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Old Oglebay Drive Reclaimed For Hikers

One pleasant morning this past May, Charles Griffith crossed W.Va. 88 in front of the Carriage House Glass Museum and disappeared into the woods on the far side.

Only a few steps down the path and the forest enveloped him. He felt the soft give of the leaf litter beneath his boots as the sounds of the road faded away. Stately sugar maples rose up around him, their upper branches merging into a dense canopy. It was a forest mature enough to be free of   underbrush.

As he wended along a trail that switchbacked a mile down the hill, he plucked “blazes” out of a black nylon bag, nailing them to trees at eye level. The red reflective diamonds would mark the way and catch the lights of night hikers.

The Oglebay Park sports and recreation manager was putting the finishing touches on a project that had consumed him for well over a year when he realized it was his mother-in-law’s birthday. While they chatted briefly on his cell phone, he told her he was having the best work day of his life.

“It started as a walk down Serpentine Drive,” he said, “but finished as a hike up Serpentine Trail.”

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The Wheeling Park Commission recently uncovered Earl W. Oglebay’s long lost driveway — known as Serpentine Drive — and turned it into a public hiking trail. Griffith led the first guided hikes over Memorial Day       weekend.

The path runs from the ruins of an old gatehouse on GC&P Road, up past two mossy stone retaining walls and emerges in front of the Hilltop at Oglebay. While the slope is considerable, the four switchbacks make it gentle enough for the intermediate hiker.

“We still have some signage to put up that will tell the story behind the original purpose for the drive,” said Wheeling Park Commission CEO Stephen Hilliard. “We also plan to add a few benches along the drive so folks will have a place to sit and listen for the              carriages.”

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Hilliard was joking, of course. But the origins of Serpentine Drive date back to the turn of the last century, when horse-drawn carriages were still the usual mode of transportation. Back then, W.Va. 88 was a dirt road known as the “cow path to culture” because it led to Wheeling and beyond.

What we know as Oglebay Mansion began as an eight-room farmhouse on 25 acres that industrialist Earl W. Oglebay purchased in 1900. He expanded the house and bought adjoining land to create Waddington Farm, his summer estate. Adding an impressive drive was simply the next step.

Holly McCluskey, glass curator for the Museums of Oglebay Institute, which operates the Mansion Museum, said such drives were the “fashion of the day” among people of Mr. Oglebay’s social status. Impressive driveways led up to the estates of the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts — families who socialized together and, sometimes, referred landscape architects to each other.

J. Wilkinson Elliott and Arthur Wescott Cowell of Pittsburgh designed Serpentine Drive to look like a natural landscape, even though every curve and planting was meticulously devised. The original drive featured glades, shrubbery and trees, and a stop that included a scenic overlook.

The architects’ plans called for the driveway to be closed in visually, so that the estate could not be seen from the road until reaching the top. And while most approach roads end with a dramatic view of the great house, Serpentine Drive opened up to the view of a vegetable garden.

“It’s certainly not designed for convenience,” McCluskey said. “It was designed to impress. The anticipation of coming up the hillside and coming into the vista of Waddington Farm — all very dramatic effect!”

McCluskey has never seen the drive that so sparks her imagination. By the time she started working at Oglebay 30 years ago it had become impassable. She’d heard about it from several people, however.

“I know it meant a lot to Mr. Oglebay,” she said.

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Upon Oglebay’s death in 1928, Waddington Farm was deeded to the city and renamed Oglebay Park. In the 1950s, a Wheeling Central Catholic High School graduate named George H. Breiding was the resident naturalist.

He was a man of many interests and talents, writing a weekly nature column for The Intelligencer and publishing frequently in ornithology journals and popular publications.

He boasted of traveling to       Tanzania, New Zealand and the Galapagos Islands among other exotic destinations.

According to his son, Mike Breiding, the late naturalist used to motor to the top gate of Serpentine Drive after work. He’d kill the engine of his Ford Fairlane and coast down the hill as quietly as possible. At predetermined spots he would stop and note the birds he saw on a 3×5 card.

“I’m not sure how many times a year he did this,” Mike Breiding said. “I didn’t find the cards with his possessions. He was a compulsive list maker, so probably many times.”

Mike Breiding has memories of his own regarding the driveway. One of his favorite took place when he was 9 years old, when he was poking around a cool, shady spot by a spring along the third switchback. He found a huge spotted salamander there to his boyish delight.

And there was the time he and his brother, Wayne, were sent up Serpentine Drive by their mother to fill a couple of 3-pound coffee cans with mulberries from the big tree that grew at the top. On the way back down, Mike dropped his can and all the berries rolled into a pile of horse dung.

“My brother and I decided to keep this between us and we gathered up all the berries,” he said. “While doing this we saw a dung beetle in the manure.”

One day, Mike and Wayne were walking back from day camp when two guys on a motor scooter came up behind them. The brothers walked faster and faster to keep up with them. The scooter sped up, and they started to run.

“Then my brother and I used one of the well-established shortcuts on one of the switchbacks and got ahead of them,” Mike said. “They were surprised and laughed. And we felt like big shots because we tricked them. Ah, the simple pleasures.”

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Over the years, the forest reclaimed Serpentine Road and it faded into a state of sylvan neglect, although it lived on in the memories of some of the older folks in town. And that’s the way it was when Wheeling Park CEO Hilliard came on board in 2015.

The 61-year-old New Hampshire native had come to Oglebay from the Omni Mount Washington Resort, and he was brimming with ideas on how to revitalize the park side of the operation. He heard about Serpentine Road from outgoing CEO Douglas Dalby and was intrigued.

“So, I think I’d been here three weeks,” Hilliard said. “It was fall, so I just took a meander down through there. It’s quiet; it’s peaceful; it’s wonderful. And if you let your imagination run away you can hear the horse and carriage coming up.”

Little did he know that Griffith had rediscovered Serpentine Road on a New Year’s Day hike some nine months before, and that Griffith had been pushing for the creation of a network of mountain bike trails on that side of W.Va. 88.

The two eventually got together, and Hilliard decided to open the drive as a hiking trail only; he asked Griffith to focus on other areas of the park for mountain biking. Teams removed fallen trees, cut brush and firmed up soft spots. Griffith put up the blazes and signage.

Serpentine Trail was born.

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Just before Memorial Day weekend, Griffith decided to check out his creation. Near the entrance, he inspected a fallen paper birch that could be the last remnant of the original landscaping. A damaged black cherry indicated the presence of a pileated woodpecker.

He stopped at a point along the trail about halfway down the hill — the site of a future bench to be dubbed “Mr. Oglebay’s Lookout.” The steeple of Lawrencefield Chapel on nearby Table Rock Lane was visible through the canopy.

Griffith, 47, recently returned to the valley after 21 years away. A stint in the U.S. Coast Guard piloting rescue boats saw him stationed in Miami.

“There’s just a warmth when you return after being away for so many years,” he said. “It’s something that draws you back to Oglebay. And starting to work up here after being away for so many years was great. But finding something like this …,” his voice trailed off.

As he walked back to the top of the trail, about to emerge from Oglebay’s wilder side, Griffith stopped and held perfectly still. After a few beats, he pointed out two blue jays chasing a squirrel down the trunk of a sugar maple, its tiny claws making a scratching sound against the bark.

Rays of sun poked through tiny gaps in the canopy, bathing the forest floor in a soft, green light. A mole shambled across the path before obscuring itself in a pile of leaf litter.

“If you just stop and listen and look …,” he said.

He didn’t need to finish. His look of wonderment said it all.

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