Wetzel County, formed in 1846, was named for pioneer Lewis Wetzel. Except for the alternatingly broad and narrow Ohio River plain, the topography is hilly and rough. The economy was largely agricultural until the discovery and development of oil and gas deposits in the late 1880s precipitated a boom that lasted into the twentieth century, causing the county's population to peak in 1910 with a figure of 23,855. By 1941 things had settled down. That year the WPA guide to West Virginia painted an almost unbelievably lyrical portrait of a pastoral countryside: of “drowsing farmlands,” swinging footbridges, and quiet roads where “the tourist finds pleasure in the total absence of billboards and filling-station architecture [and] barns and outbuildings are not painted to proclaim the merits of several brands of chewing tobacco.”
Even though few footbridges survive, the “inland” portion of Wetzel still seems far off the beaten path. Not so the Ohio River valley. In fact, as the guide was being written, construction was beginning on a huge chemical plant several miles north of New Martinsville, at the Marshall County line. The plant was named Natrium (Greek for sodium), as it was sited atop a huge salt deposit. This joint effort of Pittsburgh Plate Glass and the federal government soon began producing chlorine and caustic soda for the war effort. PPG later bought the plant outright, expanded its facilities, and diversified the production line. Although Natrium itself is in Marshall County, it is Wetzel's largest employer. The complex, stretching for two miles alongside West Virginia 2, is one of the largest industrial plants on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. In recent years West Virginia 2 between Natrium and New Martinsville has become a virtual strip mall, with lots of billboards and filling stations. The 2000 census tallied the county's population at 17,693, with just over one-third (5,984) in New Martinsville.
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