Editor’s note: “Wheeling at 250” was commissioned by the Wheeling 250 committee. The poem, written by Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate, was premiered at the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s concert on the Fourth of July at Heritage Port.
I started reading, researching materials, as well as sketching some initial lines for the “Wheeling at 250” poem back in early February. I am honored to have received the commission, but commission work is always very challenging, if not a little daunting.
It is not the way I usually come at a poem. I like having more leisure with a poem and to feel less constrained than I do when I know there is a rather strictly defined topic. That said, it was also thrilling to discover and rediscover so much that is so very unique about this city we call home. And to have the opportunity to celebrate these riches in a single poem I honor as a gift for which I am grateful.
Thanks to Alan Fitzpatrick for a close reading of the early stanzas, to Jeanne Finstein for reading “my” history to see if it matched “the” history, to Anna Egan Smucker, long-time colleague in the word-smith business, to Jay Frey for general support, and to Cheryl, life-partner and master of the details of the English language.
WHEELING AT 250
By Marc Harshman
Three-hundred million years ago, from low-lying, Carboniferous swamps,
from alluvial sands and beds of shale, sandstone, and coal
came these lumpy and rugged, green rolling hills
cut by hundreds of streams and rivers.
Just two-hundred fifty years ago came
from the east most of our forebears who
came and saw this wide and pleasant valley,
came towards La Salle’s la belle riviere and,
though beautiful in French, it’s the native tongue lasted:
Oi-yo became Ohio.
And despite unimaginable hardships our forebears kept coming,
came through the blood of innocents, the blood
of Chief Logan’s innocent children, the blood of the three seven’s,
the blood of countless Mingo, Delaware, and Shawnee,
came with the blood of the skull
staining a stake at the mouth of the Ranonouara, Wheeling Creek, weelunk.
Came here to this comely set of bottom lands
where roads of water and land still meet,
came, and kept coming.
So let’s say 1769, let’s say
Zane and Boggs and Caldwell and Tomlinson,
Wetzel and Shepherd, Van Meter, McColloch families came …
came and from this forested seed of a city, “godly even,”
stretched communities from the Buffalo to Big Grave Creek.
Came here where stood riches of oak and hemlock, hickory and elm and maple.
Came here where a panoply of animals —
beaver, bear, wolf, elk, panther, rattlesnake, bald eagle —
offered up pelts and food, story and symbol.
Came here where women and men turned the earth, grew
corn and potatoes, knit, spun, and dyed with black walnut,
bloodroot, goldenrod their homespun and linsey-woolsey,
canned and preserved, salted down and hung up venison and boar,
laid up log homes, field-stone hearths,
and soon, soon brick and frame, soon rural became urban.
Came through wars: Lord Dunmore’s,
the French and Indian, the Revolutionary.
Came and would survive this frontier of grinding privations,
would persevere, know the deep joys of marriages and births
accompanied by stories, fiddle tunes, and oh, such dancing.
Less than a generation after Zane
found this place, eighty houses stood, and soon
fifty stage coaches a day are stopping here
with tons of goods and people, some headed beyond,
but many staying.
And within a few generations six thousand steamboats
are passing up and down our great river.
So our city expands, becomes major inland port,
a muscular city increasingly known across America —
known for furs, iron, glass, tobacco, calico, liquor, coal.
To such a great city must come a great bridge, and it does:
a landmark, for a while the longest suspension bridge in the world
over which the National Road and our city
became more than ever America’s gateway to the West.
With its bridge, Wheeling is now ready to break free, to become
a truly great American city but there’s a shadow over being free:
if not everyone in Wheeling is free, then no one is free
and there were good people right here in our river city
being sold on an auction block, African Americans sold
as if they were oxen or hogs,
shedding soul blood here on the north end of the old market.
So Wheeling must come through the great conflict
that will set all Americans free
and so the cannon ball and fire raining down on Fort Sumter
rain their consequences on families throughout Wheeling,
a war dividing, bringing death and disease, but freedom, too,
as well as heroes, heroes unnamed among the famous Seventh West Virginia Infantry
standing tall at the Sunken Road in Antietam, holding firm
at Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg, a war giving birth to the Wheeling Ambulance
that saved scores of lives on countless battlefields.
This same war then gives birth — seceding from the secession —
to this, the thirty-fifth state of these still United States,
gives birth right here in Wheeling in buildings still standing
where debates raged and eventually lifted up
this free state of West Virginia on June Twentieth, Eighteen Sixty-Three.
So the war passes and Wheeling outdoes itself
flourishes — coal and glass, iron and steel,
landmark breweries and pharmaceuticals all to stake their share
in America’s markets, and men and women of promise and fortune:
lawyers, journalists, politicians, preachers
and untold numbers of working folk keep it all going.
But with all this industry came struggle,
the ongoing struggle of the working classes
but they are not alone: Eugene Debbs, Samuel Gompers, Mother Jones, friends of
working people everywhere, come to this, our Wheeling on a single stage, a single night
and speak truth to power — maybe echoes of their fiery oratory
find their way to our own hero of the working class: Walter Reuther!
There are progressive-minded entrepreneurs, too:
Augustus Pollack and Jesse Bloch who join hands across the divide of class.
And perhaps the finest story of unity between the rich and not so rich:
rather than accept a free library from Andrew Carnegie, Wheeling workers and
business leaders unite to build a public library beholden to no one.
With such a history of honorable and fair work, there follows so much:
here surely the finest small symphony in America, a landmark country music venue,
distinguished politicians, journalists, artists, writers, film-makers …
Not surprisingly we do become the crossroads of America, are
even briefly considered being named the nation’s capital!
Soon we became the terminus of the B & O Railroad, became the most secure
through-passage to all of America west of the Ohio with our National Road.
We do not become the nation’s capital, but we do persist
through wars and floods, civil unrest and injustice, racists and mobsters.
A blade of sunlight cuts
the shadowy river after storm, the same today
as when a Mingo chief left his long house and saw the same,
the same as when Lydia Boggs wiped her brow
and glanced toward this same blade cutting
this same river, and beautiful would have been
the language they shared.
They kept homes of welcome.
Surely few cities have welcomed such a rich array of famous visitors and performers:
Audubon, Lafayette, Whitman, Jenny Lind, the Flying Wallendas, Buck Owens, Charlie
Pride, Tammy Wynette, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Jean Pierre Rampal,
Itzhak Perlman, Marian Anderson, Yo-Yo Ma.
One day I find my way inside the Capitol Theater and sit below those lovely, statuesque
women holding their bowls, and think, hear again the roar of the crowd erupt after
Roberta Peters sings her aria, hear the ringing of cow bells greet Hankshaw Hawkins, but
I think less of these superstars than of ourselves come to sit here, come from farms and
factories, from offices, hospitals and schools, come to be lifted here from the mundane
And I rejoice to think how others before us once came into these green, rolling hills,
came and have kept coming, joining, and flourishing here in this city we love, this city
we call home.
So we stand today surrounded by a sky filled with our own stars whose gifts of light
continue to reach and sustain: Rebecca Harding Davis, Ellis Dungan, J. McHenry Jones,
Chu Berry, Walter Reuther, Edith Lake Wilkinson, Thais Blatnik, Jesse Burkett, Eleanor
And whether we’re sitting in the Capitol listening to Beethoven or basking in the
sunshine at the wharf as the blues wash over us, hiking the trails at Oglebay or along the
river, looking at art on the walls of Stifel or Centre Market or the Artisan Center, rooting
for the Nailers and remembering the Ironmen, there are these immortal stars above us ….
But most, perhaps, are just like us, little known but doing the work that shines
and goes on shining, that will come into the future just as our forebears once came into
this wilderness filled with hope and willing to roll up their sleeves to get the hope
You can meet them in schools, or in the street, or on the river,
you can say hello to them in Elm Grove or downtown,
you can greet them come from Benwood or Warwood, Goosetown or Mozart,
Dimmeydale or Claytor, from Chicken Neck Hill to the Fort Henry Bridge,
meet them in church or temple or lodge, or in shops, or for coffee,
for the best part of Wheeling will always be folks just like you, … just like us!