Editor's Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.
The Athenaeum, which was to become an infamous Wheeling Civil War prison, was built in 1854 and called "Lincoln's Bastille" by prisoners. According to its owners, the building was to be used in connection with the B&O Railroad station, which was just a couple of blocks away.
Located on the southeast corner of Market and John (now 16th) streets, the building was a three-story brick edifice with no basement, constructed with the latest technology of the time.
The roof and floor beams were of cast iron and manufactured in New Jersey.
The third floor of the structure was designed as a theater, with a large stage, dressing rooms for the actors, and seating on the floor and balcony.
The latest heating system was installed for the comfort of the patrons. According to one of the newspaper reviewers of the time, the theater was one of the best between the Allegheny Mountains and Chicago.
The first performance was on Jan. 27, 1855. The actors usually belonged to a traveling company with special actors brought in for a week or two to perform special shows. The evening's entertainment typically consisted of a major play, followed by a song or dance and a shorter comic play. Although Shakespeare was a perennial favorite, "Ingomar, the Barbarian" described as "beautiful and always a favorite," was also offered.
In April 1856, the managers tried to attract a better class of audience and provided omnibuses to take the gentry home after the performance. Police were stationed in the theater to discourage the riff-raff, and the admission charge was 50 cents for the parquette and dress circle and 25 cents for the balcony.
By November 1856, the theater was drawing large crowds, and the manager, Mr. Hanchett, booked the play, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It was shown seven days a week with a special performance on Saturday just for school children and women unable to attend the evening show. The play was sold out for most performances.
Probably, the most famous actor who ever graced the Athenaeum was Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, who performed in January 1857. He did five shows of Shakespeare then switched to "Cardinal Richelieu," causing the local newspaper critic to devote a whole column to criticizing the performance and recommending that Booth stick to what he did best - Shakespeare.
The coming of the Civil War brought a new and drastic change to the building. Fifty secession prisoners who had been confined at Camp Carlile were moved to the Athenaeum and confined on the second floor. A large room there was converted to have a kitchen in one end with a large dining table running the entire length. Fifty bunks lined the northern wall.
The first prisoners were those who had refused to take the oath of allegiance. These prisoners were only detained at the prison for a day or two until they could be sent on to Camp Chase in Columbus. By December 1861, the prisoners numbered close to 100. Major Darr of General Rosecran's staff was assigned as provost marshal and put in charge of the prison.
The first escape took place in April 1862, when George Deering cut a hole through the floor of the second story, lowered himself down on a makeshift rope, and just walked out the front door as there were no guards on duty. This was the first of many escape attempts, although only two or three were successful.
By late 1863, the Confederate prisoners were moved out as quickly as possible to make room for Union soldiers convicted by court martial. The federal government then took over the whole building, turning it into a permanent federal prison. Cells were constructed on the former stage, and the north side underneath the dress circle was converted for female prisoners. The south side became a hospital. A 20-foot-high fence was erected around the vacant lot in back of the building as an exercise block.
Judson Mazingo, a 21-year-old prisoner, died of scarlet fever in the prison hospital. By 1864, the prison hospital was so crowded it could not effectively operate, so 45 patients were moved to the Catholic Wheeling Hospital in North Wheeling. The prison hospital was then used for the overflow of prisoners.
In order to complete the prison, a new bake house and a structure to hold fuel were constructed in the vacant lot adjacent to the building. The prison was now self-contained. The prisoners were sent to clean the streets of Wheeling and to do other work around the government buildings.
After the war, the provost marshal ordered the prison closed, and the last prisoners were sent back to their regiments for discharge on Sept. 27, 1865. The owners of the building filed suit against the government for damages that they claimed had occurred while in the government's possession. The suit was dismissed as the government claimed that in reality it had increased the value of the building and had paid a fair rent during its use as a prison.
In March 1867, Butterfield & Co. opened a malt storage business on the lower floor, adding a full-length basement to the building. On Oct. 11, 1868, the Athenaeum caught fire. Wheeling had only one pumper capable of putting water on the third floor and roof, so the fire soon got out of control and the building was allowed to burn itself out. The firemen instead concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to other nearby buildings. The loss to the owner was estimated to be $150,000 and was the largest fire in Wheeling up to that time. As a direct result of this fire, Wheeling purchased more steam fire engines.
The building had a life of only 14 years, but it saw much of the cultural and Civil War history of Wheeling during this short period. The location is now a small park in front of West Virginia Northern Community College, and the Athenaeum is remembered by none.