Introduction by Steve Novotney
It depends on the time of year it is, and that’s because during the spring and summer months the Mount Wood Overlook is barely visible to those passing by along National Road at the top of Wheeling Hill.
But it’s there, and it’s been there far longer than most imagine.
Along with other groups, members of the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission have investigated ways to return the Mount Wood Overlook to the mainstream with beautification, and several of them tested the use of moss painting on the facility’s graffiti-covered walls last summer. The moss unfortunately did not take because of warmer-than-usual temperatures that arrived in the Upper Ohio Valley immediately after the moss was applied.
But that does not mean those local folks will not attempt again in 2016, and that’s because they believe the overlook can be an asset to both local residents and to those visiting the Friendly City. The views, for example, from this vantage point are stunning as one peers south into downtown Wheeling, west onto Wheeling Island and East Ohio, and eastward into the Fulton neighborhood and the I-70 corridor, and land does exist for parking and picnic tables and perhaps even a petite playground.
The facility also is located adjacent to Mount Wood Cemetery, a historic burial ground for many men and women who helped develop the city into a destination for westward travelers, immigrants, and industrialists looking to capitalize on the commerce taking place here more than 100 years ago. The cemetery has been the concentration of Rebekah Karelis, historian for Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., as well as a plethora of volunteers who have worked extensively to rehabilitate it after far too many years of neglect.
While most residents know of the overlook’s present perch, few frequent it because of the unknown, but local historian Joe Roxby accepted the challenge of unlocking the truth that had faded away through the years. He discovered, too, that others had preserved the authentic tale behind Wheeling’s castle prior to his research, and Roxby now shares his discoveries thanks to historian Kate Quinn and a newspaper reporter from Wheeling’s past.
Roxby, a current Ohio County Magistrate who was a member of the Wheeling Police Department for more than 20 years, also includes what questions still remain about Mount Wood Overlook and its original owner, and he presents a few theories that extend even farther into the Friendly City’s real history.
The Wheeling Castle
By Joe Roxby
It’s very easy to overlook the interesting things that are right in front of us.
In my own case it was something I saw every day, wondered about for many years, then promptly forgot when inquiries would lead to dead ends.
What I am referring to is the stone castle at the top of Wheeling Hill that overlooks McColloch’s Leap, also referred to as the Mount Wood Overlook. I grew up nearby it and lived on Mt. Wood Road for 25 years, from 1958 to 1983, a few hundred yards from what was commonly called the “air castle.” There was seldom a day I did not pass it.
For many years, it was a popular spot at night for young lovers. During the day it was equally popular with older lovers who were married, though not necessarily to each other.
As a curious youngster I asked various members of my family who had lived almost back to the turn of the last century (1920s), and no one could really give me any sort of a definite answer. The closest one who seemed to offer even a hint or clue to its origin was my Great Uncle Cy (Stanley Olinski). He always referred to the lower section of Mt. Wood as “Harness’s Hill” and made mention of a Dr. Harness, who may have owned it.
Further inquiries to other older residents produced some interesting tales. One was that the castle was to be a hospital. Another was that a doctor built it as a home for a wife who met an untimely death, and, broken-hearted, he abandoned it. A juicier tale was that it was being built for the doctor’s mistress, but he went broke around the time of the Great Depression and never finished it. One day a few years ago at the Center Market over lunch, I even questioned the sage of all things Wheeling, Margaret Brennan. Sadly, she too was equally in the dark. At that point, I just gave up the quest.
Two years ago, Crissy Clutter, a reporter from WTOV, stopped by my office. The conversation was something to the effect of, “Hey Joe, you’re a history guy. I’d like to do a piece on the Mt. Wood Overlook. What’s the story?”
I told her what little I knew of it and shared my frustration with all the dead-end leads. After we parted company, I promised to put on my Indiana Jones hat and take one last try to solve the mystery.
Some preliminary investigation showed that the property was originally part of a land grant that belonged to Jonathan Zane. Later, after the Civil War, there was considerable discussion about making the area an extension to the Mount Wood Cemetery and putting up a monument for Lincoln. The area would be a burial ground for veterans of that conflict, but plans were never completed. This took me to about the 1880s and again, a dead end.
Out of frustration, I made an inquiry on everybody’s favorite love-to-hate medium, Facebook. Amazingly, within two days the riddle was solved. Local historian Kate Quinn stopped by with an old newspaper article that not only answered every question, but after some analysis, raised a few more. Worth noting, Kate was on the team that defeated mine for the Wheeling History Championship last August.
She gave a photocopy of a very well-written and excellently researched article titled “An Unfinished Dream,” by Monroe Worthington. (I was able to verify that Mr. Monroe Worthington worked for the Wheeling newspaper. The primary sources he cites in the piece are from local land records and Federal Court documents. From the rather grainy photo that accompanied it, I would hazard a guess that the article was from the early to mid-1960s.)
Like all tales that surround a place or event there is usually a grain of truth in the local legends. It turned out that the name my uncle had attached to it was correct. The article stated that the castle property was purchased by Dr. Andrew J. Harness from the city of Wheeling on July 13, 1921, for the sum of $10. Whatever construction that took place on the castle would have occurred between 1921 and 1925.
The building project came to a very abrupt halt in 1925, and the reason for it could have easily been taken from today’s news headlines. Dr. Harness was indicted for two federal counts of illegal drug sales, one for morphine and the other for cocaine. The two counts cited in the indictment took place on Feb. 24,1919, and June 21, 1925.
A mere five days after his indictment, on Nov. 5, 1925, Dr. Harness pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Federal Judge W.E. Baker to serve 18 months in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He was released on Jan. 16, 1927, and from there vanishes from local history.
The piece also notes that on May 20, 1927, a “Capias Profane” was issued related to the unpaid $1,000 fine that was part of Dr. Harness’s sentence.
In addition to the unfinished castle that was to be his residence, Harness also built a large laundry in front of it that actually sat near the bottom of Mt. Wood Road. He named it The Family Wash Laundry. When I resided on the hill, it was known as the Quality Laundry and owned by Roland J. Finney. If memory serves me correctly, it ceased operation about 1970 and was torn down to widen Mt. Wood Road in 1979.
The end of the article stated that Dr. Harness specialized in “female diseases,” and his office was located at 1500 Main St. in Wheeling. The last statement offered a lot of food for thought that led me to some other questions. The way the article singled out Dr. Harness’s specialty as “female diseases” seemed as if it were written as code words that the reader of the time would have understood.
An interesting aside from a business that was conducted by and large in code words, it was long rumored that more than a few Catholic boys from Pittsburgh came to visit Wheeling’s local temples of Venus. Afterward when going to Confession, the Friendly City’s reputation was so infamous they would simply say, “Forgive me Father, for I’ve been to Wheeling,” and the priests understood the errant lads had visited the vineyards of vice.
After some consideration, I believe what they were implying was the Dr. Harness was involved in prostitution. Though the evidence is purely circumstantial, it would certainly seem to point in that direction. Almost from its birth, Wheeling has been a center for prostitution.
From my own research I long suspected that the sun had not set a week upon a newly built Fort Henry before a business deal was made wherein sexual activity involved half of the transaction. Wheeling’s first recorded prostitution arrest was in 1828. The commercial love trade continued to flourish at the Place of the Skull through the early 1800s and well beyond the Civil War. It had gone from commercial to nearly an industrial scale when an early 1900 newspaper article noted one night nearly 100 prostitutes and madams were arrested at a large, sweeping raid. Prostitution was near its absolute zenith during the 1920s while Dr. Harness was in practice.
By an unwritten agreement, after 1900, the commercial center of it shifted from the 1000 block of Lane C (behind the old Sears Building) to south of Wheeling Creek in the Center Wheeling area. The 1500 Main St. location would have been within walking distance of the area and would have given patient and doctor easy access to each other. Further supporting that conclusion, it was an unstated but long understood protocol that existed even into the 1970s that required all working girls were inspected at regular intervals for venereal disease.
Harness’s involvement with drugs adds further support to that conclusion. Drugs, like gambling and prostitution, have long travelled hand in hand. From long years of personal observation on the streets of Wheeling, the skin trades (both prostitutes and nude dancers), tend to exact a hard toll upon those who work in them, and drugs have long been the sisters-of-sin’s first choice to alleviate their distress. My guess is that Dr. Harness was not selling drugs to the public like pill-mills we see operating today, but rather he was providing them to the prostitutes for their personal use as a part of his services.
I also found it more than a bit curious that whoever was behind the clean-up campaign used the Federal Court to curtail the love doctor’s activities. State laws would have certainly been up to the task, but again we must consider the temper of the times. It is most probable that the authorities who decided to sever the connection between Dr. Harness and the local love ranches figured they could probably not get a conviction in a state court. They may have been correct. The influence of vice on local government during this period was legendary. No vice, liquor, or gambling operated without the permission of the local underworld and City Hall.
Illustrating that point, during my early days on the Wheeling Police Department, Car No. 3 was and had been the car that patrolled the Center Wheeling beat where the bordellos operated. During the early 1950s it was lucrative for whoever worked there and considered a plum assignment. It was also the headquarters of Bill Lias and his gambling palace, The Pirate Café, at 23rd and Main streets. An old timer, who was a member of that select fraternity, flatly stated that absolutely no one during that time was assigned to that beat without Bill Lias’s personal approval. A final touch, the laundry Harness built would be an excellent place to launder his ill-gotten gains as well.
So it is not without more than a bit of irony that the foundation of the old castle where the boys and girls of my youth used to go to explore the mystery of young love was most likely built on the commercialization of that same attraction.
(Photos by Steve Novotney)