West Virginia’s First Trade School Was Located Right Here in Wheeling

The very first vocational school in West Virginia was located right here in Wheeling – South Wheeling to be exact.

The McKinley Trade and Vocational school first opened its doors in 1927, welcoming new students under the belief that; “ regular graded and high school curricula are not suited for many boys who are mechanically inclined or who have acquired a strong distaste for formal book knowledge. Further, they believe that the present manual training system is very insufficient for the boy who wants to learn a trade.” (The McKinley Craftsman, 1927)

You would be hard-pressed to find similar words uttered today, but offering trade and vocational education was a no-brainer for the Mckinley School because, as described in the original handbook, for many young boys formal curriculum didn’t serve the direct and immediate needs of the community or their unique desire to learn. 

  • McKinley Vocational High School auto mechanical students. Photo courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library Archives, Wheeling, WV.

At the turn of the century, Wheeling saw significant economic changes – transforming it from a small frontier town into a major industrial center. The growth of industry in the city led to the development of a strong transportation network, including the construction of the National Road and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This, coupled with new immigrants drawn to factory jobs, made South Wheeling an ideal location for manual trade and vocational classes.

Accepting boys and occasionally girls between the ages of 14-18 years, the Mckinley School offered various skill-building classes including; printing, electrical construction, automobile mechanics, general sciences and even music education in the form of a band; “building a band of boys who had no previous musical education is not an easy task under the most favorable conditions” published in the original Mckinley Craftsman handbook.

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Although many of these bygone industries have since left the city, due to quickly changing economic winds, South Wheeling continues to serve as a neighborhood that houses manufacturing sites and industries still in operation.

Graduates of the vocational school have an active presence on social media publishing photos of previous class reunions like this one from the class of 1962.

Today, we may only have memories of the McKinley School but education in the trades continues here in Wheeling as we see through Wheeling Park High School’s Career Technical Classes (CTE).

These classes include a range of programs echoing that of the Mckinley school including; Automotive Technology, Carpentry, and Machine Tool Technology as well as more modern programs like Graphic Design and Computer Systems Repair Technology.

After consolidation efforts through the local school system, the McKinley trade school was closed In 1976, and the building later demolished.

But what’s old might be new again. A recent study conducted by ECMC found that current interest among teens in a four-year degree plummeted from 71% to 48% between May 2020 and September 2021. This leaves wide open the opportunity for expansions in trade and vocational education nationwide.

As we see this national trend toward trade and vocational studies following decades of a traditional four-year track education, the original idea of the Mckinley school sounds almost prophetic today.

• Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Ketchum also serves as the Chief Facilitator of the public health coalition “Edible Mountain”. Rosemary’s work in community organizing and politics has been featured on TODAY, MSNBC, CBS, and CNN.