Brooke County's seat of justice predates the county's formation by several years. First chartered as Charles Town, and just as often referred to as Buffalo in its early days, the settlement was officially named Wellsburg in 1816 to avoid confusion with Charles Town in Jefferson County and Charleston in Kanawha County. Meriwether Lewis, on his way to rendezvous with William Clark before the pair began their famous journey to the Pacific, was impressed with what he saw. He wrote in his journal on September 7, 1803: “passed Charlestown on the E. Shore above the mouth of Buffaloe over which there is built a handsome wooden bridge, this has the appearance of a handsome little Village, containing about forty houses.” Three years later, Thomas Ashe described it in his Travels in Americaas “a flourishing place, commanding the trade of the surrounding rich settlement.” At that point Wellsburg was a contender to become the Northern Panhandle's major mercantile center and embarkation point for settlers heading west, but it lost out when the National Road was completed to Wheeling in 1818.
Even though Wheeling had long outdistanced Wellsburg by the time Henry Howe described it in the 1840s, he found it “a thriving business place, [with] 9 mercantile stores … 1 white-flint-glass works, 1 glass-cutting establishment, 1 paper mill, … [and] six extensive flouring-mills.” In 1870 J. H. Diss Debar described Wellsburg simply as “an old and wealthy town”; but in 1878, with the opening of the Pittsburgh-Wheeling-Kentucky railroad, a new era of industry commenced. Twenty-five glassworks were established between 1880 and 1910, and new paper mills added to the prosperity. During this period, Wellsburg looked to Wheeling for guidance in architectural matters, offering that city's talented architects most of its major commissions. By 1941, according to the WPA guide, Wellsburg had become “an unromantic-looking industrial town, … of narrow streets and smoke-begrimed old buildings.” Still, some romance remained. The guide reported that the Ohio River ferry operated under a charter that John Adams had signed when he was the second president of the United States.
The ferry no longer operates, but in recent decades, Wellsburg has flirted, sometimes rather halfheartedly, with preserving and protecting its remaining historical resources. In 1982 the Wellsburg Historic District, concentrated along the riverfront and on parallel Main and Charles streets, was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1986 another district, focusing on Pleasant Avenue, Wellsburg's choice nineteenth-century residential street, followed suit. In the meantime, in 1984, the architecture firm of Browne, Eichman, Dalgliesh, Gilpin and Paxton prepared and published preservation guidelines at the behest of the city.
Wellsburg is compactly built along a narrow, level Ohio River bench. Several blocks east of the river, Pleasant Avenue stretches north and south along the base of the steep ridge that provided handsome sites for impressive houses. Except for some commercial bustle along Commerce Street (West Virginia 2), the major traffic artery, Wellsburg seems mostly content to slumber alongside the Ohio. Its 2000 population of 2,891 represents a notable decline from the 1930 peak of 6,398.
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