No Civil War memorial for Wheeling
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In early 2005, public officials and civic leaders in Wheeling, W.Va., embarked on an endeavor they hoped would transform part of the city's downtown and bring millions of tourists and their dollars into town.
But the effort to locate a National Civil War Memorial in Wheeling has died and boosters of the memorial blame an unlikely source -- West Virginia's and America's senior senator, Robert C. Byrd.
"We were all disappointed," said Bob DeFrancis, chairman of the board of the National Civil War Memorial Commission. "I think the board had reasonable expectations to think that we had a shot with some help from the senator."
The project required a substantial fund-raising effort to pay for the memorial's estimated $11.3 million cost. To bring in the cash, the commission sought a Congressional designation for Wheeling as the official site of the memorial.
With the senior member of the Senate from their state, the folks in Wheeling believed Sen. Byrd would use his influence to secure the national designation, sort of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval that would allow them to raise money nationally.
But, nearly two years after he was approached, Sen. Byrd decided at the end of May not to support the project. And without the designation, Wheeling officials decided earlier this month not to pursue the memorial.
A spokesman said the senator decided not to support the memorial in Wheeling because he was not sure of the extent of local support and because it was too early in the planning process.
"It was way too premature to seek a congressional designation, there is no question," said Sen. Byrd's spokesman, Tom Gavin. "Sen. Byrd believes we have to do whatever we can to preserve our history ... but this particular project was too premature in the process to seek a congressional designation."
Sen. Byrd's decision and the lack of a more detailed explanation about why it was made has infuriated Gary Casteel, a native of Preston County, W.Va., and the sculptor who is the driving force behind the memorial.
"This was basically a no-brainer approach to bringing in millions of dollars to the state and Wheeling," Mr. Casteel said. "We went in and asked for something that was easily had on his part and instead got slapped in the face. I think the people of West Virginia will really be hurt from this, especially Wheeling."
Mr. Casteel, who lives in Glasgow, Va., near Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley, and a handful of other Civil War aficionados originally came up with the idea of a national memorial during a discussion in Gettysburg eight years ago. A panel was formed in 2001 to explore a site for the memorial, but that proved to be a difficult task.
Options to locate the memorial in an easily recognizable location, such as battlefields in Gettysburg, Antietam and Appomattox, were ruled out because of a prohibition on the establishment of new memorials on battlefields operated by the National Park Service. Other locations were ruled out because of the location, shortage of land and, particularly, a shortage of money.
Wheeling was chosen for a variety of reasons, from its history as the birthplace of West Virginian independence during the Civil War and because the city agreed to use prime downtown space for the memorial and committed to try and raise the funds to build it.
The National Civil War Memorial as planned would be 90 feet in diameter and contain a series of bronze panels mounted on stone that would depict historical tableaus in bas-relief. Also included would be 32 portraits of notable civilians and military leaders of the Civil War and statues of ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers.
The memorial was to be built in a courtyard between the West Virginia Northern Community College and West Virginia Independence Hall, the birthplace of the state when the 50 western counties seceded from Virginia in 1863.
Though Mr. Gavin, Sen. Byrd's spokesman, said a question about the extent of local support figured into the senator's decision not to support the memorial designation for Wheeling, the memorial board which Mr. DeFrancis chairs includes representatives from virtually all of Wheeling's major public and service entities.
The panel formed in Gettysburg for the memorial was transferred to Wheeling as the effort to locate the memorial began there. Its members included Wheeling Mayor Nick Sparachane, Gayle Manchin, the state's first lady, and members of the Independence Hall Foundation, the local Civil War Roundtable, and the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In addition, the city of Wheeling, West Virginia Northern Community College, the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and the Independence Hall Foundation were all equal financial partners on the project, contributing about $125,000 for the initial fund-raising effort. Earlier this year, the memorial commission board decided another $250,000 in seed money would be needed and that a major fund-raising effort would have to be in place by this summer, Mr. DeFrancis said.
When efforts failed to obtain the $250,000 from the state, the key ingredient became the national memorial designation. Without it, the board concluded it could not pursue the project.
For now, the board will remain intact and maintain its 501C(3) designation as a nonprofit corporation, Mr. DeFrancis said. The members will support Mr. Casteel's effort to find a new location for the memorial and will transfer the board's home there whenever a new site is found, he said.
"I'm disappointed and sad it's not going to happen in Wheeling, but I hope that it's going to happen somewhere else," Mr. DeFrancis said. "By God, if another city and state gets it, I'll be glad to go and see it."
The timing for completion of the memorial was set to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 2011. Mr. Casteel continues to work on the sculptures at his Virginia studio and said the timetable can still be met if a site and, more importantly, money, are found soon.
Mr. Casteel said he is in the process of talking with other cities and will likely finalize a deal to locate the memorial elsewhere at a location he declined to identify. One thing is for certain: The memorial will be located below the Mason-Dixon Line and some other city and area will reap the economic benefits, he said.
He remains bitter at the thought of what might have been.
"You can see what Wheeling is losing and I don't quite understand what Sen. Byrd was thinking," Mr. Casteel said. "If we had gone in and asked for $5 million, I would have understood. We did not go in and ask for money, we only asked for the recognition factor and I think he could have gotten that."
First Published June 23, 2007 10:29 pm