Exploring North Wheeling’s Rich Steamboat History

Wheeling Intelligencer
18 September 2016
By Janell Hunter

WHEELING — One weekend every September, paddlewheel boats line Wheeling’s waterfront for the annual Heritage Port Sternwheel Festival.

As this year’s festival came to an end Saturday, the Friends of Wheeling group transported visitors back to a time when it was like that all year-round.

The North Wheeling neighborhood held a sidewalk sale, and residents displayed their wares — paintings, arts and crafts, baked goods, clothing, antiques and more — outside of the historic brick row homes that line Main Street, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. And for the first time in conjunction with the Wheeling Heritage Port Sternwheel Festival, the Friends of Wheeling spoke to those attending the sale about the rich history North Wheeling has regarding the steamboat industry.

“We typically do this once a year. This year’s sale seems to be successful so far. We invite people to come take a walking tour of the history and architecture of North Wheeling,” said Victorian Old Town Association president Morgan Wood.

Jeanne Finstein, president of Friends of Wheeling, along with Friends of Wheeling members Joanne Sullivan, Ed Phillips and author John Bowman, were dressed in Victorian costumes mingling among the shoppers and telling them about the history of the area.

“There was a huge riverboat industry back in the day. Between 1815 and 1900 there were something like 250 riverboats built or at least finished here in Wheeling,” Finstein said. “Many of the workers lived in North Wheeling. There were carpenters who worked on the hulls, there were engineers who worked on the boats, there were riverboat captains, there were boilermakers. It was a big deal so we are doing walking tours to show some of the houses that still remain that were here at the time.”

Finstein stood outside 653 Main St., a home on the National Register of Historic Places originally built in 1831 and now owned by Chuck Wood.

“Arthur Phillips lived here at 653 Main St. He built machinery for the riverboats, and his factory was on the river right behind the house,” Finstein said.

John Bowman is one of the premier historians of the steamboat industry in the country, according to Wood. He has written five books on the subject, and built 51 models of historic boats.

“Wheeling’s first major industry was boat building,” Bowman said.

Finstein noted Phillips was considered to be a traitor because he was one of the men who signed the ordinance of secession when Virginia split from the Union in 1861. There was a list of 80 men in Wheeling, mostly prominent people, who signed the ordinance of secession and their names were posted publicly.

On Saturday, Wood kept his door open to passersby who were interested in learning more about the history of the area.

“North Wheeling was a center of boat-building for a long time, and Phillips was the first one who built the steamboat engines west of the Appalachians, I believe,” said Wood.

He had a steamboat in a glass case on display inside the foyer of the house.

“This is our first year doing this. We thought every year Wheeling has the Sternwheel Festival, but there’s nothing that talks about our history about the boats,” Wood said.