Oh, Wheeling. Once one of the primary cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and later the State of West Virginia, this rust-belt community has seemingly fallen on endless hard times. Despite the historic Centre Market, the West Virginia Independence Hall, and the famous Wheeling Suspension Bridge, you can’t but help think that the city is lacking in something.
Population? Perhaps, as it has fallen from a high of over 61,000 seventy years ago to just under 29,000 today.
Vibrancy? Maybe, as strolling through their seemingly dense downtown on a weekday afternoon met with few open businesses and even fewer pedestrians.
But I love Wheeling, for all of the grit and decay that it contains. For a community of its size and stature, and especially history, the city boosts an amazing collection of historic structures. Many Italianate row houses line the neighborhoods to the north and east that are typically found in the major east coast cities, and tall, brick buildings dominate the skyline, unbroken by the hideous glass and steel towers of the later 20th-century. Pockmarked are the treasures of any city: well, kept-up side streets, well-crafted school buildings and an aura of friendliness that helps give Wheeling the nickname, “The Friendly City.” The region also has a growing rail to trail network and an impressive park system, albeit some of it neglected. But while we were admiring a rail to trail conversion adjacent to the U.S. Route 250 freeway, we stumbled upon this sad gem.
If the exterior proclaims this as a symbol of Wheeling’s decline, the interior doesn’t help reverse the notion that some properties in this long-declining city have just been pushed the wayside. At some point, after the school closed, it was converted into a home for multiple businesses. A bathroom fixtures dealer, a state office and some rooms that were used primarily for storage kept this stately school active for quite a while, but it seems that the last occupant left about ten years ago.
During the afternoon, after a hearty lunch at a downtown pizzeria, we discovered three factories within minutes of each other, although the details of their history are vague at best. The first factory, which abuts a steep hillside in an isolated part of Ohio County, is at least five stories high and extends from the street back into the hill.
It became clear from the deterioration and condition of the various floors that this factory was sealed off from the top-down. The first floor had paperwork and materials dating to the late 1980s, and the stairwell leading up to the second floor featured a floor door that was at one point locked and barricaded. Another set of steps led downward into stone cellars, although it was flooded and not accessible. The second floor was devoid of much of anything interesting, sans a stack of blueprints, various doors and a crude pinball machine. The third floor, which was also sealed at one point in the staircase, featured various sizable rooms built into the hillside that had obviously been abandoned for much longer than thirty years.
Water intrusion was much more evident on the third floor than anywhere else. Steel beams that held up the above floors were rusting through, and plaster finishes over brick walls were crumbling at the slightest touch.
This is unfortunately where the trip through this building ends. Two staircases lead to the fourth floor and further back into the hillside, but unfortunately, both are well sealed with wooden boards. A ladder, rotting and in very poor condition overall, leads through a hole in the floor to a crawlspace — possibly to an exit point on the fourth floor or elsewhere.
Finally, a trip is not complete without a stop at the impressive Schmulbach Brewery.
There are more photographs from the Schmulbach Brewery on the click-through. If you have any information on the school or three abandoned factories, where there is limited information available, please let me know in the comments below. Stay tuned for more updates from West Virginia, this time from Clarksburg and the southern reaches of the state!