Ties as Strong as Nails: Former LaBelle Cut Nail Plant in Wheeling Holds Memories for Ohio Valley Residents

McMechen woman shares plant’s history

Most of the former LaBelle Cut Nail Plant is pictured in March before crews demolished the historical plant.

WHEELING — Most of the former LaBelle Cut Nail Plant is now gone from the South Wheeling landscape, demolished to make room for townhouse-style apartments.

One local resident who has fond memories of the plant said her great-great-grandfather helped build the historic Ohio Valley factory.

McMechen resident Dorothy Ward, who has ancestry documents listing her great-great-grandfather, Isaac Freese, along with his four brothers as some of the builders of the plant in the mid 1800s, said she is very proud of the fact that her ancestor had a role in building such an important Ohio Valley landmark.

She said her family’s documents list her great-great-grandfather and his brothers as coming down from Carnegie, Pa. in 1852 to help build the plant. Ward said the documents were passed down through her family, after a cousin researched the family’s ancestry in 1967.

“My thoughts are, ‘I thought he was a creative genius to come up with something like that,'” Ward said.

Once ranked as one of America’s largest producers of cut nails, the former LaBelle Nail plant is nearly gone now, as heavy equipment crews began demolishing the plant earlier this year after the Wheeling Planning Commission approved a subdivision request made by The Woda Group Inc., of Westerville, Ohio, for the construction of LaBelle Greene III — the continued development of a multi-family rental community to be located at the same site.

The Woda Group, a regional housing developer, said LaBelle Greene III is the second and third phase of the already constructed LaBelle Greene apartment complex, located off 31st Street just south of the former LaBelle plant site. Construction of LaBelle Greene III is expected to begin within the next couple of months.

Ward, who grew up on 29th Street in Wheeling, said she has fond memories of peering into the north end of the plant as a very young child and watching the factory workers make nails.

“When we were kids, we went down there and roller skated behind the A&P after hours … and the nail factory was right there, and we could watch them cutting the steel to make the nails,” Ward said.

“They had donkey carts. … Every night I would go down and watch them put the donkeys away. They had a barn behind the plant.”

Ward said she also remembers taking turns with her friends sitting on top of the old cannon outside the plant known as “Old Garibaldi,” like they were sitting atop a horse. The cannon was forged at the plant in 1861 and is now displayed at West Virginia Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling.

The former LaBelle Nail Plant was one of three other local plants that produced nails with the use of cast iron cutting machines during that time. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 but was never designated with “landmark” status — the highest status that can be given to a historic site, according to information provided by Wheeling Heritage.

The plant’s innovative production process integrated the rolling mill, a furnace, and cut-nail machines powered by one engine.

In 1874, LaBelle employed nearly 400 workers. It was nearly 50 years later that it joined the Wheeling Steel Corp., which eventually merged with the Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in the late 1960s to form Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

After ceasing operations in 2010, all of the contents of the plant, including the original cut-nail machinery was auctioned off during the summer of 2015.