WHEELING - With cannon blasts, a volley of musket fire and three cheers of "Hip, hip, huzzah!" from the crowd, the spirit of 1863 was in full force Thursday as West Virginia's birthplace marked the state's sesquicentennial.
Hundreds - some decked out in bonnets, hoop skirts and stovepipe hats - lined up on 16th Street in front of West Virginia Independence Hall beneath a warm sun and clear sky to take part in a celebration similar to that which took place June 20, 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation admitting West Virginia as the Union's 35th state went into effect.
Those who showed up early to stake out the best spots were treated to music by the Wildcat Regiment Band of the 105th Pennsylvania volunteers re-enactment group. The noon ceremony began to the chime of church bells ringing throughout downtown, when bells around Wheeling tolled in celebration of statehood. A 35-member choir sang the national anthem, and the Rev. Deborah Gable of St. James Lutheran Church gave an opening prayer.
CELEBRATION — Members of the Wildcat Regiment Band of Home, Pa., perform at West Virginia Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling to celebrate the state’s 150th birthday Thursday. - Scott McCloskey
Mayor Andy McKenzie noted with pride that Wheeling holds the distinction of having served as the capital of two states. The city served as the seat of the loyal "restored government" of Virginia from 1861-63, as well as West Virginia's capital on two different occasions. Though the capital moved to Charleston for good in 1885, Wheeling's place in history as the state's birthplace, he said, can never be erased.
"What makes this day even more special is that this is the spot where our state was created in 1863. Without Wheeling, there would be no West Virginia," McKenzie said.
Dressed as statehood movement leader Francis Harrison Pierpont, West Virginia Independence Hall Site Manager Travis Henline highlighted the two years of debate and effort amid the turmoil of the Civil War that ultimately resulted in the state's unique creation at a time when the future of the Union remained in doubt, many Americans clamoring for a negotiated peace with the Confederates.
"There was nothing guaranteed. There were no foregone conclusions in this experiment," Henline said.
Henline also re-enacted Pierpont's farewell speech, delivered upon his departure to lead the restored government of Virginia and prepare to bring the state back into the Union fold after West Virginia was established. Local actor and playwright Jeremy Richter followed with a forceful portrayal of West Virginia's first governor, Arthur Boreman, giving his inaugural address.
Though they could not attend Thursday because Congress is in session, several members of West Virginia's delegation sent their thoughts on the historic occasion in writing.
Henline read a tribute from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who said he found his "forever home" when he moved to the Mountain State as a young man about 50 years ago. West Virginia, he soon learned, is "a place where the mountains touch the heavens ... supper time is family time ... (and) patriotism means more than waving a flag."
"We ache for it when we're away, and we smile when the words 'Wild and Wonderful' greet us at the state line," Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote.
In a statement read by Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. Executive Director Jeremy Morris, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, pointed to the state's rise from challenging early years to become a vital part of the nation's economy through its abundant natural resources, and in more recent years, new industries such as biotech and aerospace. And through his Northern Panhandle representative, Mary Jo Guidi, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called the contentious months leading to statehood "a time to choose between what is right and what is wrong" for the state's founders.
"Today and every day, take time to remember those who fought for statehood, allowing us to promote our goals of unity and equality," Manchin wrote.
Descendants of several important figures in West Virginia's founding were on hand, including Pierpont and Boreman, Daily Intelligencer Editor Archibald Campbell and statehood convention delegate Chester Hubbard.
Following the ceremony, the crowd was invited inside Independence Hall to enjoy birthday cake and more music from the Wildcat Regiment Band.