Childhood in Wheeling, 1930s: V. The Island in Winter

Even as a boy who loved Wheeling and was very happy in his home there, I accepted without question that Wheeling Island was dismal and even ugly in winter. Uglier than the surrounding hilltops and, as I would soon learn, uglier than the suburbs of New York City. True, there were some magically beautiful moments in the winter when freshly fallen snow brightened the outlook and beckoned us to sledding fun on the “bridge grade,” the embankment leading to the bridge that connected us with Aetnaville, Ohio. But within a couple of days the snow would develop a blackish crust, and the slushy mess in the unplowed streets was a very dark gray, thanks to the soot from thousands of household furnaces burning soft coal in the valley, as well as from the sprawling industrial plants with their busy smokestacks. Because of this same soot, every child had to be taught that face-washing included a careful scouring inside the ears and the nostrils, from which the washcloth emerged quite black.

On many winter nights a dense fog would settle in on the valley, and would not burn off till the middle of the next morning. As I walked alone to school before dawn on winter mornings, my way was marked by foggy cones of light beneath each street lamp. The fog had a slight yellowish tinge, and a distinctive odor that seemed to be a mixture of sweetish hydrogen sulphide and acrid sulphur dioxide. Both the color and the odor emanated principally from ever-burning gob fires in coal mine tailings up and down the valley. The odor was not overwhelming. Growing up with it, I came to like it, and similar odors have touched off nostalgia ever since. I don’t know what price we paid in health for that odor. But there was another price that quickly became apparent. Anyone who was bold enough, as my family was, to paint a house in bright and cheery colors would soon see extensive dark streaks as the sulphurous gases reacted with the lead in the paint.

During these dark morning walks to school, the concept of street crime never crossed my mind, nor anyone else’s as far as I knew. But there was one source of mild terror. My route to school included a brief stretch along Front Street where, on the rare winter mornings that were clear, there was a good view of the Ohio River, sparkling with reflections of the city lights on the opposite bank. I loved that river, and by day I would never tire of looking at it. In summer I would play along its banks, I would play in it, and I would swim in it. But in the darkness I found that a view of the river was ominous and troubling. That feeling was a legacy from early childhood, from an event that I’ve described elsewhere in this blog.

It seems that I so readily accepted the ugliness of Wheeling Island in winter that I never thought to look and see whether there were any exceptions. During the usual philosophical inquiries of the teen years, I came up with the proposition that there was beauty in all of creation and that every creature and every object, no matter how reputedly ugly, possessed a beauty that could be seen if viewed in the proper way and with the proper mindset.

This idea arose in winter on Wheeling Island, and after racking my brain for something especially ugly to test the proposition, I selected the tall trees, leafless and black against the fog or the cloudy sky. I looked at them anew with an open mind and, behold, the theory worked! Ever since, I have enjoyed the delicate, lacy beauty of leafless trees in winter. Now the point of this story is not that I made a unique discovery, but that I had been far too accepting of the principle of general ugliness. With prejudice, I had selected one of the most beautiful features of the winter landscape as a supposed example of surpassing ugliness.

Which confirms the old saying that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

J winter_tree_

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)



Until I was nine, I lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the youngest member of a household of seven – the others being my maternal grandparents, one aunt, one uncle, and my parents.  As one might think, this arrangement involved some financial support, but not in the usual direction.  My father made a good living in a contracting firm, Engstrom and Wynn, which built commercial and industrial facilities and public buildings such as schools and post offices.  My grandfather owned the house, but his health had failed and he had to quit work at a time when there was no Social Security and no Medicare.

The following photo shows our house at 608 North Huron Street on Wheeling Island.   It was built about 1916 and purchased by my grandfather about 1921.


The two small pin oaks, planted by my uncle soon after the purchase, had reached about seven inches dbh (diameter at breast height) in my early childhood.   In 2011, they had reached between two and three feet dbh.

The shades across the porch were later replaced by awnings of the kind shown above the steps, creating a beautiful, softly  illuminated sitting area for summer evenings.

At that time Wheeling Island was a pleasant suburb of about 10,000 people, in the middle of the Ohio River and just a short walk or streetcar ride across the bridge from downtown Wheeling.  At the south end of the island, “the fairgrounds” were a site often used by circuses and carnivals.  The fairgrounds came to include a track for horse races, later converted to dog racing, and also a football stadium. Much later, the Casino was built there. On the western shore near the middle of the island, Bridge Park included a baseball field and a public swimming pool.  At the north end of the island, which we called “the Point,” there was a wilderness of low-lying land that got flooded every year.  I had many wonderful experiences as a jungle explorer at the Point.  I occasionally swam there in the “back river” on the western side, long after swimming had been prohibited in the fast-moving main river, where gravel dredging had set up treacherous eddies.

Our house was less than 150 feet north of the streetcar stop on Georgia Street.  The conductor is shown throwing the switch to direct the car, “Route 70–North Island,” southward onto North Huron Street and back to downtown Wheeling. The fare was five cents.  The other switch position sent cars of “Route 71– Martins Ferry” straight across the Aetnaville Bridge into Ohio, then northward to Martins Ferry.  The fare for points in Ohio was ten cents.

Rt. 70 North Island Car, Georgia Street nr N. Huron St 6/26/47

This car stop* made our house very convenient for the commuter into downtown Wheeling.  I also found it useful as a place to have pennies flattened on the track.

Streetcars were a comfortable and inexpensive means of travel in the city and also for surprisingly great distances into the countryside.  In daytime, one car usually passed this point in each direction every fifteen minutes. The cars themselves were non-polluting, although the same cannot be said for generating the electric power that drove them.

 I loved my extended family, the house, the island, and Wheeling, and it hurt to leave.  When I was six we spent a year at Ocean View near Norfolk, Virginia, which offered cheaper and more relaxed living than Wheeling.  The Depression had slowed down construction until my father only occasionally had a week or two of work to do, and he would go back to Wheeling on those occasions.

After the year in Ocean View, my father was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and was chiefly involved in construction at the Warwood water works.  When I was nine, he decided to leave Wheeling permanently and seek work along the east coast.  He looked in a number of places and found employment in New York City, where he had connections with people from his childhood in a Catholic orphanage.  He was the superintendent of construction for a number of Catholic schools and churches, and that kept him busy until the war came and stopped all such activity.

After the move to New York, I spent many vacations back in Wheeling.  When I graduated from high school, not yet seventeen, I spent a year there with my aunt and grandmother, who were then the only people still living in the house. The war was on, housing was tight, and my parents and I had been reduced to living in furnished rooms in New Jersey as my dad moved from one wartime construction project to another.  We all agreed that my move to Wheeling made sense.  During that year (1944) I took my first full-time job, as an apprentice repairman for National Cash Register, at a rate of $0.4125 per hour, 48 hours per week.  (Gross weekly pay $21.45, take-home $19.14.)  There were other more lucrative job openings, but most employers were not interested in a young boy who would soon be “draft bait.”

I once had many relatives in Wheeling.  My grandfather was one of six children, all immigrants from England, and five of them spent their lives in Wheeling.  The family home was sold in 1946. My last close relative there was my mother, who died in 1990.  My last connection of all was Susan, a younger second cousin by adoption, who died in 2005 as a result of a collapsing staircase.

Even without these connections, Wheeling remains a lovely place to visit and it stirs fond memories.  Two of my sons and I have enjoyed returning there annually during nearly every one of the past seven years.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

* 3:18 p.m., July 26, 1947 – Car 38 at North Island – Norman Peabody, Operator
Rt. 70 North Island Car on Georgia Street near N. Huron St. on the island
with Norm Peabody throwing the switch turning off Rt. 71. 
(Photo from William J. B. Gwinn collection – provided by Linda Fluharty)



(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)

When Jim was orphaned at a tender age, he was separated from a younger sister, Anna, and a still younger brother, Dick.  After his travels, and when his life began to gain some stability, he reestablished his connection with the two, and he continued regular communication with them for a number of years.  For several years after his return to New York in 1936, there was frequent socialization between the families.

Since childhood, Jim had seen much of the world, and had attained a modestly successful livelihood in the construction business.  Anna and Dick had remained in New York City and had worked hard for whatever livelihood the city offered to people of high-school education, or less.

Before his untimely death from pneumonia in 1937, Dick’s final employment was operating a change booth in a subway station, where he dispensed the nickels needed for the entry turnstiles.  Anna had married Joseph Mangan and had given birth to three children: Eileen, Cornelia (whom Jim called “Toots”), and Francis.  Not long after Francis was born, about 1924, Anna was widowed.  Nevertheless, she continued to make a good home for her youngsters, partly by Joseph’s provisions and partly by dint of hard labor, primarily as a seamstress.

As this story unfolds, it presents a hard lesson and a warning: When such differences in experiences and livelihoods exist among siblings, enormous stress is put on the relationships between them.

In 1927, Jim gave his son the middle name Richard, honoring Dick.  Dick responded over the next two or three years with lavish – though somewhat impractical – gifts for the child.  One of these was a professional-grade snare drum.  Another was an ornate wooden sleigh.

The first sign of a stressed relationship appeared sometime around 1930, when Dick visited Jim in Wheeling.  The visit seemed to go well, but Jim learned later that Dick’s report to Anna had been that Jim had hit it rich and was flaunting his wealth, “putting on the dog.”  Dick noted particularly that dinner was served on elegant glassware rather than on ordinary china.  He didn’t seem to realize that the Depression Glassware in question had been collected by Jim’s brother-in-law in return for purchases of gasoline.

When Jim, Anna, and Dick socialized in the late 1930s, it became evident that Anna and Dick had built up a resentment toward Jim, and a propensity to put him down whenever possible.  Jim saw this as an understandable bit of jealousy over his worldwide adventures and his achievement of a very modest financial success.  What he never mentioned, however, was probably dominant in their feelings toward him: Intellectually and culturally, he had left their world.

When Jimmy, Jim’s son, visited his cousin Francis, Anna began to reveal her attitude by criticizing how his mother had groomed and dressed him.  She changed his hairstyle, moving the part from left to middle, and plastered it all down with Brilliantine.  She changed much of his wardrobe with items that Francis had outgrown.

Jim and Anna exchanged visits from 1936 until 1940.  By late 1939, Jim’s close friends the Rosenbergs were living in the area, and Anna met them.  She invited them as well as Jim and family for Thanksgiving dinner.  Her put-downs of Jim had been increasing over the years.  They reached a peak on this occasion, when she placed Rosy (Russell Rosenberg) instead of her brother at the head of the table, and asked Rosy to say grace.  Jim pondered her obvious feelings toward him, and by late 1940 decided not to contact her again.  Before he might reconsider, the war intervened and brought great turmoil in his life, and the two families completely lost track of one another.  They never met or communicated again.

The following photos show possibly the last meeting of Jim and Anna, in January 1940.  Also shown are Jim’s wife, Edith (center of sofa), and Alice Rosenberg (far right).

Fig32JE40a         Fig33Anna40

*            *            *

The reader of this blog may have realized by now that Jim was my father, and I was his son “Jimmy.”  I will turn now to my own experience with this situation since 1940.  It has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, gaining momentum even within the past year and in recent days.

When Jim and Anna parted ways, I lost two cousins, “Toots” and Francis, whom I loved and greatly enjoyed.  Actually, Toots did keep up a bit of correspondence with me for the next couple of years, sending foreign postage stamps for my collection.  This ended after she sent me her wedding announcement in 1942.

Beyond that, I remained a loyal son, and I never took steps to overcome Jim’s dictum that the relationship had ended.  It required a new generation to take those steps.  In late 2012, my son Jasper launched an effort to find the missing cousins.  He did indeed find “Toots” under her married name, Cornelia Mangan Farrell, in Philadelphia.  They had a brief exchange, which naturally but unfortunately involved her mother’s maiden name.  Such names are now a frequent password to a person’s financial assets.  Fearing a scam, Cornelia asked Jasper to state his case in a letter.  He did so, but she never answered.

As the publication of my recent book, Working-Class Hero, approached, I believed that I finally had something to offer Cornelia.  Something to convince her that Jasper was no scam artist.  Something to give her the history of a branch of the family that she had once loved.  However, one problem vexed me for many days: That book dealt with the rift between Jim and Anna, and made statements about Anna that Cornelia might find offensive.

Finally, a couple of days after the book was published, I was inspired by a strategy by which I might present the book to Cornelia, while also seeking her understanding and forgiveness for the offensive statements.  For some hours, I was in a glorious mood, anticipating a reconnection with this long-lost cousin.  But Jasper had a hunch, he acted on it, and he presented me with Cornelia’s obituary, dated May 2013.  Thus ended the roller-coaster ride, in a crash.