A sixty-four-mile-long finger pointing due north, the Northern Panhandle is only sixteen miles wide at its broadest point. Though small in geographic terms, it looms large in West Virginia's history and contains some of the state's most significant architectural resources. It is also West Virginia's most intensely industrialized area and is dominated by Wheeling, the first capital and for many years the state's largest city.
The fact that this sliver of land is in West Virginia stems from William Penn's 1681 grant of Pennsylvania. After establishing the point of beginning for the boundary between Penn's colony and Maryland, the grant decreed that the line extend “from the Delaware River five degrees west.” Five degrees of longitude took the line far beyond Maryland's western border, beyond which Virginia claimed jurisdiction. Five degrees west also brought the line to an abrupt halt some sixteen miles east of the Ohio River, which would have formed a logical natural western boundary for Penn's colony. Instead, after a great deal of dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania, the western boundary of Pennsylvania was surveyed due north from the point decreed in 1681. The resulting sliver of land between Pennsylvania's western boundary and the Ohio River then went unequivocally to Virginia.
Prehistoric settlement in the panhandle predated any colonial concerns over land boundaries. The Grave Creek Mound ( MH1), the late Adena Period tumulus that is the nation's largest burial mound, proves that people inhabited the area centuries earlier.
Although both French and English explorers knew the area early in the colonial period, permanent settlement began only toward the end of the eighteenth century. Joseph Tomlinson, who settled near the mound c. 1770, and the Zane brothers, who contemporaneously settled upstream near the mouth of Wheeling Creek, were among the first to stay. Fort Fincastle, later named Fort Henry, protected settlers who joined the Zanes, and the town of Wheeling grew around it.
Wheeling and Wellsburg, both with excellent wharfage on the Ohio River, rivaled each other during the first years of the nineteenth century for the lucrative trade associated with the western waters. Wheeling's ascendancy was assured in 1818 when it became the western terminus of the National Road. North of Wheeling and Wellsburg, Weirton, home to the gargantuan Weirton Steel Corporation, achieved renown as the nation's largest company town before it was incorporated in 1947.
In recent decades, the Northern Panhandle has suffered declines in its industrybased economy and consequently in its population. From 1990 to 2000, the four counties that form the panhandle lost an average 5 percent of their population. Towns and cities that were once centers of manufacturing now have the look of the “rust belt.”
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