Ritchie County, established in 1843, was named for Thomas Ritchie, a Richmond newspaperman and politician. Henry Howe, describing the county's terrain two years later, wrote: “The surface is generally hilly and broken, and the soil not fertile, except on the streams, where there is considerable champagne country.” Howe should have looked harder and deeper. Soil throughout the county proved fertile—not necessarily for viticulture, but certainly for livestock and hay. Ritchie County's excellent transportation system, including two turnpikes and the Northwestern Railroad of Virginia, all traversing the county on their way to Parkersburg, helped it develop in antebellum years.
After the Civil War, what lay under the hills was brought to the surface to play a major part in the county's economy. In 1865, twenty years after Howe's observations, an anonymously authored booklet titled The Oil-Dorado of West Virginiaclaimed that “oil is found oozing from the ground in every part of the county.” That was an exaggeration, thank goodness, but the booklet's prophecy that Ritchie was “destined to be the centre of the oil producing territory in West Virginia” came close to the mark. By the 1890s, Ritchie's oil and natural gas production were fully developed. The intense growth that followed resulted in a 1900 population of 18,901, the largest count ever. Oil production tapered off as the twentieth century ended, and the 2000 population was tallied at 10,343.
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