We took one of the more inefficient routes from Wheeling to Morgantown, West Virginia. There didn’t appear to be any decent, straight-line way even if we’d wanted to use it. However, we pushed it to an extreme. The third day involved a long U-shaped path that rambled along the Ohio River for awhile before dipping down to US Route 50, then turning decidedly north on Interstate 79.
Our route involved county counting at its finest, our biggest day of captures. I added Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler and Pleasants in West Virginia, and Monroe in Ohio, to my lifelong tally.
Grave Creek Mound
Even so, the total route involved barely more than three hours of driving. I needed to fill the rest of the day with interesting tidbits along the way. Luckily Moundsville sat on the banks of the Ohio River just south of Wheeling on our direct path. Moundsville sounded like an unusual name and the Twelve Mile Circle audience knows how much I enjoy unusual names. Would there be mounds? Well yes, of course, with one particularly noteworthy mound in mind. Grave Creek Mound grew right in the middle of town. The mound rose upward a solid 60 feet (19 metres), unmistakable in stature and appearance. It dated to the Adena culture of mound builders of about two thousand years ago. The Adena flourished along the Ohio River valley during what came to be known as the Early Woodland period, leaving their signature structures scattered throughout the area before they faded from the archeological record.
Apparently the State of West Virginia built a really nice museum next to the mound. I emphasized "apparently" because they decided to close it on Sundays, a vestige of the old Blue Laws I supposed. I could understand Monday closings because those tend to be the lightest traffic days at any attraction. Closing on Sunday eliminated fifty percent of the weekend hours and I’m sure dramatically cut the number of potential visitors. That included us. A large iron fence circled the entire complex so we couldn’t even climb to the top of the mound. What purposed did that serve? I could only stand outside the fence, slip my camera between the bars, snap a few photos and pine for what I missed.
West Virginia Penitentiary
I shouldn’t complain too strenuously. The real reason to stop in Moundsville, the true attraction stood directly across the street from the Grave Creek Mound. Here, the state of West Virginia operated its maximum security penitentiary until 1995. It began in the earliest days of statehood, a stockade designed to corral Confederate prisoners of war. It seemed like a pretty convenient place to house criminals afterwards so they simply recycling what already existed.
The state decided to keep the West Virginia Penitentiary standing as a tourist attraction once it built newer, more modern prisons. Now anyone can tour it and get a taste of what it must have been like to live behind bars.
My son and I both enjoyed the tour led by someone who used to be a guard at the prison. She told a lot of wild stories of deviously clever prisoners with nothing but time on their hands: smuggling; escapes; violence; revenge and the like. Some channeled their energies more creatively as expressed by prisoner artwork covering many of the walls. One particular prolific prisoner painted detailed landscapes until another prisoner poked his eyes out with a pencil. Even art critics behaved differently in prison.
The facility remained untouched since its abandonment. Paint peeled, cement crumbled, dust gathered. We walked through old cellblocks and even got to stand in a cell (at our option) while the electronic gates clanged shut behind us. It was quite an experience both from an emotional and an educational perspective. I’d recommend a visit to the old penitentiary for anyone traveling through the area.
We spent the middle part of the day following the prescribed route. I had hoped to ride the Sistersville Ferry across the Ohio River as I began initial planning. Unfortunately the ferry closed for the season a couple of weeks before our intended dates. I’ll have to wait for another opportunity to add that to my ferry list. I mentioned this only because someone may want to replicate my route someday in the future. The ferry might provide a nice addition (map).
I’d driven past the outskirts of Morgantown several times, always on the way to somewhere else. I knew very little about the city other than West Virginia University anchored it in place. Morgantown served as our final destination for the day so we got a chance to check it out in person. For instance, I didn’t know that the residents held the comedian Don Knotts who passed away in 2006 in such high regard. Some might remember Knotts as Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy on the Andy Griffith Show. Others may recall his role as Ralph Furley on Three’s Company. Anyway, he was born in Morgantown and graduated from West Virginia University. The town loved him enough to place his statue right on High Street (map). They also named one of the major thoroughfares leading into Morgantown, Don Knotts Boulevard (map).
Morgantown turned out to be a good place to stop, with an attractive, walkable downtown right on the edge of the University.
Stay tuned for more adventures in this series.
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.