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Walter Burke

Street car worker

-- from The Wheeling Intelligencer, Feb. 15, 1914, p. 4.

Walter Burke, Veteran Wheeling Traction Man

One of the most interesting characters in Greater Wheeling and upon whom the hand of time has rested only lightly and affectionately is Walter Burke, the real veteran among the street car employees in the city of Wheeling, and "The Original Horse Car Driver." Burke is not, perhaps so well known today as he once was -- people have forgotten him who knew him well in former days and as old friends passed away his circle of acquaintances has narrowed slightly with the passing years, but among the street railway employes he is looked upon with a feeling akin to awe and veneration.

Burke at the present time is 78 years of age. At an age when most men are willing to step aside for the oncoming generations, and be content with a warm seat by the fireside and a generous pipeful full of smoking tobacco, Burke still continues to rise with the sun each morning and with his bucket packet full to the brim do satisfy an appetite that would do credit to a man of half his age, this hardy son of old Erin, who came to this country almost half a century ago, sallies forth to his work as an employee of the Wheeling Traction company, in their West Wheeling barns.

But of Burke himself. This unusual example of physical vigor was born in Ireland in 1863 [1836] but delayed coming to this country until 1865, after he had already witnessed the passing of twenty-nine summers. Two years later, in 1867, is where the interesting part of his picturesque career first began -- this was when he went to work as a horse car driver in this city. The company for which Burke first worked was known as the Citizens Street Railway company and it was the founder of the street car service in Wheeling. The company itself had only been in existence four years when Burke appeared, it having been granted a charter by the Virginia General assembly on the 13th of January, 1863. Its franchise from the city council was secured in August, 1866.

The route followed by the Citizens company is much the same as that taken by the Wheeling traction through the city at this time. From its South Wheeling limit it passed through the southside on several different streets, leaving Chapline and passing onto Market at Twenty-second. From there the line continued up Market to Tenth, thence across the suspension bridge and the Island to Bridgeport. The entire length traversed was four miles. It was from this obscure beginning that Wheeling's present system of street railway service has evolved. All of the cars were propelled by original "horse power," or in other words, by means of a sturdy legged horse, driven by hand.

All this Burke remembers and more. He tells of how much the men of those days worked in long turns of twelve hours for which they received the munificent recompense of 12c per hour. He recalls all the early directors of the road, namely William Woodard, John H. Hobbs, Andrew Wilson, A. J. Pannell and Thos. Sweeney, all prominent citizens of their day.

One amusing incident of Burke's career is the time when he once put President Woodard, the head of the company off the car for refusing to pay his fare. Either as a test or else through some misunderstanding the president failed to make it clear to Burke who he was and at the same time declined to pay his fare. Without the least hesitation he was ejected by his employee onto the street. The next day Burke was promoted.

There is a perceptible twinkle in his Irish blue eyes as he tells of some of the pranks played on the carmen by the boys of those days, many of whom are well known citizens at this writing. Burke states that the Hazlett boys were his particular hooligans and with jovial laughter describes how they would jump on his car and start the horses and perpertrate all manner of tricks.

Burke, as stated, is still employed by the traction company, and a more contented willing worker would be hard to find. He has no complaint to find with his lot in life, but with his natural Irish wit and inimitable humor continues on his way with high spirits serving as an inspiration to all who come into contact with him.

During the course of his long years of service he has raised a large family of children all of whom are inherent of the good qualities of their father. At present he resides on Thirteenth street in this city, and judging from Burke's optimistic predictions no change from the rigorous life he now pursues is anticipated for many years to come,

[ newspaper article from the vertical files in the OCPL's Wheeling Room ]

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