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Final shift held at old Wheeling Fire Headquarters

Photo by Eric Ayres Current firefighters, retirees and friends gather for one last meal served at the Center Wheeling headquarters of the Wheeling Fire Department on Wednesday night.

WHEELING — The crew at the Wheeling Fire Headquarters and some special guests broke bread together in the Center Wheeling station for the very last time on Wednesday night, reflecting on fond memories of the facility and sharing some highlights from nearly five decades of stories there.

The fire headquarters — which has operated out of the lower level of the Center Wheeling Parking Garage since 1978 — will be completely vacated over the course of the next two weeks. On March 4, demolition of the parking garage is scheduled to begin.

In the meantime, firefighters — along with all of the firefighting equipment and trucks — will be temporarily relocating to other stations and offices in the city until construction of the new state-of-the-art, $9 million Wheeling Fire Department Headquarters is completed in East Wheeling this spring.

Wednesday’s bittersweet workday welcomed a number of guests to the old headquarters for one last walkthrough. Retirees, members of the city administration and former fire chiefs gathered for a few hugs, laughs and a walk down memory lane.

“We’ve been in this station for almost 46 years,” said Fire Chief Jim Blazier. “There’s a lot of history here. There’s a lot of tradition here. A lot of good things happened out of this building. There’s been a countless number of lives saved — it’s unbelievable to think.

“Tonight is the last 24-hour shift that we’re going to have in this station.”

Guests to Wednesday’s gathering included former Fire Chief Larry Helms, who led the department from 2007 to 2021, when Blazier took the post upon Helms’ retirement; former Chief Steve Johnston, who led the department from 1995 to 2007; and Sherry Sligar, widow of former Chief Cliff Sligar, who oversaw the transition of the headquarters to the Center Wheeling site in the spring of 1978 during his tenure as chief from 1971 to 1995.

Sligar developed the 911 Center in Wheeling and went on to become the Belmont County 911 director following his lengthy service with the WFD. He died in 2021.

“For a man of his era, he had a lot of interest in technology, which helped our department advance to where it is today — because he laid a lot of the groundwork for the technology that we use,” Blazier said of Sligar.

Sherry Sligar and the former fire chiefs joined Blazier and retirees in reminiscing about the many firefighters that have served in the headquarters at 2126 Market St. over the decades.

“There are a lot of stories,” Sherry Sligar said, noting that she continues to find keepsakes, treasures and old “artifacts” that Cliff had saved from his time with the department. “I run across things all of the time.”

Blazier and the crew at the main station have been packing everything in recent weeks in preparation for the final move.

“I’ve got a whole tote of what I labeled as ‘historical’ items,” he said, noting that aside from old yearbooks and logs, there are true gems like old letters and unique mementos from past chapters of the WFD’s history.

“If you get a chance, read through some of the old log books,” Helms said. “I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know, things that I heard stories about and didn’t know if they were true or not.”

The old annual reports and budget reports from the fire department’s past are interesting, as well.

“I remember seeing one that was $76,000 for the annual budget,” Helms said of the old reports — noting that today’s fire department budget is around $11.5 million.

The former chiefs took a tour of the old offices on Wednesday and posed for photos at the desk in the chief’s office — the same desk that has been there since 1978. The old desk is being retired and is not being relocated to the new office.

“It was customary that the previous chief leave a dollar in the desk, symbolic of ‘passing the buck’ to the next chief,” Johnston said.

Blazier said he still has the bill, which has a minted date in the 1970s.

In the 155-year history of the Wheeling Fire Department, there have only been 15 fire chiefs. One former chief served two different non-consecutive tenures, so technically Blazier is the 16th chief. Before Sligar’s tenure, Chief William McFadden served as head of the department from 1946 to 1971.

The group on hand Wednesday evening got a chance to revisit history, sit down together and enjoy the final meal served in the old headquarters.

“All of these folks that are here were here early in this station’s existence,” Blazier said. “We’re going to miss the neighborhood. We’re pretty close with our neighbors around here, so that’s one of the things we’re going to miss.”

However, the chief said they look forward to getting to know their new neighbors in East Wheeling. The new headquarters is a sprawling new facility along 17th and Wood streets — not too far from the station’s previous home. Before relocating to the Center Wheeling facility in 1978, the Wheeling Fire Department’s Central Station was located at 17th and Eoff streets, where the Greater Wheeling Soup Kitchen is located today.

“That’s where I interviewed,” Johnston said.

Hints of the old fire station can clearly be seen on the exterior of the Soup Kitchen building. The old “Central Station” moniker is displayed above the main doors, as is the old “WFD” relief. Ghosts of the large bay doors that have been bricked closed can easily be made out.

While recalling fond memories of the past, firefighters are excited and looking forward to opening a new chapter in the department’s history later this year in the new facility. Until then, everything that has been located at the old Center Wheeling headquarters will be temporarily relocated to other stations in the city. The shift commander and Engine 2 are moving to the North Wheeling Station, while the Ladder 1 truck will be housed at the Wheeling Island Station.

Staff offices — including the chief’s office — will relocate to the former Wheeling Police Department Headquarters in the City-County Building. It’s a tight space that the police force was eager to vacate when its new facility opened last year in Center Wheeling.

Blazier on Wednesday night indicated that he’s glad the old police offices are still available, but he was also glad the move there was only temporary.

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