Themes of History and Development

Themes of History and Development

From Wheeling’s history emerges five recurrent themes which will help to interpret the history of the city and identify the resources which embody it. These central themes range from the power of the natural setting to the technological and industrial forces that shaped the city’s development, as well as the social and political forces that the city exerted on the nation. 

The River and the Land emphasizes the role of the natural setting and the growth of the city. The natural setting of Wheeling played a fundamental role in its development and growth. The city is located in the Appalachian Plateau, characterized by a great topographic variation which dictated the long narrow development patterns of the street grid and the urban form which runs parallel to the river. The settlement and growth of the city has been confined by the steep slopes to the relatively flat areas near the Ohio River and the mouth of Wheeling Creek. The narrows of the river at Wheeling Island made the location an ideal river crossing for Native Americans, French and English explorers and, eventually, for the thousands traversing the Ohio River in the westward settlement of the nation. Natural resources in the area, such as coal, limestone, sandstone, clay and iron ore prompted the growth of Wheeling’s significant industries.

Transportation emphasizes the role of linkages – the way in which the river, road and rail connected the city to the nation and how these connections influenced growth. Wheeling’s growth and strategic importance is owed primarily to its role as a major transportation hub. The river, roads, bridges and rail infrastructure developed into a sophisticated transportation network linking Wheeling to the western, eastern and southern markets. The National Road, Ohio River, and the B&O railroad created a transportation network. This facilitated the growth of Wheeling as a center of trade, and made Wheeling strategically important during the Civil War. Today, modern interstate highways link the city to the east and the west.

The Union emphasizes the role of politics – the city’s strategic importance and the political clout that its citizens and representatives have wielded. Wheeling has long played a significant role in national politics. Its natural setting provided its initial strategic importance, while transportation infrastructure later played a vital role. The delineation of “the Panhandle” secured access to the Ohio River for Virginia and the young nation, facilitating westward expansion and trade with the frontier territories. During the American Revolution and Indian wars, Wheeling was the site of the young country’s western most military outpost.

The political influence of prominent citizens brought the National Road to Wheeling, spurring river trade to the south and west along the Ohio throughout the steamboat era. By 1831, the city was designated a Port of Entry, one of seven in the country. After much political urging, the B&O Railroad arrived in Wheeling in 1852, the first rail to reach the Ohio River, solidifying an important economic and political link to the Union. By 1859, Wheeling was considered such an important center of trade that a U.S. Customs House was opened.

During the Civil War, Wheeling became a stronghold of Union sympathy. Wheeling and the Panhandle were of great strategic and logistical importance to the North after Virginia seceded from the Union. Wheeling became the union-loyal capitol of Virginia and her citizens led the effort for independence and statehood for West Virginia. The city also twice served as the state’s Capitol.

Commerce and Industry is the role and evolution of industry and the labor movement in the city. Wheeling’s industrial and commercial history is the story of growth from a small center for provisioning for westward expansion to a mature diverse industrial city of the 20th century. It is the story of iron and nails, of manufacturing and retailing from stogies to china, of trade between the north, south, east, and the midwest, and of one of the earliest labor movements in the country. This is the compelling story of the coming together of people, natural resources, technology and grit, to push the nation forward to westward settlement. It is also the story of progress, diversity and prosperity. In the late 19th century, Wheeling was completely self-sufficient, manufacturing all goods and services and growing all foods within its borders. This era marked the city’s most intensive industrial period; the wealth generated by this industry and commerce produced much of the city’s Victorian architectural legacy.

The Landscape of Culture emphasizes the role of culture – the long tradition of entertainment, hospitality and the arts – in the city. From its beginnings, Wheeling has been a center of entertainment, recreation, culture and hospitality. As the National Road and the steamboat era brought settlers through Wheeling, cultural and entertainment activities grew – reading societies formed and entertainers such as Jenny Lind performed. The prosperity of the Victorian era brought stage entertainment and leisure activities that ranged from circuses on Wheeling Island to performances in the city’s many theaters. This tradition continued through the 20th century, with the establishment of the Wheeling Symphony, and in the 1920s, the advent of the country music industry in Wheeling with the founding of WWVA and the opening of the Capitol Theatre. Throughout the 20th century, the city has continued to build its entertainment and tourism infrastructure – developing national attractions such as the Capital Music Hall, Oglebay Park and the Festival of Lights – as the city adapted its economic base to new realities.