ROPE MAKING AND ROPEWALK IN WHEELING, WV by John Bowman 2018

One of the offshoots of boat building ‘Wheeling’s First Major Industry’ was the need for rope, and much rope was needed for the boat trade.  Circa 1802 is the earliest mention of rope making in Wheeling.  Michael Graham employed a few young men manufacturing rope at his ‘ropewalk’ (rope manufactory) listed as along Wheeling Creek.  These workers, known as ‘cordwainers’ twisted hemp and manila grass fibers into rope, and were paid about two cents per hour for a twelve-hour day, six days per week, which compares to five dollars per hour today.  A shed was erected which mainly consisted of a roof twenty feet wide by fifty feet in length that sheltered these ‘cordwainers’ making the rope.  At one end of the shed, strands of hemp was, tied to a bar and drawn through a hackle, these were pins inserted into the bar, making a kind of comb in which the hemp was drawn through straightening the fibers.  The cordwainer would walk backwards twisting, combing and splicing the fibers until he reached the other end of the shed where he would loop the rope over another bar and continue his walk backwards twisting the fibers into the desired length.  Once finished, the ropes were treated with a sizing made of flour and water that was rubbed into the rope while it was still stretched along the walk.  These ropes were of the usual diameter of one inch, and one-hundred feet in length. See Endnote 1

ROPEWALK Shakespeare Yard UK

One cannot write of Wheeling’s Rope Making without including the Berry family history into the story.  The Berry family is seemingly synonymous with the Rope Making and Wheeling.  In 2018, it was announced that Wheeling’s ‘Berry Supply’ aka Charles H. Berry Supply Co. the oldest business in Wheeling is quitting.

Berry Supply Co. 1905 Ted Spears, Jr. collection

The Berry history is a little mixed depending on which or whose history you read.  In 1889, the Berry family submitted this to the Wheeling Newspaper.  Obituary — from the Wheeling Intelligencer, Feb. 5, 1889:A Well Known Business Man Goes to His Final Rest. A Brief Sketch.  Charles H. Berry, the well-known rope and cordage merchant and dealer in boat tackle and other supplies, died at 4:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon Feb. 4, 1889 at his residence, corner of Chapline and Twentieth streets.  The deceased was actively engaged in the rope, twine and general cordage business, first as a manufacturer and latterly as a wholesale and retail merchant.  Charles H. Berry was born in Boston, March 4, 1825.  His father was a native of England, and while young, emigrated to Boston, where he married.  In 1826, his father moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio where he worked as a cordwainer, and four years later, in 1830 he moved the family to Wheeling, Virginia.” See Endnote 2

John W. Berry, founder of his son’s Charles H. Berry Supply Co., opened a rope making business and manufactured the first manila rope west of the Allegheny Mountains.  His first ropewalk was in North Wheeling and occupied a site between North and Franklin Streets.  Next, he moved his ropewalk to Fulton on the National Road.  In 1828, the ropewalk was at 46 Water Street at the present store location.  Berry employed close to two dozen young men in making rope at their ‘ropewalk’ factory on Water Street.  Some of Berry’s workers, known as ‘cordwainers’, were indentured servants placed in the job to learn the trade…  Berry cordwainers are listed here:1 Dietrich, Francis, cordwainer, 2 Ellis, Jonathan, cordwainer and an inmate of Jesse Curtis Berry, 3 Herbst, Andrew, cordwainer, 4 Hutchinson, M.J., cordwainer, 5 Leisure, Conrad and 6 Leisure, Henry, cordwainers.

The Panic of 1837-1841 caused him grief and he turned the business over to McKee Harding & Co., (Redick McKee and Richard W. Harding) who further turned the business over to Charles H. Berry, the son of John W. Berry in 1845.See Endnote 3 Berry, C.H., (Charles Henry) cordage store at 2 Union Street in 1853, this was a warehouse, corner Water and Union Streets.  After many moves, and under different family names, John W. Berry, & Charles H. Berry in 1845, Charles H. Berry, R.J. Berry & William B. Berry in 1864 at 1312-1314 Water Street extending to 1315 Main street.  In 1881, the business was listed as Charles H. Berry Supply at 1230 Water Street, and at 1315 Water Street in 1889.

Berry Supply 1885 letter head Roger Thorngate collection

“Bill of Lading” August 17, 1836 Berry Supply Shipped the following to Capt. Elijah Murray builder of the steamboat Mariner built in Wheeling, Virginia. in 1836.
Shipped, were Belt hooks, Blocks and tackle, Cotton cordage, Flax, Gum packing, Hemp, Juto, Lace Leather, Leather, Gum, Manila, Mechanical rubber goods, Mill supplies, Oakum, Packing yarn, Pitch, Rivets, Rope, Twine, Rosin, Sheaves, Steel spit pulleys, Stitched canvas belting, Tar, and Wood pulleys. See Endnote 4

Berry Supply Aug 17, 1836 Bill of Lading Roger Thorngate collection

Endnotes

Source: Bowman, John, Boat Building Wheeling’s First Major Industry Page 36

Source: Bowen, J.B., The Wheeling Directory and  Advertiser, Wheeling 1839 and Williams, C.S., Williams’ Wheeling Directory, City Guide, and Business Mirror, Vol. I – 1856-1857, Wheeling, John H. Thompson, 1856.

Source: Newton, J.H. Editor, Nichols, G.G., Sprankle, A.G. History of the Pan-Handle, Being Historical Collections of the Counties of Ohio, Brooke, Marshall and Hancock, West Virginia J.A. Caldwell, Wheeling, W.Va. 1879 Page 276, 284, 328

2 Charles H. Berry: “Find a Grave Memorial” states: Charles Henry Berry born in Boston Mass Mar 4, 1827 died Feb 4, 1889 aged 61 was one of the prominent businessmen of the latter city.  Of it he became a resident when a small boy, coming in company with his parents, John Berry, a native of England, and his wife, Alice M. Cook, of Boston, Mass.

Another biography in a prominent Wheeling book gives us this. “Charles H. Berry conducting the pioneer business first as manufacturer and latterly as wholesale merchant in ropes twines and general cordage at present located at 1315 Main street was born in Boston, Mass March 4th 1824.  His father now deceased was a native of England and while but young emigrated to Boston where he married.  In 1825, the old gentleman removed to Cincinnati and four years later, in 1831 he moved the family to Wheeling.”

We also find this Berry family history.

“John W. Berry of 1312 and 1314 Water street rope twine leather and gum-belting warehouse was born in 1837 and is the second son of William Berry of Devonshire England who came to America in 1833, where he manufactured the first manila rope made west of the Allegheny Mountains”.

3 The Panic of 1837 lasting into 1844 and beyond.  The business depression from which Wheeling suffered so severely was attributed to President Andrew Jackson’s removal of the government’s deposits from the United States Bank.  This action disturbed and confused the currency of the country resulting in a loss of confidence of every business interest when a staple currency ceased to exist.  In 1838 and 1839, as part of Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears” .   In 2018, does some of this irrational meddling and racism sound familiar?
4 Source: Bowman, John, Bills of Lading Freight On Board Wheeling, W. Va. Wheeling, WV 2012 Page 122 Pictures from the Roger Thorngate collection

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