Some Reminiscences of a Man Who Came to Wheeling Three Score and Ten Years Ago -- A Veteran of the War of 1812, a Pioneer Fireman, and a Boatman before Steam Navigation was Dreamed of.
"The days of our years in the earth are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."
The words of the Psalmist would seem to have no application in the case of one of Wheeling's pioneer residents, who is now living in North Wheeling at the advanced age of 89 years, with an intellect apparently as vigorous as that of most men at half his years. Nor is he physically as inform as one might naturally expect to see a man who lacks but a few months of being a nonogenerian. The gentleman referred to is Joseph Greer, who came to Wheeling in 1812, and has been a resident of this city ever since that time.
Speaking of his physical condition, a reporter who called on the old gentleman on Saturday at his home on North Market street, was astonished to find him so hale. He has for some time been missing from his accustomed haunts about town, where his familiar form was daily to be seen a few month ago. This is on account of severe injuries to his spine received some ten or twelve weeks ago, which were of a nature to produce most serious result. Indeed, that at his age he should at all recover from the shock seems marvelous, and is but another evidence of his wonderfully strong frame and constitution. A somewhat similar accident happened to him in 1877, when he fell off the roof of a house and broke his arm. The physician pronounced the shock fatal to one of his age, but the arm quite healed up, and is almost as good as ever.
Soon after casting his lot among the people of the Pan Handle, Mr. Greer turned out under Capt. Irwin, with numerous other citizens of this vicinity, to defend their homes, believed to be imperiled by the proximity of British troops. It was rumored hereabout that a force of men was en route from Brownsville to burn and pillage this town. The militia lay on Wheeling hill that night. In the course of the night -- as Mr. Greer told the story the other day -- a horseman came galloping up the road from the east. Hearing the troops he halted and inquired what was up. He was informed of the nature of the force, and the duty they expected to be called upon to perform; whereupon he turned and rode rapidly back toward Pennsylvania. Mr. Greer remains firm in the belief that he was a British spy, and that only his warning averted a gory conflict.
The young man, at that time only about twenty, was six months under arms. In the spring of the year there came on heavy rains, while yet the snow was lying on the ground, and the result was a great deal of sickness among the "band of militant plowboys." Mr. Greer's share was a spell of fever and ague, which held on with the wonted pertinacity of that disease, and prevented his re-entering the army. It also cut him off from the pension lists of the Government. The old gentleman still has in his possession the musket he carried in those memorable days.
At this time Mr. Greer says the ground now occupied by the Second Ward Market and the adjacent buildings was a low swamp, or vast pond after a season of wet weather. He has often skated on this frozen pond over the site of the market, the rear of the Grant House grounds, and the east side of Market Square.
About this time, Mr. Greer also joined the primitive fire department that fought the flames in those days. The only organization then was a "bucket brigade." Ladders were kept at convenient corners for use in case of fire. Mr. Greer was a "roof man", it being his duty to receive the leather buckets of water from the next man in the line and dash it over the fire. In this way Mr. Greer thinks less water did more good, and there was no possibility of damage to goods from drenching. After the bucket system went out of vogue, which was not until water works were established, hose were used for some time, and this plan was superceded by hand engines, which gave way to steam engines at a comparatively recent date. Mr. Greer was until within a very few years custodian of the Hope Hose house, and prior to accepting that position he held a similar one in the "Old Red" company. His experience in this business covers a period of fifty or sixty years.
In 1824- or '25 he was on the roof of a building on Main street, near the head of the hill, when a companion fell, and pulling Greer with him, both rolled to the edge of the roof, and were only saved by Greer's catching the water spout. Mr. Greer's narrow escapes were not few, his most recent one being at the big Grant House fire, where the walls fell on a space just vacated by him, and within a few inches of his new position. He thinks he has aided in extinguishing considerable more than one hundred fires, among them being that at Sweeney's North Wheeling Glass House, and the one which about thirty years ago destroyed the block of houses east of Main street, and South of Eleventh.
in the old days of flats and keelboats, Mr. Greer's experience was varied and startling enough to make a volume of interesting reading. He used to take freight to New Orleans, and then sell his craft and return by whatever means offered. On two of the trips he was obliged to walk back from the Crescent City. He took several flat-boat loads of flour down fro Redick Mckee, and various merchandize for others, in the years 1818 to 1821.
About the beginning of his river experience, about 1817, as Mr. Greer remembers it, a man brought from Brownsville a small steam-boat, which was a very interesting toy, but of no practical account. Mr. Greer says it ran well enough in smooth water, but against the current it required the liberal use of the pole, It was operated by a series of upright paddles or oars on either side, the motive power being supplied to a shaft to which these were attached. It was not, however, for a number a years later that steam navigation became a practical success.
In 1821 Mr. Greer bought from his father a lot on the east side of Market street, above Eighth, and a year later he erected a house on it. This house is still in his possession, with several others in the vicinity.
He narrated to the reporter a little incident which goes to show the trifling price of real estate in those days. Mrs. Burket, a sister of Daniel Zane, in the partition of "Zane's Island," now Wheeling Island, obtained that portion lying north of Zane street next to the Back river, and including the present Fair Grounds. This she desired to sell, and offered to convey it to Mr. Greer for the sum of $50, cash in hands. Not having the case by him, Mr. Greer applied to a friend or two to loan it for a few days. This came to the ears of Daniel Zane, and when Mr. Greer, having secured the sum, went back to purchase, the lady had already disposed of it to her brother.
Mr. Greer says he has worked in the
all over what is now Centre Wheeling and South Wheeling. There were at that time but two houses below Twenty-second street -- those of Mr. Eoff, still standing near the street car stable, and that of the Caldwell's, near Caldwell's run. The wages then paid were $8 a month and board for such work. There was then a law that creditors could not seize lands of debtors, and Mr. Greer narrates some sharp games by merchants to secure affluence. They would buy goods on time, close out at a sacrifice, and invest in lad, leaving their creditors to whistle for the pay.
Mr. Greer from 1830 to 1836, or about that time, was member of the Sanitary Committee of the city, and as such had charge of the public health. He became noted as an amateur cholera doctor, and several persons are yet living who were attacked by the cholera in the epidemic of 1832, and who ascribed their present existence to the curative influence of Mr. Greer's treatment. He tells some interesting stories of the great cholera visitation, when coal fires were kept constantly burning in the street to fumigate the atmosphere, and business was entirely suspended.
In fact, the old man's life has been an eventful one, and his conversation is full of
He has witnested with intelligent interest the building of the National Road; the introduction of steam navigation; the invention of the locomotive; the origin of the modern cooking stove; the introduction of the sewing machine, and other marvels that are now every-day object to us.
Concerning the introduction of the Morse telegraph Mr. Greer has particularly vivid remembrance. His reccolection is that Prof. Morse himself first exhibited it in Wheeling, having two instruments in different rooms, from one to the other of which messages were sent. May people, when convinced that the wires really did carry the communications, fled from the house, crying that the thing was bewitched.
The reception and dinner to LaFayette on Wheeling Hill, then covered with trees, the arrival of the first engine on the B. & O. Railroad, and the building of the suspension bridge, are all in Mr. Greer's stock of reminiscences, but for these we have not a present space.
In the flood of 1832, the saved the life of Daniel Zane by removing him in a skiff from a house on the portion of the Island now known as "Stone Town." This and other adventures he still related with a keen relish, that adds to their interest. He is one of our few remaining links with the early history of the community.
The Intelligencer (Wheeling, W. Va.), April 18, 1881.
from the Ohio County Public Library vertical file
Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and partially funded by Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.