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Wheeling Was Bustling as Statehood Approached

June 6, 2013

WHEELING - Before it was tagged "The Friendly City," Wheeling, Va. was known as quite the "happening place" in the 1800s as West Virginia approached statehood.

Holly McCluskey, local history buff and a staff member at Oglebay Institute's Mansion Museum and curator of the Glass Museum, explained how Wheeling was the second most industrialized city in Virginia, second only to Richmond during the mid- to late 1800s.

"Wheeling had the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which brought a lot of people to the city. It was crowded and very much a destination. It had many businesses from grocery stores to dressmakers," McCluskey said. "Downtown Wheeling was very progressive. It had an early waterworks system that other areas did not have at the time."

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In addition, the Ohio River provided an easy means of transportation to Wheeling. She noted that 3 million people traveled the river annually in the mid-1800s including the famed explorers Lewis and Clark who spent time in Wheeling.

The city's tobacco factories, glassmaking plants, textile production and beer production employed many residents, and those industries produced many families of wealth and prestige who enjoyed the "high life."

The Mansion Museum, built in 1846 at what is now known as Oglebay Park, offers numerous glimpses of how some Wheelingites may have lived during the Victorian era from 1840-1900. McCluskey pointed out that the family parlor was the most important room in any home during the time period and residents furnished them lavishly to reflect their status in the community.

"This was an era of conspicuous consumption. Every inch of the parlor would be filled with knick-knacks. Seating would be arranged around the room in a circular pattern with a center table that often contained the family Bible and maybe a photo album," she said.

The table tops would most likely be marble and the mantel would be highly decorated with fancy glass pieces. Horsehair furniture pieces such as chairs and couches were often upholstered in dark colors because the rooms would have been heated with coal that created dust and dirt that would not be so easily spotted as on lighter-colored fabrics.

Mirrors were placed in the parlor to make the room appear larger and to reflect light in the otherwise dimly lit area as electricity was not in Wheeling until years later.

"One of the true representations of the era was the puddling drapes on the floor. It was all about excess," McCluskey offered.

In other areas of some of the finest homes in Wheeling, expensive drapes, tall four-poster beds and massive, heavy furniture were the order of the day. Cane chairs and veneer finishes were popular, too. Residents of the area had many choices for china and glassware from local manufacturers and there was no shortage of beer from Schmulbach's Brewery and others.

"Wheeling was also noted for its social scene. The wealthier families threw grand parties," McCluskey said.

At one such party at a prominent physician's home, the servants were required to wear velvet heels on their shoes so that they were quiet while they served the party guests.

Wheeling's famed Suspension Bridge was built in 1849, the longest of its type at its construction. The bridge brought fame to the city and also drew the ire of those in Pittsburgh for its height, as they argued in legal cases that it restricted river traffic.

The McLure Hotel at 12th and Market streets was constructed in 1852 and served as a hub for many social events. Numerous presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, reclined under its roof throughout the years.

The Fort Henry Club at 14th and Chapline streets was built in 1850 and served traveling businessmen - men only - in Wheeling's heyday.

In 1863, street car service began in Wheeling, adding to the already busy train and riverboat transportation services. In addition to the B&O Railroad, Wheeling grew to welcome the Cleveland, Pittsburgh & Wheeling Railroad, and the Hempfield Railroad line.

In January of 1863, the Wheeling Savings Bank reported having $241,224 in cash on hand. On June 18, 1863, the Wheeling Business School was operated by I.I. Hitchcock on Main Street in Wheeling.

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