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Wheeling Island: A Home All Its Own

Photos by Jackie McDermott The Wheeling Island flood wall commemorates the island’s many floods over the decades.

Wheeling Island’s riverfront homes have unobstructed views of the Ohio River and easy access points for river recreation such as water skiing and canoeing.

WHEELING — A rumbling drive across the grated, 167-year-old Wheeling Suspension Bridge takes you across the Ohio River onto a 374-acre piece of land that falls within Wheeling city limits but maintains an identity all its own: Wheeling Island.

Generations of families with a diverse history have called “the Island” home, and Island residents past and present weighed in on what makes Wheeling Island      special.

Virtually all current and former Island residents who grew up there say one thing stands out about their childhoods — how much time they spent outdoors. They frolicked with abundant neighborhood kids along the riverbank, enjoyed sports such as water skiing and canoeing and got plenty of exercise on the basketball courts and baseball fields.

“Growing up on the Island was all about playing outside,” said Gerry Jacovetty, who grew up on the Island and lived there into his early 20s. He said he and his two younger brothers and their neighborhood friends were perpetually active.

“We played basketball nonstop. We played every sport there was to play to the point that in the wintertime we would carry gallon buckets up the 20-foot river bank up to the basketball court, poured it on the court and played hockey. I learned something about weather doing that because if it was 15 degrees out, the ice would evaporate and we would have to do it all over again,” Jacovetty said.

Jacovetty said the penchant for the outdoors wasn’t just limited to children. Parents held picnics in riverfront yards and played badminton and horseshoes on the riverbank. With kids and parents alike constantly outdoors, it was easy to get to know the neighbors, and a close-knit community flourished.

“Looking back now, the greatest thing about growing up on the Island was the camaraderie,” said Jacovetty.

By Jacovetty’s count, there were about 150 kids just on his block near the riverfront growing up. There were about 1,000 kids on the Island total.

Now that those kids have grown up, Jacovetty said they still maintain friendships and frequently reunite to play the games they used to enjoy, such as tennis and team hide and seek.

While bonds were also forged among neighbors on the Island by spending time outdoors, Jacovetty said the floods the Island experienced while he lived there also brought the community together. The most severe flood that Jacovetty witnessed was in 1972, which he said brought three feet of water into the first floor of his childhood home.

Before, during and after the flood, Jacovetty said the community came together to support its elderly and ensure everyone was safe and supplied with food and water. They never ran from the flood, he said, and rather stayed to ensure they could begin cleaning as soon as the water receded.

In the meantime, those canoes came in handy, as the kids rowed around the inundated streets and even on the water in their own homes. As soon as clean-up was over, a huge community bonfire ensued, in which any waterlogged items were burned. Jacovetty said infrequent flood crises were insignificant compared to the many positives of living on the Island.

“You get a flood once every couple years and the community all comes together. When you do a balancing test, the floods are far outweighed by the camaraderie and the people who lived there. Everybody in the community helped each other,” he said.

Another former Wheeling Island resident, Tyrone Bell, moved onto the Island just after the flood of 1972. Bell grew up in one of just a few black families living on the Island at that time. Bell said that, while the racial tension of the 1970s was palpable and he did experience some racism from closed-minded people on the Island, he still bonded with some members of the community and grew from living there.

“If I hadn’t moved to the Island, I wouldn’t have met the good people. I wouldn’t have met the bad people. I wouldn’t have been as open socially,” Bell said. “I enjoyed growing up on the Island. It gave me a chance to grow up and not be closed-minded, especially being in a minority.”

Most of those children go to school together at Madison School, the stately beige school located just off of the Wheeling Island exit from Interstate 70. Madison will celebrate its 100th year this school year. Many Island families have multiple generations who have attended Madison, including Bell and current Island resident Bill Seabright.

“I grew up here and went to Madison School and we’re celebrating our 100th year up at Madison,” Seabright said. “When I was growing up it was a great school, and it’s still a great school.”

Just as Madison is an Island mainstay, so is Bridge Park, the city park which contains a baseball field and a playground. The Wheeling Island Community Association — one of the oldest associations in the state of West Virginia, according to Seabright — recently added new bleachers and a new concession stand at the field.

Another busy field on Wheeling Island is Wheeling Island Stadium, home of Wheeling Park High School football and many other valley sports teams. The presence of the field turns the Island into a busy place on Friday nights and brings business to the Island’s many family-owned restaurants, including Abbey’s and Golden Chopsticks.

The Wheeling Island Marina also offers a place for boats to dock on the Island. Seabright said the Island Community Association recently built a shelter near the marina for boaters and picnickers to enjoy.

While the Island still preserves its gems of sports and outdoor recreation, its housing market has fallen into some disrepair, taken over by rental properties.

Many point to the penchant for renting homes on the Island as a reason for a decline in closeness in the community. Current residents say it is now more transient that it used to be.

But Seabright, who has lived on the Island for 76 years, said it is still a great place to call home.

“When I first got married, I told my wife, ‘We’re gonna live on God’s country.’ This is God’s country,” said Seabright.

Over the years, anytime he thought about leaving, his wife and daughter showed they shared his sentiments about the Island.

“My wife and daugther said, ‘This is God’s country and we’re not leaving.’ There’s a lot of great people here, really a lot of great people,” said Seabright. “I’ve lived 76 years here and it’s been a great place to live.”

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