(Editor’s Note: This is the first story of a two-part series concentrating on the known haunts in the Wheeling area and what has been proven about those legends about ghost and goblins.)
Many tales have circulated in this area throughout the years about ghosts or spirits or some sort of haunting experiences after a human being with no definite explanation for the paranormal interaction saw, heard, or felt something strange.
People are born, and they do die every day, and they have passed on in a plethora of nooks and crannies in this Valley while building tunnels, working coal mines, fighting wars, working for the mob, or being around the wrong person at the wrong time. Or just because it was their time. These settlements along the Ohio River are older than the country itself, and before the white man arrived, Native Americans worked this land, and they perished here, too, during an era in this Upper Ohio Valley when the great outdoors was indeed the grocer, and survival depended on ingenuity.
Millions and more souls have been surrendered to the afterlife to travel wherever they may, but some, many believe, stayed to inevitably scare. That is the mystery for many here in this area because, frankly, far too many unexplained presences have been reported in Wheeling and outside her city limits. Roney’s Point Hospital is just one example of a place where death was daily whether demise was caused by the tuberculosis crisis or by the deranged doing of derelict deeds.
The Tominack sisters, Olivia and Lindsey, told us two years ago about their experiences as the property caretaker’s children living there for eight years nearly two decades ago. There was the gray man petting their dog, the white light shining through the asylum’s windows, and the colonial kids the pizza guy saw near their basketball hoop. For them, because they were taught this by their parents, anytime something unexplained appeared before them, it was likely friendly because a spirit once told their father that “he” was happy to have their dad and his family around the grounds.
Olivia, now married to Noah Litman and the mother of two with another on the way, is the marketing director for the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even today, Litman refers to the Roney’s Point property as a “good home,” but only because the spirits seemed to leave her alone. Her sister was a different story.
“It was Lindsey who had all the experiences,” she said. “It was creepy when I walked through the hospital the first time because I remember everything being totally in place, but there were no people there. It was like at the end of the last day they just told people not to come back because it was closing.”
Many other locations in the Wheeling area have been rumored to be haunted, and several have been confirmed by EVP recordings, digital video recordings, and either by ear- or eyewitness-accounts in both privately owned residences and buildings as well as in several public places and spaces. The old asylum, rotting away on an Ohio County hilltop near Valley Grove, is only one of those legends.
The Bellaire House
“When you deal with what’s in the that house you just don’t want to remember it, and you want to get as far away as you possibly can from anything related to ghosts and spirits. You ask yourself, ‘What the hell just happened?’ But you do know that this stuff really does exist.”
Those are the words of Christine Lee, the owner of the Bellaire House, a structure constructed more than 100 years ago but because records were destroyed at the courthouse, no one really knows for sure when coal mine owner Jacob Heatherington had the dwelling built at 1699 Belmont St. in the village of Bellaire.
What she does know without a doubt is that she cannot live there and neither can her family members or anyone to whom she’s rented the residence. She moved out. They moved out.
“The last group of people that rented the house called me and asked me what in the hell is wrong with your house? They told me it’s haunted, and I just told them it wasn’t, but it was pretty obvious,” she said. “I knew it was haunted because whatever is in that house haunted me and my family, but I needed to pay the mortgage and the bills so I just kept trying, and one after another they moved out.”
She and others have heard the pacing, the bangs, and the voices, and they have been pushed, flicked, scratched, and they actually have seen apparitions of human figures and been introduced to Eliza and Emily and Josh and Gwen and several others. Lee has told many hosts from a plethora of paranormal TV and web-based shows that she’s become convinced demonic activity is indeed alive and frightening at that Belmont Street address.
Lee purchased the Bellaire House fairly soon after she and her family were chased from their residence near the Neffs area when the flash flooding hit all corners of the Upper Ohio Valley in mid-September 2004 after two storm systems left by hurricanes Ivan and Francis dumped 10 inches of rain in a 10-hour span in the region. Lee and her two sons lost everything, and they were homeless.
“We wanted to stay close to Bellaire because we had family who lived there, and I wanted my son to be close to them,” Lee explained. “One day I was at work, and I was looking at houses that had been foreclosed on because we didn’t have a big budget to use to purchase a new home, and that one was.
“It looked lovely, and it had the big yard and the four bedrooms that we needed, and it was a Victorian-looking home that I thought was very attractive. When I was a kid, my dad would always take me over to the Coleman’s, and I would always tell him that I wanted a house that looked like the ones in that area,” she said. “I was drawn to the Bellaire house not just because of the architecture but also because of the price and the location. We had some work to do on it before we could move in, but that only cost us about $1,500, and then we moved in.”
Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and an attic that, prior to Lee’s purchase, was renovated into yet another bedroom were exactly what she was searching for after FEMA granted her $25,000 to restart life after the floods forced them out. The Bellaire House offered all the above, plus a big yard for Bella, her pit bull who has since passed away.
“We were there for a couple of weeks before anything happened as far as the unexplained is concerned, and I’m not sure why it took so long for them to make themselves known,” Lee said. “I am a psychic medium. That’s what I do for a living, so when I told people about what was going on in the house, most of them asked me that if I’m a medium how did I not know the place was haunted, and the only thing I thought of was that, because of the flood and all the trauma we experienced, being open to those kinds of things probably was the last thing on my list.
“I believe my guard was so up from losing everything and being homeless that I just wasn’t picking anything up,” she continued. “But that changed, though, when one night I was asleep on our couch, and I felt the cushion go down, and when I opened up my eyes, I saw this gray figure of a man, and he scared me. When I sat up, he got up , too, and I felt the cushion move again, and he walked into the foyer, and then he vanished. He went away just like that.”
Was it just stress from the trauma involved with getting forced out of their home because of the massive flooding? Prolonged exhaustion from the move? Something psychological? Or were there really spirits of those who had lived there and died there? Did that gray, grainy man belong to the death list for one of two major coal mine fires in the village in the 1940s, was he a Shawnee Indian entombed close by in a hillside cave, or was it the ghost of someone prepared for burial within those walls when the structure was a funeral home?
“My son’s father and my oldest son were the first to move out of the house, so then it was me and my son, Lane, who were left in the house. It got very intense for Lane and me, and he decided to go live with his grandparents,” Lee said. “One night when everyone was gone, it was just me and my dog, Bella, and Bella got thrown up against one of the walls and was hurt. Bella was a pit bull, so such a violent act was, for sure, poltergeist activity, and that’s when I knew I had to get out. I then took a job in Columbus and tried renting the house, but the renters wouldn’t stay long.”
No one would stay, so Lee made a financial decision she thought was best for her and her family.
“At that time I was working in the psychology field, and I really didn’t want anyone thinking I was crazy, and I was still kind of in denial. I didn’t want people to know because I had a mortgage on the house and had bills to pay,” she admitted. “But no one would stay longer than a month or two, so that’s when I filed bankruptcy because of the house, and then we moved away from the Valley. Then, though, the code enforcer in Bellaire called me one day and told me that he was going to have to start fining me because the grass needed cut, and I told him I didn’t own it anymore. But he insisted I did.
“When I spoke with my attorney about it, he told me that I did own the house because no one else wanted it. The auditor’s office didn’t want it, the bank didn’t want it, and the village of Bellaire didn’t want it. They squashed the debt and gave me the house free and clear,” she said. “As it turned out, and I didn’t have to file bankruptcy after all, but I didn’t know that, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do with that house.”
The decision was made to finally accept the truth.
“I contacted a paranormal team from Portsmouth, and they came to the house with another group from Louisville, Ky., and they did about a thousand hours of investigation in the house, and they concluded, for sure, that the house was active. The evidence was so profound that there’s no doubt it’s haunted,” Lee said. “They recorded complete sentences, and my name and the names of the others who lived there. When they got one spirit saying, ‘Hi Kristin,’ I knew for sure the moment I heard it.
“Those teams sent that recording to a scout for TV, and they flew me and the lead investigator to L.A. to film for ‘My Ghost Stories.’ After it aired on TV, the house became very, very popular because everyone knew then it was haunted,” she said. “It’s been called the most haunted house in Ohio.”
The Bellaire House has been featured on a few television shows as well as number of web-based paranormal-related broadcasts, and what Christin Lee and her family lived repeatedly has been confirmed by investigative teams linked to the Family Channel, the Biography Channel, and the SciFi Network. This weekend, in fact, a highly respected ghost chaser will visit the Bellaire House and the former West Virginia Penitentiary, but she’s under a contractual obligation not to reveal the crew that’s coming through.
The attention, though, is something these trapped souls do not seem to appreciate. At least that is what Lee believes now because once the house became known as haunted and team after team scheduled and conducted investigations, more violent interactions with the afterlife became the norm.
“The activity got really bad, even negative and very malicious, so we didn’t go back in there anymore, and I decided then to close it up,” she said. “But after a couple of cleansings and after I rented it out again, those people wouldn’t stay either. The last time someone moved in, it was a family of seven, but they didn’t stay longer at all. They moved about a little more than a year ago.
“I didn’t know what to do. No one was going to stay there, and we couldn’t sell it for sure, so I just turned it into a full-fledged paranormal research center for the teams to come and collect data,” Lee said. “And now the house is getting more attention than ever and the people here in the Valley will likely see it on future TV shows because those phone calls have been coming in.”
Some folks in Bellaire have accused Lee of staging the noises and the voices and the banging and, in some cases, the physical violence between spirit and human. This village has endured its tragedies, but the continued decline in Bellaire is real just as has it has been within this Rust Belt region for the past three decades.
The Bellaire House, too, is not the only connection this “Great American Town” has with something demonic, and Lee has encountered a hefty resistance from many village residents because, well, their refusal to even think about the possibilities.
And Lee has concluded there seems to be an addiction to denial.
“When I first bought the house, pretty much everyone seemed very supportive, but then after everything that’s taken place, it seems a lot of local people don’t want to talk about the Bellaire house anymore. It’s like they are afraid to admit it, and no one wants to talk about the Native American burial that’s in Bellaire, either, but it is there, and that’s been confirmed,” she insisted. “A lot of the locals have been saying a lot of a negative things about all of it because they don’t know the history. They haven’t spent 10 years researching this.
“There are people in this town who think I am an Italian witch, and a lot of people turn their nose up at me because they think what I am bringing out is demonic and that I am another Satan worshipper. But I am not. I’m far from that,” Lee said. “I’m just a person who bought a house and got stuck with it because of the spirits inside of it, and if they don’t want to believe it, that’s fine, but I also invite those people to come spend three straight hours there because those three hours will change their minds. They will then know that the entire town of Bellaire is cursed.”
Phantom of the Theatre?
That single light bulb is always on now.
It might not have been once Live Nation shuttered the Capitol Theatre in 2007, but the day the Wheeling CVB closed on the historic venue, the switch was flipped again.
So they can play.
“It’s a single light bulb,” said Frank O’Brien, the executive director of the Wheeling CVB. “That’s why, I think, that anytime I have been in the theatre when it’s all dark except for that single light bulb, I’ve never experience anything in the Capitol as far as spirits.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories,” he continued. “I started hearing a lot more of them once the CVB was preparing to buy the theatre, but I think everyone is well aware that people believe there are ghosts in the Capitol Theatre. All I can tell you is that that the single bulb that stays on all of the time is something they’ve done at that theatre for a very long time, and it’s on just in case one of the performers who was here can do it again if they want.”
But that single light bulb is not specific to Wheeling.
“It’s known as the “Ghost Light” in most theatres,” said Kyle Knox, the facility operations manager for Capitol Theatre and Wesbanco Arena. “For us, it’s more of a safety light, but it’s on just in case the souls of anyone who passed through want to perform on this stage again.
“Tom Beck was here for 35 years, and he told me he always had that light burning,” he said. “It’s a tradition, and it’s out of respect for those who played the venue. I’m absolutely a believer, and I won’t be surprised if I experience something because of all the positive energy that’s been inside this building since the very first night.”
Those who have been employed inside the Capitol Theatre have heard the legends of the usher who remains in the lobby between the brass doors and of the music in the distance, the moving shadows along the basement’s row of dressing rooms, and the orbs photographed during onstage performances and volunteer efforts, and also how O’Brien has explained the long history of how the venue was once heated since its opening.
“Of course I didn’t know it at the time the photo was taken down in the bottom basement where the older coal burners are,” O’Brien said. “But when I saw the photo with all of those orbs, I can’t tell you I was really surprised. I don’t know if anyone ever died down there, and I don’t know if we have the ‘Phantom of the Theatre,’ but we have had some phone calls about people wanting to do paranormal investigations.
“They haven’t happened as of now, but it seems apparent that a lot of people believe that there’s something in there. Something more than the stage and the seats, and the curtain, and everything else. But I bet they’re good ghosts,” he insisted. “To my knowledge nothing really nefarious ever happened in the Capitol Theatre, and there’s just been too many great memories made in here. I can’t imagine there would be an evil ghost.”
Beck, though, who was the operations manager of the Capitol Theatre for more than 30 years, did experience something that he told Knox did make him wonder whether or not the Capitol Theatre was indeed haunted.
“You always hear the stories that people like to tell about what they say they saw or heard, but when I asked him if he ever really experienced anything, he told me he hadn’t,” Knox said. “He said the weirdest thing he experienced was after the building was re-opened after the CVB bought it when one night he looked out to the seats from the stage, and he saw this silhouette.
“He told me he yelled out to them and told them that the theatre was closed and that they were going to have to leave, but he didn’t see the silhouette move at all. It stayed in the seat where it was seated the whole time,” he continued. “So he went off the stage and walked toward the image he saw, and when he got up close, he could tell someone had placed a cardboard cutout of George Strait in one of the seats. So, that’s as close as Tom got to a haunting in the Capitol Theatre.”
But Knox agrees with O’Brien that if he ever does encounter a spirit inside his workplace, an 88-year-theatre meant to have eight floors of hotel rooms above the venue, it should be a pleasant encounter.
“All you have to do is think about it,” he said. “Just think of all of the history that’s taken place in the Capitol, and how many performers have gone through Wheeling to play there. As far as I can tell, it’s always been a happy place,” he said. “I do believe they could be there, but I guess they haven’t decided to let us know they are.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)