The fog-wreathed hills of the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau surround the city. The state's terrain once proved to be a formidable obstacle but ingenuity and grit eventually brought the National Road and B&O Railroad across the hills in 1818 and 1853, respectively. This, combined with the construction of the first bridge to cross the Ohio River, made Wheeling a transportation hub for westward expansion.
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At the Warwood Tool Company, William Davenport’s movements appear as a hypnotic dance in the face of the billowing heat of the slot furnace. He pulls a steel billet from a stack, swings toward the waiting furnace and deposits it. Seconds later, after gauging the color—now white like some celestial object—he clenches and delivers it to the forging stage. Repeat.
The company—which was founded in 1854 and supplies tools to the railroad, mining and construction industries—is one of Wheeling's few remaining functioning remnants of its significant 19th-century industrial age. Competition from cheaper foreign-made products and the contraction of the steel industry has placed pressure on the company.
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Ed Gorczyca returns a 1946 photograph of a local Polish baseball team to the wall after showing it to me at the Polish American Patriot Club. “We had 300 members [in the club] and it was all local, but now there probably aren’t 10 or 15 Polish families here in South Wheeling,” he says.
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The small gymnasium of East Wheeling's Laughlin Memorial Chapel brims with life during a free-time period at an after-school program for the city's middle and high school students. "I would say there's not a lot of stuff anymore for the kids to do in this area so it's a very positive thing for them [to come here] so they're not getting out of school and getting into trouble," staff member and former attendee Monica Manns says. "We provide a safe space for them to come do homework and to get out in the community and help."
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A box of cut nails left behind at the La Belle Cut Nail Plant after its closure. In the 19th century, Wheeling was known as "Nail City" and was the nail capital of the world.
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John Lapinsky, a former Wheeling-area machinist, bears the pain of arthritis to descend his front stairs on Wheeling Island. Lapinsky remembers when the Ohio Valley's manufacturing base was stronger and when local plants regularly worked with cast iron and steel rolls weighing 350 tons. "I retired a couple of years before it all started happening around here. I was lucky," he says.
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An inside page of a calendar found closed on the floor of the La Belle Cut Nail Plant. The factory slowly dwindled from more than 400 employees at its peak to ten employees when it closed in 2010.
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In the lobby of St. Alphonsus church in Wheeling, a picture of Jesus Christ hangs above a photograph of the empty seat adjacent to it where the church's long-time sacristan, Charlie Saad, often sat before he passed away. Several of the Wheeling area's Catholic churches have closed over the past few decades.
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Mel Joseph, a lifelong Wheeling resident, attempts to straighten out a tangled American flag outside of Kepner Funeral Home in South Wheeling. Joseph and his friend Bob Carl, also a lifelong resident, perform general maintenance for the chain of funeral homes, one of the few old family-owned businesses that has persisted in Wheeling.
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A crowd mills about at the Capitol Theater. The venue, which was built in 1928 and has hosted Jamboree USA and the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was reopened in 2009 after being closed for two years for renovations.
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Members of Harold Winley and the Clovers begin gathering together backstage at the Capitol Theatre before their performance at a nostalgic rock n' roll and doo-wop concert.
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Andrea Spain, grade 11, Gabrielle Marshall, grade 9, and Emma Guy, grade 9--three of the four students currently enrolled in Lyceum Preparatory Academy-- absorb a lesson from headmaster Judith Jones-Hayes. In spirit, Lyceum is a reincarnation of the city's prestigious Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, which closed its doors in 2008 after operating for more than 140 years. Lyceum is located in a mansion originally occupied by an early Wheeling merchant, and it features a curriculum that covers standard academic subjects, as well as rowing, fencing, Latin and violin. After decades of population decline following the collapse of the region's industrial base, the city of Wheeling is reassessing its identity while honoring elements of its past.
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A pair of gloves are tacked above a doorway in the abandoned La Belle Cut Nail Plant. On the opposite side of the door frame a message in black marker reads: "Joe's Last Gloves."
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Ron Scott, Jr., a youth counselor and third- generation Wheeling resident, and his mother, Linda Scott, a nurse, pose for a portrait outside of Linda's home in East Wheeling. Ron's father was in and out of prison throughout his childhood, and his mother has served as a source of strength and inspiration throughout his life. The historic neighborhood of East Wheeling where Ron works has been hit hard by poverty and drugs but has in the last couple of years become a base for creatives, entrepreneurs and grass roots organizations looking to give the city new life.
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Danny Swan and Gloria Reina take an evening walk with their son, Sero. Wheeling’s population has been declining for decades, with young people in particular leaving in large numbers. In the past few years, however, some young people have been moving in to put down roots, starting families and new ventures like Swan's Grow Ohio Valley. Some feel optimistic that this new small influx may help carve out a new direction for post-industrial Wheeling.
The city was molten; it was the aroma of cigars; it was seemingly free-flowing promise. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, residents of Wheeling, West Virginia found opportunity in its coal-filled hills, iron foundries, breweries, and glass and stogie factories. Many of these residents felt a deep sense of pride in living in this place of makers and an early important gateway to the expanding West. This is the city that lingers in the minds of 78-year-old native Ed Gorczyca and his contemporaries—a Wheeling that their grandparents and parents helped to prosper and that remained vibrant through their own youth before the steady decline took hold.
Over Gorczyca's lifetime, the collapse of the Upper Ohio Valley manufacturing base fueled an exodus of working-age people and the city's population declined by half, dropping from its peak of 61,659 people at the 1930 census to fewer than 28,000 today. Demographers at West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research predict that it will be difficult to overcome the slide. As of fall 2015, viable long-term employment opportunities remain in short supply, while out-of-town transient workers following a regional natural gas boom have helped drive up rental prices in the city.
In spite of these present challenges to its recovery, some positive signs of renewal are also emerging in the city for the first time in years. Both Wheeling natives and relative newcomers have been working on founding new city partnerships and grassroots organizations to rebuild Wheeling physically, economically, and spiritually. They are growing food in what has been considered a food desert and they are providing community to the marginalized. A collective reassessment of the city's identity is taking place, yielding both eulogies for what is missing and hope for what might be restored or created.
What calls to people in Wheeling today? Is it the song of dusk enveloping the grand old bridge? Is it the warm, proud theater where Frankenstein used to appear glowing on celluloid at the midnight show? It could indeed be something already lost to time, that elusive specter of the now vacant department store's holiday model trains making their rounds or some other loved thing that may somehow return to town. Or it could be the stubborn sense of promise that was held between these hills for someone's parents, the promise that built this city and survived a precipitous fall, a promise that says you could write the next chapter of Wheeling's story.