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Thomas Sweeney Reminisces

Thomas Sweeney

- from The Wheeling Intelligencer, Feb. 29, 1884:



Wheeling of Long Ago, Her Size, Population, Manufacturing Interests and the Bridge Fight as Told to an "Intelligencer" Reporter by Colonel Thomas Sweeney.

Last night a reporter of the INTELLIGENCER dropped in to see Col. Thomas Sweeney at his temporary home on North Main street. After some enquiries as to the state of his health, which by the way, is much improved, the reporter ventured to ask him to tell something of the early days of Wheeling, knowing that no man had done more for the development and growth of the city than he.

"I came to Wheeling in the spring of 1830," said Mr. Sweeney.

"Too late then to meet La Fayette?" asked the reporter.

"Yes, too late to see him here. But I met him in Pittsburgh. At that time I was first lieutenant of the Jackson Independent Blues; the Captain was sick and I had charge of the company. All officers with the rank of captain and up were introduced to him formally. I shall never forget him, he was a splendid looking man. But as I said, I came down here in '30. Some time before that James H. Forsythe, Col. Archie Woods, John List and several others had formed a joint stock company and started a general foundry. From some cause the affair was not successful, and Mr. Cuthbert and myself, bought the property. We remained in partnership for a year or so, when I bought him out and continued the business till it was taken up by my sons."


"How much of a town was there in those days?"

"I suppose a town of some five or six thousand people. All of it, or nearly all, was up on the hill. That is, above where Sheppard's saddlery now stands. Down below there were a few houses. In the square between Twelfth and Fourteenth streets was John McCourtney's tavern and wagon yard. The National pike had only been finished a few years, and John McLure, an uncle of Captain John McLure was superintendent of this end of the road. All the merchandize was hauled by wagons. It was no uncommon thing to see from twenty-five to thirty-five four horse wagons drive by, in one day. The merchandise was then distributed, some going up, some down the river, and in all directions."

"From what point did they haul the goods?"

"Well, when I first came here, I believe they were hauling them from the town of Hancock, down near Sir Johns Run. About this time or shortly afterwards the stone bridge was built over the creek, and all the ground below was mostly utilized as farming land. I remember Dr. Eoff used to live in a house where the Riverside mill now stands. He had a ferry which used to touch at the point of the Island and then run over to where West Wheeling now is. The other ferry, and rope one at that, used to be at the foot of Eleventh street. Some few boats would come up the river, but they were small. The store room on Eleventh street formerly occupied by Robt. Sweeney and the residences of Noah Zane were the only houses in that whole square."

"How was the Island?"

"It was owned by Noah and Daniel Zane. Noah Zane afterwards gave his interest to his son Ebenezer. Daniel Zane had his home a little below where Capt. John McLure's house now stands, and above Zane street I think there were only three houses, one of them part of the present Berger homestead. Near the latter was an Indian mound. The Island was not thought much of then as a living place. There was more ground on this side of the river than we could manage at that time.


"Where there any manufacturing interests then?"

"Comparatively none. There was a glass house out in East Wheeling built by a man named Wheat, but they had closed down. Where the B. & O. depot now stands was a small cotton factory, operated by William B. Tyson. William Lambden, who had formerly operated at Pittsburgh, had a paper mill, I believe, where the Riverside Furniture company's works now are. In about 1834 I was instrumental in getting Dr. John Schonberger, of Pittsburgh, a warm friend of mine, to buy property and build a rolling mill on the site of the present Top mill. From this time the manufacturing future of Wheeling was assured."

"What advantages did Wheeling possess to bring capital from Pittsburgh?"

Well, in those days, boats could come here when they couldn't go to Pittsburgh, and besides the natural advantages. But there was one thing that nearly ruined it all, and that was the property qualification and poll-tax of old Virginia; after that was fixed, though, things went along smoothly.


"When was the suspension bridge built?"

"I can't give you the exact year. President Jackson's opposition to internal improvements killed a scheme to bridge the river much earlier. But about 1850 the first bridge was built. Mr. Robeling, father of the engineer who built the Brooklyn bridge, and Mr. Ellott both presented plans and made bids. There was a hot fight over the two proposals. One little incident will show the feeling. Henry Moore and William Paxton were at the meeting, championing their favorites. Mr. Moore flatly contradicted Mr. Paxton, and the latter without any words drew a sword from his cane and made a lunge, which fortunately missed its mark. Of course order was peremptorily demanded and Mr. Paxton resigned his seat in Council. Mr. Ellott was the successful competitor, but Council unanimously voted $100 to Mr. Robeling to help defray his personal expenses. Mr. Robeling accepted the check with the remark that Mr. Ellott was a 'd__d humbug.'"

"This bridge blew down in about '51. A strong wind was blowing and the bridge oscillated up and down the river till one of the cables was thrown from its supports upon the brace between the columns, breaking the cable and letting the bridge down. Next a narrow bridge was built and later in the fifties the present structure was erected; and I believe that the steel cables put in it in 1872 were its salvation during the late flood."

"How was real estate valued?"

"Much lower than at present. I can't give exact figures, but a very trifling sum could have bought some valuable property today."

"Did you have any fire department?"

"Nothing but the bucket brigade and some reels with a little hose. But the improvement came in that as in other things with the growth of the city."


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