People living on Wheeling Island quickly learned that the Ohio River shaped their lives in many ways, and on a daily basis.
It was their source of water, and it took their sewage. It brought huge barges of iron ore and coal to make steel at the plants where the people worked. It provided transport, out to the nation and the world, for the many products of the local industries.
In summer, many boaters used the river – mostly motorboats, because the currents were swift. A beach at the north end of the Island, complete with a stand selling hot dogs and cold drinks, was once a favored site for swimmers. The beach was strewn with flat pebbles, ideal for many “skips” off the water’s surface when thrown in just the right way. I was a generation too late to see the dance pavilion that had once been located there, within my mother’s memory. About 1934, the beach was closed and never reopened. Pits in the river bottom, where gravel had been dredged, set up treacherous eddies that led to the drowning of a number of swimmers. Swimming in the river was forbidden from then on.
This dredging was one more example of a tragic theme that characterizes West Virginia’s history and, as far as I know, continues today: Where the extractive industries conflicted with the interests of the common people, those industries won, whatever the commodity involved – coal, oil, gas, chemicals, timber, glass sand, gravel, you name it – and whatever the cost to the people. What industry wanted from West Virginia, it usually took. Studying the state’s history is a painful ordeal for one who cares about its people.
Winter brought occasional ice jams on the river, sometimes rising to monumental proportions. I could look out the kitchen window and see the piles of ice reaching well above the highest land elevations on the Island itself. Surely they must have been scraping the undersides of the Suspension and Steel bridges. Not a good time to walk to town.
Spring was noteworthy because of the floods that it brought. From early times through the 1930s, there were long intervals between destructive floods, intervals in which the people of the Island repeatedly showed their resilience, determination, and stamina by repairing the damage and renewing the beauty of their homes and neighborhoods.
I was present for the granddaddy of those floods, in March of 1936. That flood crested in Wheeling at 55.2 feet, the highest on record, and one of only five floods that have exceeded 50 feet since the year 1763. On the first floor of our house, 6 feet above ground level, the water was 4 feet deep. Most of the Island was at lower elevations, and some houses were completely submerged.
As the floodwaters rose, I looked forward to sailing on them in a galvanized laundry tub, but my parents had other ideas, involving a move to visit friends who lived on higher ground “out the pike.” (eastward on U.S. Route 40). While all hands were busy carrying furniture upstairs to escape the water, I sulked over their plan, retreated to write poetry in the bedroom that I shared with them, and avoided helping – at least for the short time that such behavior was tolerated. Of course I had no concept of how the fury and power of floodwaters would affect the sailing of a little laundry tub.
The house of my great-aunts at 95 Maryland Street
on the Island. The first floor is almost totally submerged.
My grandfather, too, had ideas of staying at home during the flood. Taking a seat near the front door on the only dining chair that remained downstairs, he asserted, “This house is the only thing I have. If it goes, I’m going with it.” But he shared my fate, for my uncle and my father had other ideas. They lifted him bodily and carried him out the door, down the porch steps, and into my uncle’s waiting car. Grandpa, too, visited friends on higher ground. His house did not “go.” But the steps of the front porch did go, and his beautiful golden oak upright piano, too heavy to be taken upstairs, was a casualty of the flood. It was dumped off the front edge of the porch for cleanup crews to haul away. It turned out that almost every house in the block had a piano, for they all ended up dumped into the flood mud. The back yard, now raised by six inches of flood mud, had to be completely regraded, limed, and reseeded, and the concrete walkway had to be reset at the higher elevation. The attractive concrete steps, connecting two former “terrace” levels of the yard, no longer had any function, and had to be carted away.
A year or two before this flood, an evangelist named Lehman had built the Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle, a large one-story frame structure, on high ground near the north end of the island. Contrary to local custom, the building was not bolted to its foundation, but depended on gravity for staying in place. As the flood rose, the tabernacle sailed like a mighty vessel down Erie Street, clipping several houses off their foundations as it moved, and all the structures ended up as debris at the foot of the embankment to the Aetnaville Bridge. It seems that Mr. Lehman never appeared in Wheeling again, probably a wise decision.
Cleanup after the 1942 flood
As of 1936, there hadn’t been a serious flood on Wheeling Island since 1913. Most of the people were willing to tolerate such infrequent flooding. But during the early 1940s, destructive floods became essentially annual events, poorly predicted, and during wartime when few men were available for the labor of preparing for a flood, or of cleaning up afterward. This led to a collapse of real estate values and an exodus of those who could afford to move, changes from which the Island has never recovered.
As fish returned and again disappeared with the successes and failures of pollution control efforts, the river was never devoid of life. In the absence of fish, swarms of little black tadpoles moved along the shores, turning in summer into hordes of toads that overran the entire island. Children – at least the boys – enjoyed catching the baby toads and trying to make pets of them. This usually ended badly for the toads.
Through the age of seventeen, I was much at home on the banks of that river. I walked its shores and waded in its shallows. I blazed trail in the wilderness of the northern “Point” of the Island, as we called it – the low-lying upstream tip that was flooded every spring. In early childhood I often swam at the beach – though memories of that involve mainly an itchy coarse wool swimsuit, unendurable until wetted. In my teen years, I swam with friends in the calmer “Back River” (west of the Island), which was free of dangerous eddies. River swimming was a “no-no,” and the family was not to hear of it.
Another note on wildlife: While exploring the Point, I once came across a small group of younger children enjoying a picnic. As I passed by, they suddenly screamed. I looked and saw an animal approaching them. I first thought it was a rabbit, but the ears were short.
Then I thought of a small dog, but the tail was very long. It was the most enormous rat I have ever seen! As the children fled, the rat moved in to enjoy the feast.
Despite my enjoyment of the river by day, by night it became a fearsome thing, sending shivers through my body. This was true whether I actually saw the river at night, with the city lights shimmering on its surface, or whether I merely pictured its daytime appearance in my mind while lying awake in a dark bedroom. I was a grown man before I ever realized the likely cause of this reaction, which was:
One summer evening when I was about seven years old, I saw large numbers of people walking past our house toward the north end of the Island. Without hesitation, not even telling the family, I joined the march. Such was our feeling of safety in public in those days. The march ended in a large assemblage of people on the former beach at the “Point,” facing the city. As darkness fell and the city lights began to reflect from the water’s surface, I noted two men in a rowboat, equipped with a bright floodlight, rowing back and forth in front of us. I soon learned that they were dragging a hook, attempting to find the body of a drowned swimmer. It was a young man, a strong swimmer, who had confidently disregarded the prohibition against swimming. He was accompanied by a friend who watched, helpless, as he got caught in a whirlpool created by one of the many dredged gravel pits in the river bottom. The friend rushed to notify the authorities.
I thoughtlessly took a position by the tailgate of an ambulance to watch the proceedings. “Thoughtlessly” because I hadn’t foreseen what was bound to happen. When the body was finally recovered it was brought, completely exposed, to the ambulance where it brushed by me as I watched in horror. At my tender age, I wasn’t ready for an experience like that. And I believe that is why I feared the river in the darkness, a fear that I never fully outgrew.
Through all its changes, the river has continued to be a spectacular and powerful force. It has remained beautiful even when mining and industrial wastes drove out the fish, and in recent years it seems more beautiful than ever. Though the State of Ohio has adopted “Beautiful Ohio” as its official song, in my mind that song with its original lyrics will always refer not to the state, but to the river.
This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)