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Chapter 8 - Pennsylvania, 1873-1890

On returning to Pennsylvania William joined the Altoona Iron Co., first as cashier and ultimately as superintendant and treasurer. In 1883 he and a partner purchased the Portage Iron Works in Duncansville. This period was the height of the family’s prosperity. In 1889-90, however, they pulled up roots and moved to Idaho–a childhood dream of William’s.


After William’s and Mildred’s return from Missouri to Pennsylvania in March 1873, and the death of William’s father John Wright Wheatley on May 14, William was taken on as cashier at the Altoona Iron Co. For the next seventeen years he worked in the iron business. In September 1877 he was elected superintendent and treasurer of the Altoona Iron Co. Five years later, on July 10 1882, he and A.R. Whitney purchased the Portage Iron Works at Duncansville. It was probably during the 1880s that Andrew Carnegie gave him a painting of a Scottish castle, if the family tradition is to be believed.

During this period the family lived in Altoona and Birmingham, PA. Two children were born: Robert W., who was born on January 2 1875 and died on November 3 1876, and Julia Kendrick (named after William’s sister-in-law, the wife of his brother Israel Thornton Wheatley in Americus, GA), born on July 15 1878. The family maintained contact with friends and relatives in Northumberland (especially William’s mother, who made a long visit to Altoona in the summer of 1876). All three of William’s brothers paid visits from Georgia in 1876 and 1877. There is no surviving evidence of contact with Mildred’s brothers until the end of this period, when Ed, newly widowed, joined the Wheatleys in their move to the North-West. Mildred was, however, in touch with her mother’s Gilmore and Rowland relatives in Virginia, and paid them a visit in March 1877 to deliver her ailing son John into the healthy Virginia climate.

Young John Wright Wheatley is our main source of information for this period. In 1876 and 1877, at the age of 14 to 16 years, he kept a diary. He apparently made brief daily notes on scraps of paper, and later copied them into a notebook. The 1877 diary was copied in 1882, and includes some inserted comments from the 21-year-old John (in square brackets). Although he does not say so, John seems to have been thinking of a career as a writer or journalist. He read widely and with attention to style (he particularly admired Washington Irving); he owned a small printing press and took commissions for visiting cards and stationery; and he often wrote articles for newspapers and journals-unfortunately, he does not tell us whether they were published. His own style, when he writes at any length, is heavily influenced by the formal journalistic style of the times, particularly when he writes about public events such as the Centennial celebrations on July 4 1876, or his visit to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This last also formed the subject of a writing exercise for school, which is given below at the end of the diaries.

John was in bad health through much of this period with kidney trouble, and was frequently too ill to go to school. Nevertheless he managed a certain amount of outdoor activity, including some hunting. He gives an extended account of a family picnic at Horseshoe Curve near Altoona (June 15 1876), and he was a faithful fan of the Mountain City Base Ball Club (see especially May 13 1876). In the early spring of ‘77 he had a persistent cold that prompted his mother to take him to her relatives in Virginia, where he spent a happy summer. His fond memories of this summer may have included a brief romantic adventure with his cousin Mamie Yeatman (see June 27 - July 10 1877, and John’s epilogue). His account is generally very brief and factual, and gives little insight into his character or family relationships, even when he describes the death of his two-year-old brother Robert (November 3 1876). Through long periods he apparently lost interest in the diary, and was content with entries like “Went to school. Nice day.” One psychological glimpse, however, is provided by his account of “a most distressing and inexplicable dream” (March 5 1876).