Heritage at the Heart of Rust Belt Reinvention

WheelingSuspBridge-f

This story is part of our series on national heritage areas, the large lived-in landscapes managed through innovative partnerships to tell America’s cultural history. See more stories in this series.

At the northernmost navigable point of the Ohio River in the 19th century, the overland routes, river traffic, and railroads converged at Wheeling, West Virginia. This tiny town attracted entrepreneurs and workers to create one of the most industrious cities of the era. It was a hotbed of immigration, manufacturing, and labor strife that forged the personalities of some of our nation’s greatest innovators, labor leaders, and human-rights advocates.

As Wheeling’s wealth and might waned in the latter 20th century, it became a Rust Belt city whose time seemed to have passed. Establishing the city as a heritage area in 2000 reinvigorated residents’ pride for their past and taught the community how to use its history to its economic and recreational advantage. The city reclaimed its riverfront, business ventures recycled industrial structures for new uses, and citizens re-imagined their future.

Pretty as a picture: An artist captures historic Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

An artist paints historic downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

Today, Wheeling is a community that continues to reinvent itself. The Wheeling National Heritage Area has been at the forefront of these activities for two decades, advocating that Wheeling’s past is prologue to its future. So please visit, admire the Victorian architecture, engross yourself in our ethnic festivals, and experience Rust Belt “Re-imagineering” first-hand.

Must-do activities when visiting the Wheeling National Heritage Area

  • Take a walk on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. This National Historic Landmark was completed in 1849 and is the nation’s most significant pre-Civil War engineering structure. Take a walk across the bridge, stand at the center of the 1,010-foot span and watch the mighty Ohio River flow beneath you.
  • Stand in the courtroom where West Virginia was “born of the Civil War.” As the state of Virginia sought to leave the Union, its western citizens wanted their own independence from the ruling hand of Richmond. The discussion of and arguments for our state’s creation took place in the courtroom of the then-U.S. Customs House, known today as West Virginia Independence Hall, a National Historic Landmark. While there, visit the Civil War Flag Exhibit, one of our nation’s best-preserved collections of battle flags.
  • View the valley from Wheeling’s oldest cemetery. Mount Woods Cemetery sits high atop Wheeling Hill and offers the city’s most scenic vista of the Ohio River Valley. It is a lovely spot for contemplation and relaxation. The cemetery is the resting place for many of Wheeling’s most prominent early families. Restoration of this site on the National Register of Historic Places is an ongoing project of the Wheeling National Heritage Area.
Bicyclists get ready to enjoy the 26-mile Wheeling Heritage Trail.

Bicyclists get ready to enjoy the 26-mile Wheeling Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

  • Stroll the historic Centre Market Square. Centre Market is the heartbeat of downtown. The north market house was constructed in 1853 and is the oldest cast-iron column market house in the country. Centre Market is home to our landmark local fish market, an art gallery, and a variety of dining options. Surrounding the market are coffee houses, antique shops, bakeries, and a variety of children’s activities.
  • Trek the trail. The Wheeling Heritage Trail is a 26-mile Rail-to-Trail path that follows the former B&O Rail line along the Ohio River. It is not the “wild and scenic” trail ride that most people think when West Virginia comes to mind, but rather a rolling, cognitive history lesson in the industrial steel-belt landscape that built America. See wonderful views of the mighty Ohio River with steel towns and factories as a backdrop. It is a flat, ADA-accessible trail with a paved asphalt surface and plenty of interpretive signage to pique your educational interests.
  • Need a little more adventure? Find Lewis Wetzel’s cave. Just east of downtown along the Wheeling Creek Rail Trail is a jagged little path that heads up a hill. In the hill is a multi-room sandstone cave that, according to local history, was a lodging and resting spot for the famous American frontiersman Lewis Wetzel. It is a geocaching hotspot and great place to enjoy some natural “air conditioning” on a hot day. Sturdy shoes and a steady foot are required to maneuver the trail.

To learn more about the Wheeling National Heritage Area, visit www.wheelingheritage.org.

Learn more about national heritage areas around the country through NPCA’s ongoing blog series.

About the Author

Jeremy S. Morris is executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation