty diversified industries in the Wheeling community with an annual production greater than any other city of similar size in the country.

Some appreciation of the proportions of Wheeling's industrial greatness may be had from observing that there are employed in the industries of Wheeling proper, exclusive of coal mining and public utilities, approximately ten thousand workers. The estimated annual pay roll is 11,000,000, and the products of her mills and factories contribute annually have a value of $85,000,000. 


The greatest bituminous coal fields of America lie about the city supplying her factories with cheap fuel and affording employment to thousands of miners. Natural gas is plentiful and convenient for industrial and domestic purposes at $.50 per thousand cubic feet. Located on the edge of the Wheeling district is the largest steam generated electric power plant in the United States, with a capacity of 180,000 K. W. hours daily. There are also numerous other smaller electrical power plants. Wheeling's industries are highly diversified as well as very extensive.

The principal products are iron, steel, tin-plate, medicines, tobacco, china, glass, aluminum, calico, brass, enamel ware, machinery, wall-building, tile, structural iron, chemicals, meat-packing, stamped metal, clothing, furniture, flour, sheet-metal, mattresses, paints, leather and food.

Among the greater industries are the Wheeling Steel Corporation, one of the foremost steel and iron manufactories; the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, the largest manufacturers of bottles and jars in the world; the Sterling Products Company, which distribute more proprietary medicines than any other concern; the Wheeling Mold and Foundry, makers of heavy castings; the Fokker Airplane Factory; and the Bloch ("Mail Pouch") and Pollock (stogies) tobacco works. 

Seventeen banks adequately care for Wheeling's financial needs. At the beginning of 1928 their combined resources were $69,718,318.00; surpluses and undivided profits $6,698,513.00; and deposits $52,025,913.00. Clearings for 1927 were $225,273,022.00.

There were 16,329 telephones in Wheeling in the beginning of 1928, or one for every four and a half persons in the city. Wheeling has its own radio broadcasting station, "WWVA". A large number of wholesale and jobbing houses, together with half dozen department stores comparable in extent and service to those of the larger cities well as numerous retail shops to meet every buying demand, make Wheeling a commercial center of much importance.

The city library contains more than 50,000 well selected volumes. At the end of 1927 there were 14,032 dwellings housing 17,399 families. Last year 1,118 building permits were issued, the estimated cost of construction amounting to $2,397,891 - an increase of $586,654 over the preceding year. A scientific building code is strictly enforced.


The tax levy for Wheeling is lower than that of the other principal cities of the state. The state levy is fourteen cents; the county levy, fifty-five cents; school levy, ninety-three cents; and the city levy eighty-six and a half cents, making a total of $2.48 1/2 on each hundred dollars valuation. The assessed valuation for 1927 was $121,234,207.00.

Wheeling has twenty play-grounds which are directed by thirty-six trained instructors, and with the latest equipment. Wheeling also has several large public parks. Municipal Park contains 130 acres, including a public golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, dancing pavillon, lakes and extensive picnicking grounds. Oglebay Park, bequeathed to the city by the late Colonel E. W. Oglebay, consists of 750 finely cultivated acres and is rapidly becoming one of the finest public cultural and recreational centers in the country. Wheeling also has a permanent landscape commission devoted to the beautification of Wheeling and its approaches. A fund of $50,000, donated by Mr. W. E. Stone, is being so invested. 

With a city-manager form of municipal government, efficient and progressive; a police department of eighty carefully selected men under civil service; a fire department second to none in efficiency, and with an enviable recvord for the low fire losses and consequent economy of insurance rates in the city; a water system that is the last word in safe hydro-chemical engineering; a health department that has achieved astonishing results in disease prevention, child welfare and public hygiene; four flourishing newspapers; spacious hotels and theatres; large membership in all the lodges; churches of every denomination and many popular social service organizations for the solution of every civic problem and provision for every human need; two enormous hospitals and a completely equipped pathological clinic - Wheeling stands as a truly self-sufficient City, with a great future assured. 

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