In some respect, I should have been out backpacking in the highlands of West Virginia or riding my bike through the horse farms of central Kentucky. Pretty and beautiful sights and features.
Instead, I chose to get dirty and photograph derelict abandonments in far-out locations for the sheer joy of seeing pretty and beautiful sights and features and to meet other like-minded individuals from other states and Canada. But who can not appreciate the stale air of an abandoned building as much as the scent of spring flowers in a park or food baking in an oven, or the visual connection to peeling paint and rusting machinery to stately old-growth Spruce trees and grazing animals?
It was going to be a long drive from the hills of Cincinnati, Ohio to the mountains of western Maryland, but one that came with some undetermined detours. For as I went further east along the ever-generic Interstate 71 and then the charming National Road, I had more of a reason to find something new. I ventured along the back roads of central Ohio, tracing the National Road and its former alignments until I swerved south to Barnesville, which is along the abandoned Central Ohio Railroad, later part of the Baltimore and Ohio Pittsburgh-Columbus mainline.
Parking next to the Barnesville Antique Mall, I walked through the vibrant city center and cut down the hill to walk parts of the former railroad bed, which is now graveled and the shows the beginnings of a much larger rail to trail that has been proposed westward to Cambridge. A tunnel exists under the downtown which is situated on the top of a rather large hill, and was completed in 1854, extending for 423 feet. At its peak, 37 trains passed under East Main Street per day until the line was abandoned in 1983.
On the eastern front of the tunnel is the Barnesville railroad depot. Constructed in 1916 in the Federal style with Spanish Mission accents, the station was in use until 1961 as a passenger depot and 1983 as a freight depot. Two years later, due to its significant architectural features and its railroad heritage, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station was later used as offices for the local Chamber of Commerce and is in a maintained condition today.
Noticing the evening sun creeping up further behind my back, I headed back towards my vehicle and opted for the interstate to the outskirts of Wheeling. Traveling through this part of Ohio is unlike much of the state – rolling hills tightly integrated with patches of weaving farmland and stands of timber and the remembrance of Appalachia that I miss. I exited for the National Road at St. Clairsville and headed down Blaine Hill to the impressive Blaine Hill Viaduct that span Wheeling Creek.
Constructed in 1932, the open-spandrel arch bridge is one of the Ohio’s more visually interesting crossings that is still in use. A state that is bathed in generic girder bridges, coming across an span with multiple arches is a rare treat. The bridge was designed by D.H. Overman, who was most known for his arch bridge designs throughout the state. The crossing was rehabilitate in 1982 and again in 2011, with some minor work remaining.
What lay below was even more impressive: one of the oldest bridges in the state. The Blane Hill “S” Bridge, which once carried the National Road westward from Wheeling into the then frontier, is a three span stone arch and was constructed in 1826. The 345 foot span was the main gateway to the west, and was part of the first federally funded national highway in the United States. The bridge was nearly demolished in 1999 due to its poor condition, but was given a reprieve and ultimately restored. In 2001, the “S” bridge was designated Ohio’s official bicentennial bridge.
From there, it was not a far drive to Wheeling. Passing through the communities of Lansing, Wolfhurst, Brookside and Bridgeport, I was reminded of just how dense the inner reaches of the metropolitan area once were. Houses lie in waste on the hillsides, entire industries along the creek demolished, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that once paralleled Wheeling Creek through the valley was long gone. Churches for the most part remained, although a few were closed and in need of tough and loving care.
It was slow drive to the Ohio River, passing under the Ohio State Route 7 freeway that all but necessiated demolition of Bridgeport’s downtown, finally reaching the U.S. Route 40 Ohio River crossing. I entered Wheeling Island, West Virginia, and from there I managed to find my way to the Wheeling Suspension Bridge where directed my orientation towards the endangered East Wheeling Historic District. The city, containing some of the largest quantities of 19th century Victorian architecture in the United States, is considering demolishing a significant portion of the historic district due to most of it being abandoned or significantly underused.
It’s not as if Wheeling suddenly declined in the past few years. It’s been losing population for over 80 years, of which I previously attributed the beginnings of to Yost’s Law. That law essentially forced the closure of the city’s main breweries and taverns, and ultimately led to a major job loss. Wheeling was an immigrant-fueled city, after all – the Germans built much of the city’s architecture that is so endangered today.
I parked at 16th and Wood streets in the heart of the historic district and began to document each and every building from its exterior. All of the doors were freshly sealed, but you could see that many of them were very recently occupied. Blinds still hung from many of the units, along with other personal effects. And there was little if any decay in many of the buildings, although a few were clearly abandoned. A few people drove by but no one bothered to even trade a parting glance. During the 30 minutes I spent walking along 16th Street, only on pedestrian – a homeless individual, passed by me. There simply was no activity at all in that block.
Why is the mayor of Wheeling in such a haste to demolish the buildings? For “a ball field.” That’s right, for a grass field when the city has plenty of other vacant lots and fields that are unused and unmaintained.
Congratulations. While other cities are taking all of the steps necessary to stabilize and preserve their irreplaceable historic districts, this mayor is outright advocating for their demolition. What a damn shame.
After weeping over the East Wheeling Historic District, I proceeded to make a beesline east along Interstate 70 to Washington, Pennsylvania. It was all but an uneventful drive, except for the accidental discovery of the nearly abandoned Washington Mall after I had made a wrong turn. I entered the mall property from the highway and came across some active businesses that were located on the exterior of the mall: a Chinese restaurant, furniture store and a Toys-R’-Us were bustling and showed no outward signs of decay. Even the J.C. Penny had a “Now Open” sign on the three story, nearly windowless box.
But something seemed astray. The parking lot was all but vacant outside of these open businesses on the exterior. Some windows were boarded up near the concourse entrance, and the concourse entries were open but had no lights shining from the inside. I parked and walked inside the concourse and was shocked at the condition of the mall. There were no active storefronts in one entire wing of the mall, and only two on the opposing end. Ceiling tiles were missing from the ceiling. The air was stale as the air conditioning units had been disabled. The water fountains were bagged. Tar leaked from the roof onto the concourse floor. And the entire center of the mall was closed to traffic due to water damage. There was not a soul in sight.
Apparantly, Washington Mall has been in a state of limbo for years. To add to the dispair of the mall, J.C. Penny had moved out several years ago to The Foundry at South Strabane, a new shopping center a mile away, one that was built on a massive fill overlooking a valley. But when that shopping center began to fail due to foundation settling, J.C. Penny moved back into Washington Mall – hence the “Now Open” logo that has been hanging on the side of the building for a quite a while.
Don’t expect The Foundry at South Strabane to go anywhere any time soon. It’s mired in bankruptcy, and the CEO of the developer for the mall, Premier Properties of Indianapolis, has been charged with fraud and theft.
After poking through the soulless corridors of the mall and exploring the basement at Washington Mall, I hurried northward to Pittsburgh. Dinner awaited at the famous Primanti Brothers with , as well as a drive southeastward through the Pennsylvania countryside at night to Cumberland. A mill awaited me in the morning.
This article is part of a series covering the Lonaconing Silk Mill in Maryland, and a glass factory and hospital in Pennsylvania: