In Wheeling, the state of West Virginia was born. Though the state capital moved to Charleston permanently in 1885, the spirit of those Virginians against secession from the U.S. during the Civil War is preserved in this city on the Ohio River. Arguably the centerpiece of historic sites from West Virginia’s early history is the West Virginia Independence Hall, now a modern museum.
Originally a U.S. Customs house built in 1859, the building became the center of the Reorganized Government of Virginia (later West Virginia), and was where the Wheeling Conventions took place, which produced the new state.
Independence Hall in its modern condition, to me, is very underrated and under-promoted. The quality of the exhibits in the museum is impressive, and the museum staff is extremely knowledgeable about the building’s history.
Like many older buildings, Independence Hall has seen several uses throughout its existence, from the U.S. Customs facility to a federal courthouse to the center of the creation of West Virginia’s early government to a number of private uses. While the building today has been restored to its original appearance, at one time, the building was expanded to include more floor space – both horizontally and vertically.
In the 1960s, the state of West Virginia bought the building from private use, with the intention of restoring Independence Hall through the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation. After restoration was complete, the building was opened as a museum in the late 1970s. The museum is operated by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, which also runs the West Virginia Culture Center in Charleston.
This museum is ideal for anyone the least bit interested in history, especially those interested in historic renovation or the Civil War. The museum occupies three floors, and is designed to have visitors begin on the third floor and work down through each floor.
The third floor houses the restored 19th Century courtroom, plus the restored judge’s chamber. Visitors are free to walk about the courtroom, and informational signs provide a concise history of the room and its uses over the years.
The second floor contains the gem of the museum – a rather large exhibit containing battle flags carried by companies that mustered across West Virginia during the Civil War. Because of the fragile nature of these flags, each is preserved in a controlled environment, and no flash photography is allowed in the exhibit. Tying in with the actual flags is another exhibit that features information on flag restoration and the relevant procedures.
Also on the second floor is an exhibit detailing the process of restoring Independence Hall to its original shape and size in the 1960s. The exhibit points out the extensive attention to detail that was paid during the restoration efforts. In addition, a replicated U.S. Customs Office and the original West Virginia Governor’s office are on the second floor.
The first floor has more general exhibits on the Civil War and Wheeling history.
The West Virginia Independence Hall is on the corner of Market Street (W.Va. 2 North) and 16th Street in downtown Wheeling. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is closed Sundays and government holidays. Admission is free (Note: some Internet websites list an admission price, but that is no longer true). A small parking lot for the museum is off 16th Street.