Wirt County was created by the General Assembly of Virginia, January 19, 1848, from portions of Wood and Jackson counties. It was named for William Wirt, Virginia statesman and the presidential candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832. Located in west-central West Virginia, Wirt is bounded by Wood, Ritchie, Calhoun, Roane, and Jackson counties. It comprises 235.1 square miles and had an estimated 2012 population of 5,847, the smallest of any county in West Virginia.
Following the creation of West Virginia in 1863, Wirt County was divided into seven districts: Elizabeth, Clay, Burning Springs, Newark, Reedy, Tucker, and Spring Creek. In addition to Elizabeth, the largest town and county seat, other communities include Newark, Freeport, Morristown, Pee Wee, Creston, Munday, Brohard, and Palestine. The county courthouse at Elizabeth is a Greek Revival structure with a clock tower. The original courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1909.
Elizabeth is centrally located on the Little Kanawha River, which divides Wirt County in half. Known originally as Beauchamp’s Mills, Elizabeth was chartered by the General Assembly in 1822. It was named for Elizabeth Woodyard Beauchamp, wife of David Beauchamp, who owned and operated a mill on the site.
The history of Wirt County in the 19th century is largely the history of the local oil fields. Early settlers noticed a layer of oil on the streams and discovered Burning Springs, an oil and gas spring that would ignite when fired. As early as 1819, George Lemon was extracting ‘‘sand oil’’ from shallow pits. Bushrod W. Creel carried on a similar operation at Oil Springs Run on the Hughes River and earned a small fortune selling petroleum. Wirt County prospered as the advent of steamboats and railroads increased the demand for oil as a lubricant for steam engines.
On May 9, 1863, a Confederate raiding party under Gen. William E. Jones set fire to the Burning Springs oil field and to crude oil stored in the area. The destruction of equipment and property, along with the loss of future production, was extremely costly. The discovery of new fields elsewhere in Wirt and surrounding counties moved the center of the industry to other locations. The completion of four locks and dams by the Little Kanawha Navigation Company in 1874 enabled the county’s oil and gas industry to flourish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since producers could ship their crude oil to Parkersburg refineries more easily. Wirt County’s population peaked in 1900 at 10,284. The industry’s decline after 1930 spelled economic disaster for the county.