Archival Room, Train Photography Exhibit Open

Enlightening records of the Wheeling area’s history and visual reminders of its heritage are now stored and on display in the Ohio County Public Library’s expanded and enhanced archives.

A large, secure, climate-controlled room has been established on the library’s lower level for the storage, cataloging and curating of archives acquired by the facility. The completion of the archival room coincides with the opening of an exhibit of train photographs taken by the late Wheeling native J.J. Young Jr. The historic photos show the B&O Railroad’s operations in Wheeling from the early to mid-20th century.

The exhibit, in the library’s lower-level hallway, represents a small portion of the massive legacy of train images captured by Young, who was recognized nationally for his superior photography. This exhibit is presented in partnership with West Virginia Northern Community College and its alumni association. Many of Young’s photos were acquired by Northern’s alumni association and curated by the late Joan Weiskircher, longtime secretary of the organization, because the college’s B&O Building in downtown Wheeling served as the railroad’s passenger terminal. The library also has a connection to the railroad: its current facility is built on the site of the B&O’s Hempfield rail yards and power station.

“It’s a natural fit and a good partnership for both us and the college. It’s a good fit,” said Sean Duffy, coordinator of adult programming at the library. To complement the exhibit, model B&O trains and artifacts from Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum are on display in the library’s board room, also located on the building’s lower level.

In another partnership with Northern, a Hazel Atlas glass collection is displayed in the library’s board room. The glassware was purchased by the WVNCC alumni association and curated by Weiskircher because, at the time, the college owned the Hazel Atlas Building in East Wheeling.

Youth Services System later bought that structure.

These two exhibits represent “the effort we’ve made to create displays to showcase what is in our collection and what things are available locally,” Duffy said.

Erin Rothenbeuhler, a reference assistant, and Duffy are responsible for preserving, cataloging and maintaining the library’s archival collection. They also seek to expand the holdings and work with researchers who want to utilize the materials.

“The focus of our archives is community partnership and accessibility,” Duffy said. As part of that effort, a blog called Archiving Wheeling has been established on the library’s website to share photographic images and articles about the archival collections of the library and other organizations in the community.

The collaborative nature of Archiving Wheeling enhances public awareness of resources and expands scholars’ knowledge of area places and events. For example, when a picture showing the Arion Singing Society’s building decorated for a Wheeling Sangerfest was posted on the blog, a university professor noticed that the photo shows a rare image of celebrated author Rebecca Harding Davis’ family home, Duffy said.

Some of the Archiving Wheeling posts have drawn 20,000 views. The most popular post features stunning photos of the 1936 flood from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston archives. “It really does work. We hope to bring in more heritage partners,” he said.

Photographs – “primary sources that tell a story” – constitute a major portion of the library’s archival collection, Duffy said.

The Ohio County Public Library, founded in 1882, is the oldest tax-supported library in West Virginia. Some of the items in its archives predate the library’s formation, Rothenbeuhler said.

“We’re really trying to preserve the history,” Rothenbeuhler said. “We wanted to make the archives accessible to scholars and available for scholarship and research.”

Discussing the library’s role in saving and preserving material related to area history, Duffy said, “We’ve become sort of a rescue shelter.”

For instance, a portrait of Wheeling opera star Eleanor Steber – painted and signed by legendary local photographer George Kossuth and based on his photo of Steber in a Metropolitan Opera costume – and books from Kossuth’s personal collection were rescued by historians from the vacant, unheated and uncooled Stifel-Kossuth House in North Wheeling. Those items, along with albums filled with photos of Steber and donated by the late Rosemary Front, are now housed in the library’s archives.

“We created an archival policy that can be found on the library’s website,” Duffy said. That policy covers donations to the library and accessibility to the collection for scholars.

Researchers have to make appointments to view material when staff members are available to assist. “We can work with you and get what you need,” he said.

To enhance accessibility, Duffy said, “We have taken steps to digitize our collection.” Currently, about 1,600 digitized photos can be seen online on the library’s Flickr page, Rothenbeuhler said.

The library’s archival collection includes 12 boxes of the late Wheeling News-Register editor Harry Hamm’s papers, photos and community development materials and four boxes of photos and documents amassed by the late Joseph Hoffmann, who also was a News-Register staff member.

Also in the archives are three photo albums, from the early 20th century, that belonged to the late Sophia Dauber Grubb. “For early photographs, they’re so candid,” Rothenbeuhler remarked. Duffy added, “They’re amateur photographs, but so well done.”

Housed in the archival room are Civil War militia records from John B. Moore, who served as adjutant of the Fourth Regiment from 1862-64, and documents signed by Virginia Gov. Francis Pierpont. “One of the coolest things we have,” Duffy said, is Moore’s diary that recounts events marking West Virginia’s statehood in 1863.

The Thomas M. Darrah photo albums from 1885-93 include the only known photo of a banner saluting President Grover Cleveland. It became national news when Grand Army of the Republic members, holding an 1887 reunion in Wheeling, refused to walk under the banner because they opposed Cleveland’s reforms to veterans’ pensions.

In partnership with the Museums of Oglebay Institute, the library has offered to house, digitize and organize a collection from the GAR’s Holliday Post, Duffy said.

One of the library’s best-known collections features early Wheeling photographs donated by photographer W.C. Brown in 1950. Rothenbeuhler figured out a way to digitize the images in a high-resolution format.

Other collections housed in the library include Wheeling Steel-related photographs, Wheeling Typographical Union materials, Bill Hogan’s father’s World War I aviation photos and Dr. Alan Fawcett’s photographs from his years in post-war Germany. The late Beverly Fluty’s research papers, related to the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, West Virginia Independence Hall and other historic sites, are a recent donation, Duffy said.

“We have lots of maps from the city engineering department and fire maps,” he said. “We also have an extensive collection of postcards and ephemera.”

Development of the archival room “has been a long time in the making,” said Dottie Thomas, the library’s executive director, speaking at an opening reception Oct. 12.

After Hamm’s wife and family donated his papers in 2009, Lou Horacek, then assistant director of the library, offered to catalog the Hamm papers and other historical information and photographs, Thomas said. Horacek also created a Wheeling history online database as part of the library’s website.

“By the time of his retirement in December 2012, Mr. Horacek had laid a solid foundation of an online historical database of information and photographs as well as an archival collection of materials that were cataloged and incorporated into the library’s online card catalog and properly stored in a manner consistent with archival collections,” Thomas said.

The director thanked the library’s board of trustees for being “fully supportive and dedicated to creating an accessible, secure and properly housed archival collection.” To date, the board has committed more than $100,000 to the project, she said.

To ensure that collections are accessible to the public for research purposes, photographs, documents and ephemera will be digitized and made available for viewing online, Thomas said.

Citing the continuing nature of the work, she added, “Future expansion of the archival collection and the archival room is a given.”

Wheeling native Jay Potter, an attorney in Charleston, also spoke at the opening of the photographic exhibit, sharing stories of Young and discussing his role in chronicling the nation’s railroads.

Trains, “the most widely recognized railroading magazine in the country,” cited Young among the “75 people you should know” profiled in its 75th-anniversary November issue, Potter said.

Young (1929-2004) took more than 10,000 photos of trains in 48 states – an amazing accomplishment, especially for a man who never drove a car. Through his lens, “he celebrated railroading and the importance of railroaders,” Potter commented. “He would want Wheeling to remember the importance of railroading.”

Young’s first memories were of seeing trains traveling between Wheeling and Pittsburgh. As a boy, he began taking photographs of trains and was granted unprecedented access to ride on B&O trains.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)