The rain that began the previous afternoon continued all night. It lifted, however, just as we began the first full day of our adventure. I probably would have headed to Pittsburgh’s two famous funiculars, the Duquesne Incline and the Monongahela Incline had I been alone. However I had my older son with me so I made a concession. He loved zoos and I wanted him to enjoy the trip too.
Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium
I can take-or-leave zoos although I admitted that the one in Pittsburgh was better than many we’ve seen. We arrived just as the gates opened at 9:00 am, the very first people admitted for the day. We toured the grounds mostly by ourselves that first hour. Many of the animals got their first meal right around opening so we managed to see most of them awake and active. The zoo also featured an aquarium, one of the few in the nation including both attractions in the same park. Naturally we saw every single exhibit in excruciating detail. I never complained as I kept up my best Good Dad behavior. I knew I’d bore him later with some of my geo-geek sites. We finally ran out of animals after about four hours.
My son felt happy to add another zoo map to his growing collection.
Onward to the Panhandle
Now I could focus on the real meat of the adventure, heading towards West Virginia’s northern panhandle to capture some new counties. I’d planned a short, simple drive for the day since I knew the zoo visit would consume a big chunk of it. First we hit Brooke County as we entered West Virginia on US Route 22. Then the highway took a slight northern jog near downtown Weirton, just nicking Hancock County before crossing back into Brooke and shooting across the Ohio River into Jefferson County, Ohio. I snagged three new counties in about five minutes. My elapsed time in Hancock lasted less than thirty seconds. It still counted!
I’ve been thinking about reader Brad Keller’s comment on my recent Northern Panhandle of West Virginia article. He said he’d heard that Weirton (map) might be the "the only city in the US that touched both the Eastern and Western border of their state." Reader January First-of-May offered Juneau, Alaska as another possibility, an option that I also considered. The Cairo, Illinois suggestion, however, hadn’t come to my mind and I thought it might be legitimate. I also thought of Laughlin, Nevada (map) bordering on California and Arizona. If I wanted to cheat I might also suggest the city of Washington in the District of Columbia. The boundaries were made coterminous in 1871, so by definition Washington touched all of the District’s borders.
Wheeling Our Car Down to Wheeling
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
via Google Street View, October 2015
We remained on the Ohio side of the river on Route 7 — part of the Ohio River Scenic Byway — until to just outside of Wheeling. We crossed back into West Virginia, choosing to drive over the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge (map) rather than using the standard Interstate Highway crossing. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world when constructed in 1849. Obviously the original designers didn’t envision vehicles heavier than horse-drawn wagons when they built it. That meant tight traffic controls in modern times: no trucks, buses or trailers. Cars needed to maintain 50 foot intervals. Traffic lights at either end restricted the number of cars on each pass. We crossed without any trouble in our little sedan.
The day went so well that we had time stop at West Virginia Independence Hall (map), a place that I mentioned previously. This time I could use one of my own photos in the article. Visitors guided themselves through the building although the docent offered a suggestion: start in the basement, take the elevator to the third floor and work back down to the first. That sounded fine so we started in the basement with an introductory video recounting how West Virginia became a state in 1863. I knew the story already so I spent more time paying attention to the actors than the events portrayed. The video must have been filmed in the late 1970’s because the hairy, bearded men all looked like the Bee Gees circa Saturday Night Fever. The women all sported poofy manes of that same era. The production values reminded me of a vintage episode of Little House on the Prairie. What was it about again?
The rest of the tour unfolded much more routinely. The third floor recreated the original courtroom where leaders of the day discussed their break from Virginia. The second floor contained an exhibit of various Civil War battle flags, and the first floor held all of their permanent exhibits. The restoration faithfully replicated every detail. Despite its historical significance, the building was allowed to fall into total disrepair in the Twentieth Century. It became a decayed hulk by the 1960’s. The restoration took decades, finally completed only a few years ago.
Stay tuned for more adventures in this series.
I don’t feature the most obvious geo-oddities of the United States anymore unless I plan to actually visit them in person. Perhaps a few longtime Twelve Mile Circle readers noticed the foreshadowing when I discussed the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia a few days ago. Maybe others saw photos I began to post on the 12MC Twitter account. Clearly, I intended to focus some personal love and attention on that northernmost pinnacle of the Mountain State.
The Columbus Day weekend offered an ideal opportunity to fill-in some nearby blanks on my county counting map. I finished Virginia a few months ago so maybe West Virginia would be the next logical target. I wouldn’t be able to complete it in a single long weekend although I could certainly take a chunk out of it. Originally I intended to head out onto the highways on my own. However, my older son also had a 3-day weekend and he decided to tag along. I warned him that the trip would long drives, random geo-oddities and obscure historical sites. He seemed fine with it so I started pulling together my plans and the route.
We would head first up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to get some miles behind us. From there we would head to the northern tip of West Virginia and turn south, zigzagging across the Ohio River valley, capturing counties on both sides. We would then proceed east across West Virginia filling a couple of doughnut holes, and head home. I could capture 10 new counties if all went according to plan. That happened for the most part.
The Trip Began
The only difficulty took place on the first leg of our road trip. We couldn’t leave until afternoon. Traffic near Washington, DC rarely goes well under the best of circumstances. Friday afternoon on a 3-day weekend, well, that was practically a guaranteed disaster. We suffered through stop-and-go traffic on the Beltway, then on Interstate 270, and all the way west out to Hagerstown, a distance of 70 miles (115 kilometers). The road opened up as we moved deeper into Maryland and north towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Clouds started moving it. We ran into the very outermost bands of Hurricane Matthew, many hundreds of miles from the worst parts of the storm. It rained the remainder of the drive to Pittsburgh and indeed throughout the night. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike through the western part of the state is never easy, with its twisting lanes and narrow shoulders over the mountains. Throw in heavy rain, road spray and lots of trucks and it became quite the nail-biting experience.
First Leg Done
A four hour drive took five and a half hours. I needed a beer after that.
We headed straight to Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh. We didn’t even bother to stop at the hotel to check in first. Nope. I definitely needed that beer. I’d been wanting to go to Church Brew Works for awhile so it was nice to finally check it out in person. The place drew quite a crowd on a Friday evening and we arrived just in time to get what appeared to be the last table available. Our luck changed from that moment forward. We found only smooth sailing for the rest of our expedition.
My West Virginia county map showed only six counties remaining once I completed the trip. They aligned in a nice belt through the middle of the state. Maybe I could finish West Virginia with one final push? It certainly seems doable. If anyone comes back to this page in the distant future (I’m posting this in October 2016) and notices the blanks filled, it means I’ve succeeded.
Stay tuned for more adventures in this series.
Anyone looking at a West Virginia map would immediately notice its northern panhandle. It rose high above the rest of the state like a flagpole. This narrow splinter ran 64 miles (103 kilometres) due north, wedged tightly between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its width also narrowed sometimes to only 4 miles (6 km).
Northern panhandle west virginia on Wikimedia Commons (cc).
Four counties occupied the space; Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall. They all aligned in a vertical sequence.
How could such a bizarre situation develop? Certainly no rational government would create such an anomaly. The usual situation existed here, the overlapping of colonial claims. Nobody really knew what existed beyond the coast. Various Kings of England simply granted a bunch of royal charters. Virginia gained a territory that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The charter for Pennsylvania set its farthest extent at an unexplored longitude 5 degrees west of the Delaware River. The overlap became apparent when explorers pushed inward through the Appalachian Mountains decades later. Fort Pitt, built by the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War, fell within the disputed area. Both coveted the town that formed there, Pittsburgh.
Virginia established a county structure despite the overlap. Of course, Pennsylvania refused to accept it. The dispute even continued into the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress convinced the two to settle their dispute and concentrate on fighting the British instead. Pennsylvania had settled a similar problem with Maryland previously, creating the Mason & Dixon Line. The border between Pennsylvania and Virginia would extend that same line a bit farther, to five degrees west of the Delaware River. From there, they drew a line north to the Ohio River. Both sides approved the new border in 1780.
After the war, several of the former colonies including Virginia continued to claim land west of the Ohio River. Most gave up their claims voluntarily for the good of the new nation. Virginia ceded its Northwest Territory after some cajoling, and Congress accepted its offer in 1784. Virginia’s western border became the Ohio River and created the odd panhandle. Nobody intended to form the anomaly. It was a two-step process.
Birth of West Virginia
Independence Hall – Wheeling, West Virginia. Photo by Ryan Stanton on Flickr (cc)
Then came the Civil War and Virginia joined the Confederacy. Many of its western counties wanted to form their own state even before the war began. They jumped at an opportunity to remain on the Union side. The state of West Virginia was born in 1863. Interestingly the initial West Virginia capital fell within that unusual northern panhandle. They formed their new government in the Federal Custom House in Wheeling (map), now called West Virginia’s Independence Hall. Wheeling remained its capital for most of the next twenty years.
Rise of Industry
The Weirton Steel Company Works. Image provided byUpNorth Memories (cc)
The Northern Panhandle became a center of commerce and industry after the Civil War. It had a great location along the Ohio River. It also had more in common with industrial cities like nearby Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cleveland. Factories rose to serve many needs. The biggest ones produced iron and steel, and Weirton Steel became the biggest of the bunch. It would operate for nearly a century until International Steel Group bought it in 2004. The area also fell onto hard times like other so-called Rust Belt cities. For example, the city of Weirton lost a third of its population starting at the middle of the 20th Century. The city of Wheeling lost more than half of its population.
Ohio River Bridges. Photo by cmh2315fl on Flickr (cc)
The northern panhandle mirrored the states that wedged it in place. It differed distinctly from the remainder of West Virginia.
… many people moved to Weirton and Wheeling which both had reputations for being excellent places to work. Immigrants moved into the area in the early 1900’s because of employment offered by the steel mills… By some counts, there are 50 ethnic groups in Weirton alone.
This included large communities of people from Eastern and Southern Europe like its neighbors. The U.S. Census bureau even included the two northernmost counties, Hancock and Brook, within the Pittsburgh Combined Statistical Area.
Of course, I also like this oddity because it created funny geographic names. How about the West Virginia Northern Community College?