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WV Travel Team: Northern Panhandle boasts quirky, must-see attractions – Charleston Gazette |

WV Travel Team: Northern Panhandle boasts quirky, must-see attractions – Charleston Gazette

With fewer than 200 straight, man-made boundaries, West Virginia is filled with quirky geographic areas. None are quirkier than the Northern Panhandle at the top of the state, where you can briskly walk across downtown Weirton, covering three states in an hour.

In other areas of the panhandle, it can take as long as two hours.

Boundaries, defined by the Ohio River on the west and a mountain range on the east, date back to pre-Revolutionary days and conflicts between Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Being unable to stretch without bumping into another state, the Northern Panhandle does not have major cities. It does have some appealing attractions condensed into its skinny form.

My sister, Barb Wolfe, and I spent a couple days searching out the treasures of the area — and were not disappointed.

We were well-fed during our adventure. We stayed at Mountaineer Race Track and Casino and were impressed with both the quality and abundance of the food, with a particular nod to the giant chocolate chip cookies available at Big Al’s, open in the casino 24/7.

We were also impressed with the whirlpool tub, always my favorite hotel amenity. Our major complaint about Mountaineer, besides its wimpy Wi-Fi, is its even sparser signage. Just know that if you can get to West Virginia Route 2, you’ll find it.

When we went up the road to Chester, a former industrial town of 2,500 with the United States’ largest coal slurry waste impound, we were astonished by the number of cafes lining the main streets. We calculated this well-fed population must never eat at home.

Upon investigation, we discovered Chester was not a culinary wonder, but rather used the cafes as locations for mini-collections of slot machines.

Chester does boast one of the most popular attractions of the region — the World’s Largest Teapot. A former hogshead barrel from a root beer sales campaign, the tin-skinned teapot has been, more or less, in place since 1938. The irresistible photo op requires life-risking efforts, since it is tucked into the exit ramp of the heavily trafficked bridge to Ohio.

The real culinary experience of our trip was Dee Jay’s, just outside of Weirton. Tipped off that it served the best ribs in the state, we set out to determine that for ourselves.

We had also been told it was a favorite of Pittsburgh sports teams, who often swarmed there after games. Celebrity sports spotting and great ribs — how could we resist? We didn’t.

We waited out front under the plastic palm trees for the restaurant to open at 11 a.m., then slipped in. Within a half hour, the dining room was full — on a rainy Wednesday in November — and that bode well for our tasting.

Although there are other offerings, we had the baby back ribs and were so pleased with the tender meat that almost flaked off the bone and the sweet-but-tangy barbecue sauce, we ordered another round to take home. Service was incredibly fast and the price reasonable. No trip to the Northern Panhandle can be considered complete without a stop at Dee Jay’s.

The other unique appeal of a Northern Panhandle visit is the opportunity to follow the fast-disappearing imprints of America’s industrial heyday. There are still operational plants along the Ohio River, although mostly on the Ohio side of the river.

In Weirton, however, the almost terrifying hulk of Weirton Steel makes it clear why “Super 8” was filmed there. The 2011 science-fiction horror movie was written by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg. There are plans to dismantle the industrial hulks and sell the highly valuable steel. But, for the present, the structures are still in place and worth the viewing. Their likeness will never be seen again.

Even more ancient and still standing is Weirton’s Peter Tarr Iron Furnace. Built in 1794, Tarr was the first blast furnace west of Alleghenies. The restored 20-foot circular structure produced cannonballs in the 1800s, including those used by Commodore Matthew Perry in his battles on Lake Erie in the War of 1812.

What may be the best shopping experience in West Virginia is part of the industrial past that is still functioning. A producer of fine china in the state since 1907, Homer Laughlin created the world-famous, colorful Fiestaware line in 1936.

The factory, just north of Mountaineer, has a retail outlet with a large seconds room, where a rainbow of Fiesta bowls, pitchers and plates are stacked in huge bins for sale at an extreme discount. Selection and availability of specific pieces or colors change daily, and there is always the chance that limited batches of new items will appear from the factory.

Several folks we spoke with had outlandish stories about tent sales of Fiestaware that drew buyers from all over the country, many of whom slept in surrounding fields to be there on time.

A fourth-generation, family-owned business, Homer Laughlin is the world’s largest pottery plant, and, during most years, the largest manufacturer of dinnerware. It was the first American pottery to be totally lead free and the innovator of tunnel kilns.

More than 25,000 china patterns have come from Homer Laughlin, many custom made for noted clients, including The Greenbrier. A third of all dinnerware sold in this country has come from its kilns. Streamlined with 12-hour kilns, the pottery can turn a piece of china from design to finished product in 24 hours.

Tours of the plant are conducted at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. Part of the tour is a visit to the museum room with displays of many rare pieces of china, as well as retired colors and products of Fiestaware.

It may seem a challenge to squeeze wilderness into the narrow space of the area, but Tomlinson Run State Park fits the bill nicely. Along with its lake, it has an extensive and hugely popular campground that includes completely equipped yurts as a lodging choice.

We were concerned there was not enough wildlife, until we got home and saw a Facebook post of a five-point buck shot with a bow by one of our friends the day after we left — one of our girlfriends.

Food, shopping, history, outdoor fun, gaming and a pair of world-class wonders — there are multiple reasons for a visit to the skinniest part of the state.

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