Home > B. The Living Artifact, West Virginia > Wheeling, WV and the Dream of an American Fifth Coast

Wheeling, WV and the Dream of an American Fifth Coast

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge
(finished 1849)

Wheeling, West Virginia, may be the most authentic city RT has ever visited. Now RT will allow that he has visited the city only twice, but both times was impressed by its untouched quality–and the elegant and disheveled feel of the place. But here is the thing: though Wheeling‘s population (28,355) has dropped by more than half from its peak in 1930 (61,659), RT thinks that the city may hold the seeds of its own renaissance. And it couldn’t happen to a more American city.

The best place to start (as is so often the case) is with Wheeling’s glory days. And glorious they were. In the period between 1840 and 1930, the city boomed; a river port (downstream from Pittsburgh), the city had vigorous glass and pottery manufacturing industries. As if this were not enough, the city was also a railroad town with two excellent bridges across the Ohio River, one of which is historic (the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the first bridge to span the Ohio River).

And here is a list of some of Wheeling’s better known companies: Fostoria Glass, (formerly in nearby Moundsville, WV and now defunct); Hazel-Atlas Glass (now defunct); Fiesta Dinnerware (still in business, located to the north in Newell, WV); and the Wheeling Steel Company (merged into Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel, 1968).

With the success, of course, came the style to live a refined life. Wheeling’s historic districts and buildings are justly celebrated. The streets are lined with Greek Revival and Late Victorian buildings; Highland Park, built before WWII, served as a model for the American postwar subdivision; and the West Virginia Independence Hall is (from RT’s perspective), as fine an example of American architecture as you are likely to find anywhere.

Downtown Wheeling

WV Independence Hall

So what happened? What halved the city’s population and left Wheeling with a 15.95% poverty rate and an average family income of $39,600?

Economic cycles are difficult to untangle, and doubtless the set of circumstances that led to the decline of industry in the central part of the United States would take volumes to analyze. Be that as it may, RT thinks that one cause might be a lack of confidence and imagination. It can be awfully hard to break the downward spiral of negative thinking that attends a broad-scale decline of any sort. That is why remembering what has been achieved in the past can be so useful in starting a new upward trend (as Americans did during the Federal period by modeling the new republic along Roman lines).

C&O Canal, 1900-1924

That said, here is another, concrete factor to consider: the state of the U.S. canal system (and the Mississippi River). The state (and commercial use) of U.S. canals could be much improved. Why bother renovating antiquated canals? Because barge transportation, though slow, may well be the most economical, least polluting way of carrying heavy cargo. And there can be little doubt that barge transportation (along with railroads) constituted an essential component of the economic health of inland American cities during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two famous canals illustrate the point: the Chesapeake-Ohio Canal (terminus in Cumberland, MD) and the Erie Canal (which runs across upstate New York from Albany to Buffalo). Both canals were vital to opening up American agriculture and industry, but are now deemed uneconomical, despite the cost advantage of river transport. Even the New York State Barge Canal, built to supersede the Erie, is used mainly for recreational boating. What with the price of gas hovering in the $4-a-gallon range, RT can’t help but think that there is a future in commercial barge traffic, and in the towns that served as river ports for it. This might well be the economic salvation of Wheeling and the entire Mississippi basin.

RT is aware that there are no perfect solutions. Just to mention one problem, canals are responsible for the introduction of many undesirable marine species into water systems around the world. And what about barge traffic through historic areas? But at bottom, these sound like technical problems that can be overcome by good-old-American ingenuity. What is really difficult to live with is the sight of dynamic inland American cities disintegrating for no apparent economic reason. Want to help Appalachia? Take a barge on your next trip into the Heartland.    RT

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All Photos: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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  1. October 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Hey There. I discovered your weblog the usage of msn. This is a really smartly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to learn extra of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I’ll definitely return.

  2. November 1, 2012 at 1:31 am

    wwrOfWV: thanks for your enthusiasm! WV is a great place. RT

  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:52 pm
  2. May 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm

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