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Wheeling Islanders Recall Swimming, Fishing, Boating on River

WHEELING — As area folks recall youthful activities along the Ohio River, they hope their parents never learned of those exploits and pray that their own children don’t turn into “mini-mes” at the water’s edge.

Fishing, swimming, boating and daredevil stunts were part of the summertime mix for many Wheeling Island residents. Memories of misspent days bring back smiles and laughter, along with head-shaking at some of          the exploits.

David Lucey lives in Bridgeport now, but grew up on Wheeling Island where recreation was “fun and a little scary at times.” At the point at the tip of the Island’s north end, he said, “We would fish there and swim there, even though we were not supposed to. We’d have fires on the little beach. We’d canoe around the Island. …We had rope swings. The point was our own little jungle world back there.”

For daring youth, he said, “It was a rite of passage to jump off the Aetnaville Bridge into the back channel. We’d swim to Bridgeport.”

Of course, the intrepid swimmers “would try to get changed before you get home” to avoid their parents’ wrath. Escaping detection was not always possible, however, because “the river has a distinctive smell,” Lucey said.

The last time Lucey visited the point, the area was roped off.

“When we were kids, it was like a big playground back there,” he recalled. “Way back in the day, there were actually sandy spots there like a beach. That’s where we would hang out and fish and have our little campfires. When the river would rise, it would create little islands. … I had a lot of good times on the riverbank and the point,” he said.

Looking back, Lucey said, “I’m surprised I made it to adulthood.” He said his pursuits have “definitely changed now that I’m a grown, responsible adult.”

Recalling canoeing adventures, he said, “I still go back a few times a year and take my kayak around the Island.”

Lucey remembers his father talking about how low the Ohio River would be at times — before Pike Island Locks and Dam was built — when people could wade across the river in summer or ice skate in winter.

Dan Taylor, who still lives on Wheeling Island, said, “We did a lot of fishing. … When we were kids, you could go fishing by the sewers. Sewage went straight into the river. You could catch carp and catfish all day long. We didn’t really go into the river a whole bunch, but we did a little more than you should.”

While some people boated or water skied, “every once in a while we’d build rafts and take little excursions,” he said. Taylor recalls water shows that the late Walker Dick arranged at the yacht club, which was located just south of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. A seaplane launching area was situated adjacent to the yacht club, at the current site of the House of the Carpenter.

Peggy Dolan, who has returned to the Wheeling  Island home where she and her siblings grew up, said, “The river used to be our swimming pool in the summer. We had a dock to jump from and a rope to swing from that dropped us into the water. … The family could fish from the dock or the bank. We never went alone and always put the fish back in.”

She said, “Our parents gave us a healthy fear of the power of the water, but we were never taught to be afraid of the river. We knew how to get it to help water the garden in time of drought, either with buckets or with the hose. Dad would take the boys out in the boat to row around the Island, and then they would take us girls on a ride if we wanted. Dad was an accountant and one of his clients had a house boat and he occasionally took the family out on his boat for the day. That was always something to look forward to, but as the family got bigger, that boat didn’t and soon it wasn’t big enough for all of us.”

Recalling another riverside attraction, Dolan said, “And we used to love when the Delta Queen would come by. Everyone in the neighborhood would shout to one another that it was coming. We dropped everything to run to the river to watch.”

The river also played a role in holiday celebrations. Dolan said, “We always watched the fireworks on July 4 from the riverbank or the dock. People would come to our house for a picnic and we would go down to the end of the yard together to watch them. For me, the river always gave peace. … I could sit on the riverbank and watch the river, or we would all lie on the ground at the top of the bank, watching the clouds go by, the sounds of the water gently lapping at the shore.”

She added, “Now, I again live in the family home so I get to enjoy the peaceful flow of the river all the time. I sit and watch the boats go by, always dreaming that when I get the money, I will own a good dock and a boat.”

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