WHEELING, W.Va. — On just another muggy July Tuesday on the west end of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, working-age adults with nowhere to be at 10 a.m. shambled down the sidewalks as drivers eastbound on Virginia Street patiently waited at the traffic light.
Then, the thrum of tires on metal grating. But another sound was curiously out of place – that of a rake scraping on stone.
Sure enough, atop one of the ancient piers that anchor the Suspension Bridge to Wheeling Island, an elderly man was slowly but determinedly clearing a thatch of weeds, exposing the sandstone surface below, discolored by decades of soot and exhaust.
“Hey, Bill!” shouted a passing jogger. The elderly man waved gamely, stood up and leaned against his rake for a moment’s rest, with runnels of sweat dripping down his deeply tanned face. He was dressed in denim shorts and an “Island Community Association” tank top.
Over the course of the summer, Bill Seabright – sometimes aided by his friends “Buddy Holly” and Floyd “Bubble” Yost, but mostly alone – has taken it upon himself to beautify the 166-year-old Wheeling landmark. The longtime Wheeling Island resident just thinks it’s the right thing to do.
“State’s probably too busy to get over here and do it,” he said. “It was terrible – terrible looking. You can’t believe how many people stop, park their cars, come up here and take pictures of the bridge. And the bridge would look terrible.”
Seabright is a 1957 graduate of Wheeling High School who worked in a local machine shop before it went out of business. Then he worked for the state for 23 years. Seventy-five of his years have been spent on the Island, he said.
His favorite memory of the Suspension Bridge was back in the early 1950s when the Shrine Circus would come to town. The deck was made of wood back then and he remembers the “clip-clop” of the circus elephants’ feet as they crossed the river. He also remembers when there were three police officers directing traffic to the racetrack on busy Saturdays before there were stoplights.
He has some more recent memories, too. Just this past May 3, on his birthday, a family visiting from India stopped to have him take their picture. Then they sang “Happy Birthday” to him, much to his delight.
He was out picking up trash when they came across him – something he does frequently in addition to weeding and spraying. He calls the people who drop their beer bottles, cans and wrappers “human pigs,” and can’t understand why they don’t want to keep the place looking good.
“They should love this bridge, you know. By God, this is ancient,” he said, gesturing enthusiastically to the stone towers behind him. “I compare this to the Statue of Liberty! Yeah!”
With that he climbed back atop the pier and continued his raking, a 77-year-old man with a head full of Wheeling Island memories, doing his best to keep time and the weeds at bay.