“Greektown” on the Shores of the Ohio
By Rebekah Karelis
Greeks came to the United States as early as the 1860s, but the major influx was from the 1890s into the early twentieth century. In Wheeling, the majority arrived here between 1910 and 1920. Martins Ferry, Weirton and smaller Ohio Valley towns attracted Greek immigrants looking for a new life. As for most other ethnic immigrants, the U.S. provided many opportunities for employment and economic advancement. The hardships following Ottoman rule, the Balkan Wars and World War I also encouraged the displacement of Greek citizens throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Today, the Northern Panhandle of WV claims 35% of the Greek population in West Virginia.
The Greeks gravitated toward industry and the cities of the Northeast, making Wheeling a desirable place to be in terms of both work and location. Many Greeks labored on railroad construction, in mines, and steel mills. They came from throughout the country, including the islands of Crete and Lesbos.
Greek immigrants settled in Centre Wheeling, earning it the nickname “Greektown” by some locals. The area of concentration was from 23rd to 26th St below the Market House in Centre Wheeling. There were traditional coffee houses and Greek men were often found sitting on the sidewalks talking and playing cards. It was supposedly like walking in downtown Athens for those few, short blocks. Some of the best restaurants were located here, too, like Mike’s, Pete’s, Nosey’s, and Harry’s.
One of the oldest Greek churches in West Virginia is St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, now located on Chapline Street in Wheeling. At that time it was only the second church named for St. John in the United States and the first Orthodox Church in West Virginia. The church first opened in May of 1914, in a two-story house at 2346 Market Street. In 1951, a new location was sought on Chapline Street.
In 1921, the church opened a Greek school offering instructions in language, music, dance, history and culture. The Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society “Areti” Chapter was organized March 15, 1935. Various fraternal organizations cropped up, representing different Greek islands and regions, such as the Pancretan Union in America. There were also the Cretan and Chian Clubs, both service and cultural clubs.
The Greeks were enterprising people. As well as working in the mills, some immigrants made successful business ventures. Perhaps the most well-known Greek business in Wheeling was Louis’ Famous Hot Dogs, begun in 1919 by Louis Mamakos. The Bridge Tavern at 10th and Market Streets was owned by three Greek brothers, the Terezakis brothers. Pete Dormas, whose family arrived from the village of Chania on the island of Crete, started working there in 1939 and eventually partnered with Ted, a nephew of the brothers, to buy the business in 1955. The Bridge Tavern and Grill is still operating, currently owned by Pete’s son, George Dormas. Other examples were Nick Karnell, who started the Golden Age Shoe Repair Shop in 1925 and Nicolas Kefalos, who started the 1930s-era Bridgeport Confectionary.