Pale Ales and Presidential Aspirations: The Wheeling Ties of John Hickenlooper

On July 30, 10 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president will explain to the American people why they are the best person to lead the country, likely harkening back to their past successes in public service and business.

John Hickenlooper

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper may mention how in 1988 he started Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver’s then-dilapidated LoDo neighborhood, which served as a catalyst to the revitalization of the now vibrant area (and makes him the first brewer-governor since Samuel Adams).

The rest of the story is that Hickenlooper then sought to replicate that model of urban renewal, teaming up with local co-owners across the country to open up brewpubs in historic buildings in the hopes of spurring development in forgotten neighborhoods and contributing to those cities’ comeback stories: including right here in Wheeling, West Virginia.

The Nail City Brewing Company operated on the first floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center from 1996 until 1999. Hickenlooper’s track record of inner-city renaissance through the opening of breweries in historic buildings fit well with the then-newly renovated Artisan Center and the mission of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation (WNHAC), today known as Wheeling Heritage.

The opening of the Nail City brewpub was in part a bet on the future of the Artisan Center itself. After the initial renovation, the board of WNHAC was divided over the use of the building; some wanted the whole center to be a dedicated tourist attraction similar to Tamarack in Raleigh County, while others foresaw the space as more community-oriented, like it is now. A narrow decision by the board prompted then-WNHAC Executive Director Charlie Flynn to start a national search for a restaurant to move into the first-floor space.

The Nail City Brewery was located on the first floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center, where River City Restaurant is today. (Photo by Nick Musgrave)

“Hickenlooper was really ahead of his time in investing nationally in brewpubs,” said Pat Cassidy, former chairman of WNHAC. “We had Charlie Flynn contact him and say, ‘hey, you got to come to Wheeling and check out this great space we have.’”

Hickenlooper came to Wheeling and met with Flynn and Cassidy over breakfast in Cassidy’s home. According to Cassidy, it was his cooking that convinced Hickenlooper to open up a brewery in Wheeling.

“I want you to know it was my breakfast that sealed the deal, because I specialize in making breakfast,” said Cassidy.

Former chairman of WNHAC, Pat Cassidy sits with a Nail City beer bottle at the table where he and Charlie Flynn helped convince Hickenlooper to open a brewpub in Wheeling. (Photo by Nick Musgrave)

By the mid-1990s Wheeling was struggling with the effects of deindustrialization, including fallout from the bankruptcy reorganization of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation in 1985. Many downtown staples were forced to close or relocate and even Stone and Thomas was forced to sell itself to another regional department store chain. Hickenlooper’s outside investment was one of the few influxes of capital into the Friendly City’s downtown rather than out of it, and served as an early precursor to today’s rejuvenation efforts across Wheeling’s inner neighborhoods.

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According to many who lived in Wheeling at the time, Nail City was well-run with good beer and service, but was never able to attract the kind of foot traffic that other Wynkoop-affiliated breweries drew in. Contemporary online reviews of Nail City’s immediate successor — River City Ale Works — describe a quality product and a great historic atmosphere, but lamentably note how many patrons stick to macrobrews such as Bud Light.

This bottle originally contained the first batch of beer brewed at Nail City Brewing Co. (Photo by Nick Musgrave, bottle courtesy of Pat Cassidy)

“I really think it would have been much more successful today with all the interest in local brewpubs,” said Cassidy. “That’s why I say he was a little ahead of his time, at least for our demographic.”

Hickenlooper’s involvement ended in 1999 with the closure of Nail City Brewing Co. The craft beer revolution was still new, and like many other things, West Virginia was slower in adopting the taste.

While Nail City Brewing Company may have been ahead of its time for the Ohio Valley, quite a few brewpubs and microbreweries have sprung up in the area in the past half-decade. Wheeling Brewing Company launched in Centre Market in 2014, followed by Brewkeepers in 2016 and, most recently, Hightower Brewing Company across the river in Rayland, Ohio, in 2017. As Hickenlooper and WNHAC boosters had originally hoped, neighborhoods such as downtown and Centre Wheeling have seen degrees of renaissance around these new businesses.

The Wynkoop Brewing Company, Colorado’s oldest brewpub, was founded in 1988. It is housed in the J. S. Brown Mercantile Building. The Mercantile Company was the most impressive of its time with hardwood floors, thick timber pillars and pressed tin ceilings. Miners, ranchers and city folks would walk these very floors looking for goods to furnish their frontier homes. The main floor, now the bar and restaurant, served as the original showroom in 1899.

A regular businessman and brewer when he joined Cassidy and Flynn for breakfast over 20 years ago, Hickenlooper went on to serve as mayor of Denver from 2003-11 and governor of Colorado from 2011-19. This week he will be on the debate stage telling his story, a story that our Nail City has a part in.

Nick Musgrave is a self-described history geek living in Wheeling, West Virginia. He is a graduate of Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, where he earned his bachelor’s degrees in history and political science. When not writing for Weelunk or uncovering cool stories about the past, he can often be found reading in his hammock or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee.