Although Wheeling has fallen of late, Oglebay is still on top

By Mike Pramik, Special Contributor

WHEELING, W.Va. -- In the past 25 years, this once regal city on the Ohio River has been a victim of change.

A sharp reduction in steel and coal jobs in the Ohio Valley hurt the economy, while the development of a mall 10 miles west in St. Clairsville, Ohio, contributed to the demise of Wheeling's retail significance. Landmarks like L.S. Good department store and Louis Hot Dog shop are gone, and the city's three theaters -- the Court, Victoria and Coronet -- aren't showing movies anymore.

Even the Marsh Wheeling Stogies factory on Main Street, which had a glowing sign that greeted visitors from the west, has gone dark.

What Wheeling has in abundance, though, is history. This once was a national gateway, the entrance from the east to the wild western frontier. Thanks to the political ties of Colonel Moses and Lydia Boggs Shepherd, the National Road came here in 1818, thrusting Wheeling into the national spotlight.

Although the city's significance has waned, one place that never seems to fade is Oglebay Resort. Earl W. Oglebay, who built a fortune shipping iron ore at the turn of the 20th century, willed the 400-acre property to the city in 1926. Since then, it has become a 1,650-acre regional landmark, featuring an abundance of outdoor activities, a zoo and a cultural center offering a variety of performing arts.

Mirroring the personality of the Ohio Valley, Oglebay is an unassuming place. It won't pamper you or indulge you. Rather, it greets you like a friend who hasn't changed over the years. Oglebay emits a quiet dignity reflected in its beautiful gardens, practical accommodations and the leisurely pace of its outdoor activities.

Chief among them is golf. Oglebay has three regulation 18-hole courses and an 18-hole par-3 course. For most purposes, the unnamed par-3 course and Crispin, the oldest of the regulation courses, are for beginners and Sunday drivers.

The two main courses, which make up the Speidel Golf Club, are worthy of playing again and again. Today, they're referred to as the Jones Course and the Palmer Course, named after their architects: Robert Trent Jones and Arnold Palmer.

Jones laid out the first 18 in 1970-71. It's true West Virginia golf, with severe elevation changes, side-hill lies and holes cut through the trees. From 1974 to 84, the Jones course was host to the West Virginia LPGA Classic. The tournament often struck fear into the hearts of many of the pros, both because of its mountainous terrain and because it usually was played in the stifling heat of mid-summer.

Always near the bottom of the heap in prize money, the tournament didn't last. But, especially in the minds of local golfers, the aura lingers.

"They still remember coming here and watching the LPGA," said Rodney Haley, Oglebay's director of golf. "We even still use it in some marketing pieces."

In the years following the tournament's demise, the condition of the Jones course worsened. But it changed for the better after the Palmer course opened in 2000. Suddenly Oglebay could boast two unique 18-hole layouts, making the resort an easier sell to golfers. The Palmer course plays more open and offers five sets of tees, while the Jones is a sterner test of golf.

"There is really no similarity in design," Haley said. "Our goal was to make two totally different courses with two top-quality designers."

The bigger challenge is the par-71 Jones course, and a three-hole stretch on the front nine defines what it's all about. The 452-yard, par-3 third hole requires a long, accurate tee shot to avoid a large oak tree that stands just right of the fairway. The approach requires a medium iron to an elevated green.

The fourth hole is a 192-yard par-3 that drops a hundred feet to a green fronted by a pond. There's nothing tricky here. Even the bunkers to the left and right of the green will catch only the most wayward of shots. Just hit it over the water and you're home free.

The fifth hole can be described as a masterstroke or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. It's a 511-yard par-5 that doglegs to the right at almost a 90-degree angle. The fairway and green are built into a steeply banked hillside, and you're likely to have the ball well below your feet on both the second and third shots. The pros used to cut off the corner but the trees have grown to counter that maneuver.

Two nerve-wracking tee shots await on the back nine. No. 11 is a 214-yard, downhill par-3. The green is sculpted into a steep hillside to the left, and a wayward shot to the right can wind up deep in the woods.

The last hole is a real beauty, a sharp dogleg left par-4 that features a sweeping fairway. The tee shot tempts you to cut off some of the length of the 462-yard hole, but don't come up short, or you'll sacrifice a shot getting back into the fairway.

The Palmer course offers more rolling fairways, wider landing areas, bigger greens and much less tree cover than the Jones. It plays 6,725 yards from the back tees. But don't let the length fool you. The par-71 layout is plenty tough even from the 6,500-yard blue tees because of the many hills and Palmer's penchant for long par-3s.

One shortcoming is its routing. Partly because of a lack of space, there are six par-3s and five par-5s. The designers were forced to put five holes on one side of a hill and 13 on another to keep the first tee next to the clubhouse. As a result, you'll play three holes and then drive a half-mile to the next tee -- don't even think about walking this course.

After playing 13 holes in a bowl-shaped opening, another long drive precedes the 17th tee. Then, you must drive the length of the 332-yard, par-4 18th and cross a road to get to the final tee.

Once you finally settle down on a tee box, though, you're greeted with a fun course that is true Palmer -- rolling fairways leading to contoured greens that putt quick and true.

The first hole defines the experience. It's a downhill, 480-yard par-4 that severely penalizes a wayward tee shot with thick rough on the left and trees on the right.

One of the highlights on the back nine is the reachable, 332-yard par-4 10th. Play your power fade around the trees for a chance to putt for eagle. Another is the 196-yard, par-3 No. 13, which drops severely to a green fronted by a pond, similarly to No. 4 on the Jones course.

One of Oglebay's biggest attractions is its Winter Festival of Lights, which features 60 illuminated displays during the holidays. Unfortunately, the golf courses are dotted by large, metal light frames.

After golf, there's plenty to do at the resort, which stands as a testament of the strength of the Wheeling community. Officials says it's the only self-supporting, publicly-owned municipal park in the country.

Check out the buffalo grazing area at the Good Zoo, where you'll also see 83 other animal species, including bears, river otters and red wolves. There's a petting zoo, a miniature train display and a small planetarium nearby. Oglebay' s horse stables offer guided trail rides for beginners and have an indoor/outdoor show ring that attracts talented riders. There's also a large outdoor pool, several tennis courts and a small lake that offers pedal boats and fishing.

The 16-acre Bissonnette Gardens reflect what the original Oglebay estate looked like in the early 1900s. If you're there in early May, you'll see dozens of tulips come to life. The gardens have brick paths that wind through seasonal floral displays.

For five bucks you can tour Oglebay's mansion, decorated with period furnishings. One section displays the history of Wheeling. The 212-room Wilson Lodge, completed in 1957, has been updated with an indoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and massage therapy, but it still feels a lot like an old lodge, with spare furnishings and a hands-off style of service. Oglebay also has 49 cottages, which sell out quickly during the summer, and an executive retreat called Waddington House.

If you've got time, check out what Wheeling has to offer. The headliner is Jamboree USA, a country music show that began in 1933. Today, national country acts come to Capitol Music Hall, the oldest theater in West Virginia, to recreate the Jamboree.

You can bet on live greyhound racing and simulcast horse racing at Wheeling Downs, just west of the city on Wheeling Island. The facility is dominated by more than 1,650 video lottery and slot machines, though. There are no table games here, just machines. A 150-room hotel opened this year. You can get to the island via the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which was the longest of its kind when it was built in 1849.

Hungry? Go to Centre Market and grab a Coleman's fish sandwich. The fried Canadian whiting is a staple in the Ohio Valley. Men's lodges, convenience stores and churches attract diners by the dozens by offering Coleman's fish. Do yourself a favor and skip all the fast-food joints here. You can get pierogies "made by Ukrainian women" at Zien's, just a few minutes drive from Oglebay. Or stop for dinner at Tony & Cleo's in nearby Elm Grove. A live pianist entertains on weekends. If you want homemade Italian food, seek out the 56-year-old Bella Via, where you dine in the soft glow of red lights.

There's a serviceable sports bar called TJ's Sports Garden that easily beats the Glass Works Grill at Wilson Lodge. Another good bar is River City Ale Works, where you can get a cold microbrew. It's housed in the Wheeling Artisan Center, with retail shops and exhibits highlighting the city's industrial heritage.

In addition to the grill, Oglebay has a fine dining restaurant called the Ihlenfeld Dining Room. Just down the hill from the resort is Stratford Springs, which has a restaurant and shops that offer locally made goods.

Mike Pramik, Special Contributor

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