History in the Hills: Our historic landscape

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have worked at some fascinating places. One of my most exciting opportunities was being a seasonal park ranger with the Richmond National Battlefield Park in Richmond Va.

I was responsible for interpreting Civil War battlefields around the city of Richmond. One of the hardest things about interpreting the sites was the need to explain the historic landscape to our visitors. More than 150 years have passed from the time of the battles until today, and looking at the land, a lot had changed.

Woods now occupied key open landscape, or vice versa, modern roads crossed through the area, and cities have grown up where there were once farms. It was hard to help visitors see what the landscape looked like in the 1860s. What was immensely helpful was that there were buildings and earthworks that survived to help put the modern landscape in past perspective.

Here in the Ohio Valley, the landscape has changed drastically. And although some may argue that this area is not quite as important as a Civil War battlefield, it is still important to all of us who live, work and have our roots here.

But what makes a place historic? In the eyes of the government, there is a designation that places are given to denote historic status on a national and local level, and that is inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are many criteria that a place must have to be considered for inclusion such as age, older than 50 years; must be associated with a famous person; must be architecturally significant; and must be able to yield important historic or prehistoric information. Only one of these categories must be met for inclusion. Also, the aspect of historic integrity is considered such as location, design, setting, materials and workmanship.

On the other hand, just because something is old, doesn’t necessarily mean it is historic. And just because a property is on the list doesn’t mean it is safe from demolition or change, either. There are incentives to add your property on the list such as the attention of being on the National Register, some limited protection from federal projects and some important tax credits to consider.

In Jefferson County, we have around 24 landmarks on the National Register. From this prestigious list, we have lost two, the Ohio Valley Clay Co. and the Smithfield School, to demolition, not to mention the buildings demolished in the various historic districts in the county.

In Brooke County, there are around 24 historic landmarks and districts. That number includes the Miller Tavern in Wellsburg that was built in 1797, added to the registry in 1978 and demolished this past year.

In Hancock County, there are around 11 historic landmarks. The Old Court House built in 1849 in New Manchester was listed in 1973 but has since been demolished. Excluding the Native American burial mounds in Warren Township, the oldest buildings on the register among the three counties are the Johnston-Truax House on Seneca Street in Weirton, believed to have been built in 1785, followed by the demolished Miller Tavern in 1797.

Fort Steuben is not considered “historic” as it is a reconstruction of the original 1786-87 structure. The First Federal Land Office built around 1800, now part of the Fort Steuben park complex, was on the list of historic landmarks until it was moved to make way for the Veterans Memorial Bridge in the 1970s. The Margaret Manson Weir Memorial pool in Weirton was built in 1934 by the Bintz Swimming Pool Co. and added to the register in 1993. The pool, an important and architecturally significant structure, is one of fewer than 120 pools built by that company. According to a 2018 article in the Lansing State Journal from Lansing, Mich., there are only 19 Bintz Pools standing and only eight in operation. With the fate of the pool in question, we might lose that landmark soon, too.

All in all, we are doing well with more than 59 historic landmarks that exist among the three counties. These sites are what helps tell the story of who we are as a community.

By preserving our past, and using our unique historic landscape, we are better able to look back at where we have come from, and maybe it will help lead us to the future as well.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)