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Coleman's Fish
A Great Catch in Wheeling

Text and photographs by Carl E. Feather

<Coleman's Fish
Owner Joe Coleman holds his signature fish sandwich : two fillets of North Atlantic Pollock on plain white bread
: outside the entrance to his restaurant in Wheeling's Centre Market. Photograph by Carl E. Feather.

Joe Coleman was asleep aboard a Navy nuclear-submarine tender preparing to embark on a tour of Europe with his wife when a knock on his door changed the course of his life and Wheeling’s culinary history.

The visitor was a chaplain. He informed Joe on that fateful night in 1973 that his father, Ray, had suffered a heart attack. The next day in Rome, Italy, Joe met up with his wife, Renie, and instead of touring Europe, they caught a flight back to the United States and his ailing father’s bedside.

His father suffered a second, and fatal, heart attack three months later. Management of the family business, Coleman’s Fish Market in Wheeling, fell upon Joe. Up to that point, Joe had other plans for his life.

Players were selected in turn, from the best to the worst, with some not getting picked at all. We had a tradition that the little guys, those last picked, could select one of the better players to take his third strike while he ran the bases.

“I came in and basically I said, ‘I’m your new boss. Tell me what to do,’” Joe says, recalling his first day on the job. “I had no idea what to do.”

Nearly 40 years later, Coleman’s is the largest fish house in the Northern Panhandle, with more than 200 wholesale customers in the tri-state area. The wholesale business operates discretely in an alley building off Market Street. Joe had the utilitarian building erected shortly after taking over the business. An 1873 Victorian Italianate row house on Market Street serves as the office.

Directly across the street from the wholesale operation is the lower market house, built in 1890. The north end of this building houses the retail side of Coleman’s Fish Market, the iconic eatery that tourists and residents alike associate with Wheeling’s south side.

On a Friday afternoon in Lent, the “regular” line of this eatery zig-zags for six courses past the cash register  then spills into the dining area and, eventually, out the market house’s doors and onto Market Street itself.

When things are busy, diners willingly wait 30 minutes or longer for Coleman's most-famous menu item: two three-ounce fillets of fresh North Atlantic pollack deep fried to golden perfection and tucked between two slices of white sandwich bread, then wrapped in translucent deli paper and tucked inside a brown paper sack.

Costing $4 and change, the sandwich packs more fish than most fish dinners and leaves just enough room for one of the tempting potato sides : jojo wedges, plain or seasoned French fries : basking under heat lamps near the spot where customers claim their orders.

On any given day, the serving line will include Wheeling-area residents who have been eating Coleman's food since childhood and seasoned visitors who have been waiting for this moment for weeks, perhaps months. They know exactly what they want, and what they want on it and with it, long before they step in front of Sandy Stillwell. Sandy has been taking orders for Coleman's since the sandwich cost 75 cents : 37 years ago.

This tradition was spawned in 1914.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.