Thursday, May 25, 2017

To the City of Bridges and Back - Chapter 4: Wandering in Wheeling

The drive from Pittsburgh to Wheeling was rather uneventful, and traffic was light. I had no desire to go back and see the nonworking Perry Como statue, and the two museums I considered stopping at were already closed for the day, so straight into West Virginia it was.

After stopping for gas, I ditched the highway and took only back roads, winding strips of asphalt that brought me through small towns, churches, and homes that ranged from lavish to trailers. I got to Wheeling at around 4 in the afternoon, passing beneath the highway that cuts right through it and leads to the bridge that connects it to Ohio. Under that bridge was former industry being demolished as well as a store that touted cigarettes, beer, and fun (what else do you need, really?).

After cruising the streets of downtown for a little bit, I stopped at the main landmark I wanted to see, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The 1,010 ft. bridge connects the city’s downtown with Wheeling Island.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge predates both Cincinnati’s Roebling Suspension Bridge (named for its designer, John A. Roebling) and Roebling’s other, slightly more famous creation, The Brooklyn Bridge. Interestingly enough, John had actually submitted designs for Wheeling’s span, but he lost out to Charles Ellet. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge opened to traffic in 1849, but a major overhaul and several modifications occurred after. The bridge received its final and current look in 1872.

When the whole span is viewed from the shore, the bridge is quite an impressive site, with its two vehicle lanes and two sidewalks. When walking on it, there are no barriers between you and the passing traffic as you take in the breeze from the river. It feels flimsy and looks impressive, but it is structurally sound, and it has a strict weight limit enforcement of 2 tons (although that didn’t stop a Greyhound bus driver from attempting to cross in 2016, closing the bridge for a while).

- Wheeling Suspension Bridge cables.

From Wheeling’s downtown area, the bridge’s first span seems almost hidden. It doesn’t rise in the air dramatically like its cousins in Cincinnati and Brooklyn; instead, it’s wedged between some classic buildings and an aging hotel.

Nevertheless, it’s a defining icon of Wheeling, which is a beautiful city all around. The city features gorgeous, historic architecture on what seems like every block.

As you walk around and take in the city, history follows you. Not just in the bridge or beautiful buildings, but in the massive amounts of ghost signs still clinging to the bricks. Wherever you stand, wherever you look, you’ll see tons of them, as I documented in a previous post. If someone wants to provide the funds, I’d gladly spend a summer in Wheeling learning more about the city and authoring another book in the “Fading Ads” series.

- There's a lot of what appear to be Christmas lights that seem to be hanging out in Wheeling year round.

I’ve never quite understood the use of the word “sleepy” to describe a town. I’ve seen it applied to everything from Midwestern metropolises to small “Anytown, USA’s.” If it means “nothing’s really going on,” maybe you could apply it to Wheeling, but there’s activity on the streets, even if most of the businesses are closed for the weekend.

Despite it being a Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of people out walking, going for a run, and there was one guy punching a brick wall while cursing at the sky. He paused long enough to ask me for change. I didn’t have any, so he went back to literally pounding bricks.

I walked all around downtown, along the river, past some sculptures, and I searched for a local place to get some food.

- Good luck finding food in downtown Wheeling on a Sunday evening.

One promising Yelp review lead to an empty storefront. Other nearby places were closed, ready to open back up with the resumption of the work week on Monday. A few theaters and a museum were also closed for the day, not uncommon for a Sunday evening.

Nevertheless, Wheeling was still beautiful all around, its charm very much alive in the light of the setting sun. I’ll admit that it didn’t feel like a place I’d want to live, but it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to visit again. I eventually made my way via a quick drive and local recommendation to a bar that was touted to have great wings, cold beer, and a patio where you could watch the river go by. I parked my car out back, walked toward the door, and approached a woman sweeping the sidewalk out front.

“Any chance you’re open?” I asked.

“Ha, not on Sundays,” she said.

The clear story of trying to find local food in downtown Wheeling on a Sunday evening.

I sat on a bench by the river for a little bit, jotted down some notes and thoughts, then hit the road again, quickly back into Ohio via the Fort Henry Bridge and Interstate 70. After a few exits, I grabbed coffee and returned to the back roads.

- Departing the interstate in Lore City, Ohio.

I ended up in Lore City, Ohio, a small town with an impressive fairground stadium and an air of manure and bonfires.

With still no luck finding something local or unique to eat, I returned to the highway and found a Denny’s. I’ve spent a good amount of my life in a Waffle House, but despite my adventures at a suburban diner, and despite all the roadside food I’ve enjoyed over the years, I’d never been to a Denny’s. I ordered some sort of breakfast burger topped with bacon, an egg, and hash browns, and served with sweet potato fries.

The service was friendly, but the food was forgettable.

I jumped back on I-70, went through Columbus, and back to Cincinnati, retracing the initial route that kicked off this trip. I came for soccer in Pittsburgh, but I had taken the time to try to explore some along the way there and back. As I drove home, I pondered one of the things I had written in my notebook on the bench by the river in Wheeling:

“I don’t feel bad. I just feel like I haven’t found what I’m looking for. And I’m not even sure what I’m looking for.”

Maybe on the next trip, I’ll eat some better food.

Read chapters 1-3 here.


  1. Wheeling has the Festival of Lights each year from November to January. Most of the lights put up come down during the off season but I've noticed that over the years some are left up. Next time you're there you should head down river a few minutes on the Ohio side to Bellaire - there's an old toll bridge that's been abandoned there since the early 1990s and there's a good Italian place called the Roosevelt there as well. Thanks for the great pictures!

    1. Thanks for the info on the lights Nick! Interesting that you mention the Bellaire Bridge... a good friend of mine has brought that up a lot and I had written it down to go see. I even met up with him in Pittsburgh the day before this trip to Wheeling and we talked about it again. Once I got to the area .... I completely forgot. Remembered as soon as I sat down back home. I'll have to go look for it next time!