Wheeling’s Eastern Intrigue
By Hal Gorby
While Wheeling attracted immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, and Greece, the variety of Slavic ethnic groups helped make Wheeling the most ethnically diverse city in the Upper Ohio Valley. Differing language groups, and a variety of Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and Protestant faiths, made the area a multi-ethnic melting pot. With business agents sending job ads throughout Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, thousands arrived from the polyglot lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Living in a massive multi-ethnic state, they faced many problems by 1910. Language and religious discrimination, military conscription, and poor agricultural harvests forced thousands to emigrate to the industrial heartland. Many flocked to the Ohio Valley, settling in large numbers in Bellaire, Martins Ferry, Steubenville, and in Weirton mainly between 1901 and1914. The largest ethnic groups in Wheeling and Benwood were Ukrainians, Croatians, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks.
Many of these Slavic immigrants were young single men, working for a time in the hopes of returning home to purchase farmland or to pay for their families to migrate here. Because many of these Slavic immigrants arrived after 1900, they congregated exclusively around the steel mills and coal mines. While some lived scattered throughout South Wheeling and even in Warwood, most lived in Benwood. The “mill town” was a small-scale version of a place like Homestead, PA. In good employment times, the Benwood, Boggs Run area could contain as many as 8,000-9,000 people! These immigrants worked as unskilled laborers at the National Tube Company or the Wheeling Steel & Iron mills, at the Hitchman and Wheeling Steel coal mines and coke works, and in the B&O railroad yards in Benwood. One or two ethnic groups predominated in each section of Benwood. In North Benwood, it was the Poles and the Croatians. In Center Benwood, it was Italians and Slovaks. South Benwood predominately had Poles and Italians. Boggs Runs was the most ethnically diverse led by Hungarians, Croatians, and Slovaks. Additionally, because of their cultural ties to the Poles and arrival in the late 1890s, South Wheeling developed a large Ukrainian community between 39th and 43rd Streets.
The mixed nature of these ethnic neighborhoods created unique problems. First, many Slavic families supplemented their low wages by growing vegetables and even grazing animals on the hills and up Boggs Run. However, as the region became more populated and the local mills and mines left the air and ground polluted, these supplemental activities became more difficult. Second, many immigrants had to board with other immigrant families, particularly in Boggs Run and Center Benwood. This helped save money, and provided the host families with additional income. Finally, many Slavic immigrants lived in a low floodplain that often devastated South Wheeling and particularly Center Benwood. Even those living near the hillsides were in danger during heavy rains. During the awful March 1907 flood “tons of earth rolled down” covering several immigrant homes with mud, wood, and debris.
Because of the crowded living conditions, the Slavic immigrants often dealt with unfriendly relations with the natives and each other. The press reported on immigrant crimes and spoke of Slavs as living in “colonies.” The close mixing and tight living arrangements saw acts of street fighting emerge in connection with ethnic tensions and saloons. One small business option for many Slavic immigrants was to open small groceries or saloons. By January 1906, Benwood itself had 45 licensed saloons! The high volume of saloons led to brawls. Many took place at boundaries between communities, especially at 48th Street between Benwood and South Wheeling and at the start of Boggs Run. For example, in 1905 Waso Linewitcj learned the hard way when returning from the Riverside Mill. Upon arriving at the appropriately titled “Last Chance Saloon,” someone shot at him from the hillside near Boggs Run.
Even with many difficulties, Slavic families worked together to create meaningful lives. Their religious diversity, while often leading to tensions, also forged a distinctive ethnic life in the larger Wheeling area. St. John’s Catholic parish was the home of many Slovak, Hungarian, and Croatian immigrants. The parish sponsored folk festivals and worked with various sokols, Czecho-Slovak youth sports clubs, to host cultural events in Benwood, Wheeling, and Bellaire. The Ukrainians, often called “Rusins” or “Ruthenians,” were typical of the blue collar Slavic families. Arriving in the late 1890s from rural Galicia, early families were congregants at St. Ladislaus parish. They sent their children to the Polish school when they could afford the 50 cents monthly tuition; Poles often referred to these children as “Russians.” After initially having mass in the old Mozart Park incline station at 4300 Wetzel Street, in 1911 the first Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church was built in the classic Greek architectural style adorned with mosaics and icons of the Eastern rite. Like the Poles, the Ukrainians held processions through South Wheeling. They also arranged regular folk dances and festivals at Oglebay Park. Ukrainian folk dances were a popular cultural sight in the 1920s and 1930s and folk dances such as the Kolomeyga and the Kosachock Polidsky helped preserve the traditional folkways celebrating the mountain cultures of the Carpathians and the farm villages of Galicia.
The Croatians also have a rich cultural history. Immigrating from Bosiljevo, Croatia, Ivan Lubic became a saloonkeeper and boardinghouse owner in North Benwood. In 1893, he formed the Croatian Lodge, the first in the Midwest. In September 1894, Lubic was named the first president of the National Croatian Society. The society provided assistance to members and their families in case of death, disease, accident, and unemployment. Lubic’s original saloon evolved into a Croatian social hall, dubbed the Dalmatian-Croatian Incorporated Company at 277 Marshall Street. In early January of each year, the National Croatian Society held a holiday dance in Lubic’s Hall, the Croatians’ largest social event with imported Croatian bands. This folk and music tradition was carried on by Mike Perkovic’s family. He and his children began playing tambouritizan music the 1930s and hosted a popular Slavic music hour on WWVA. In 1955, worried about the loss of ethnic traditions, Perkovic founded the Croatian Cultural Club in the old Benwood School at 4859 Eoff Street. The club operates as a fraternal lodge, serves traditional Croatian foods, and hosts South Slavic cultural events. The club serves as a visible reminder of the impressive Slavic culture in the Wheeling region.