Doddridge County: Cultural and Economic Roots

Although Doddridge County was officially formed in 1845, there were already many families living here well before that time. Several events occurred that led to an increase in population at various times throughout the history of Doddridge County. These events also led to a rather diverse cultural populace.


Some of the earliest settlers in Doddridge County were members of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in New Jersey. In 1794 they migrated to the desolate wilderness of northwestern Virginia and founded the town of New Salem, now known as Salem, Harrison County. After a few years, several of their members moved a short distance west into present-day Doddridge County. By 1810 they and a few other pioneer families from Harrison and Ohio counties had already established communities along the banks of Middle Island Creek, Buckeye Run, McElroy Creek, Meathouse Fork and the Hughes River. These early settlers were mostly subsistence farmers who worked from sunup to sundown to simply survive.


In 1838 the Northwestern Turnpike was constructed through present-day Doddridge County. The Northwestern Turnpike ran from Winchester, Virginia to Parkersburg in Wood County. It more or less followed the path of today’s U.S. Route 50. After its construction, several migration waves brought entire families and communities to Doddridge County. A vast number of these families came from Greene County, Pennsylvania and Allegany County, Maryland. They traveled the Northwestern Turnpike to settle this new territory, away from the growing population of the northern states. The ever-present need to go west was in full swing. Farming was still the major occupation of most residents, but there were also a few tavern keepers, blacksmiths, tanners, millers, hostlers and merchants doing business in the more populated areas.


Joseph H. Diss Debar arrived in Doddridge County in 1846. He came here with the express purpose of forming a German Colony on lands owned by foreign entities who owed large amounts of money in back taxes. He called the colony St. Clara after his first wife who had died in 1849. He created pamphlets extolling the virtues of the fertile hills and valleys of St. Clara. He wrote of the excellent soil and rivers large enough to float a steamship, a fanciful exaggeration to say the least. He sent these pamphlets to Germany and Switzerland hoping to entice people to come to St. Clara. And they did. He would meet them as they came off the ship in Baltimore and bring them back to St. Clara. However, when they got here, they were met with rocky, untillable soil and a meager water source. Some disillusioned families moved back to Baltimore, but most remained and forged a strong German community that still exists to this day. Although no German-speaking residents remain in St. Clara, evidence of their excellent craftsmanship continues to be visible in their homes and log cabins that still dot the hills and valleys.


In 1852 when construction of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad from Parkersburg to Clarksburg started, there was a huge influx of Irish immigrant families into Doddridge County.  These families were comprised mostly of people who had fled to the United States to escape the Great Famine that devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Those who landed in Baltimore were almost immediately put to work by the B&O Railroad Company. These immigrants were largely responsible for building the railroad that not only contributed to the Union success in the Civil War, but also led to an unprecedented period of wealth and prosperity for much of the United States. It was at about this time in Doddridge County that the predominantly agrarian economy found itself starting to coexist with a more industrial society.


Around 1853 a Catholic Church and graveyard were established on a hill across the creek from West Union. The church was St. Patrick’s, and the location is now known as Blockhouse Hill. Many of those buried in the cemetery were born in Ireland and died tragic deaths from railroad-related accidents or from one of the many epidemics prevalent in those early years. In 1889, with the cemetery remaining intact, the church building was moved closer to downtown to be near the railroad tracks. This was done to accommodate parishioners coming by train from the outlying areas to attend church services. For the same reason, there was also a Catholic Church and graveyard built on Long Run in Doddridge County, near Salem. Only a few Irish families stayed in Doddridge County after the completion of the railroad. The majority moved on to bigger railroad towns like Clarksburg, Grafton and westward locations.


After the Civil War there was no single event that brought in large numbers of people like that of construction of the Northwestern Turnpike and the railroad.  But the discovery of oil fields in the 1890s marked the beginning of an oil and gas industry, as well as carbon black and lamp black factories, that attracted many out-of-state workers. The abundant supply of natural gas, combined with other favorable conditions, in turn led to the establishment of two glass factories, which remained in operation until the 1920s.


Although the glass, carbon black and lamp black factories have all disappeared, careful observers can still see evidence of the Northwestern Turnpike in the many communities that still exist along Route 50. The railroad tracks through Doddridge County were taken up in 1988 and replaced with the beautiful North Bend Rail Trail. And visitors can see that the oil and gas industry is again in a period of resurgence.