Wetzel County Courthouse
For 111 years the Wetzel County Courthouse has stood its ground overlooking the city of New Martinsville and the Ohio River. Wetzel County was formed from Tyler County in 1846 by the Virginia Assembly. The town was called Martinsville and named the county seat. At that time on the corner of Jefferson and Main, in a house owned by Sampson Thistle, the first sessions of court were held. In 1848, Presley and Margaret Martin deeded the current courthouse property to the county for one dollar. A wooden courthouse was soon built and stood until the late 1800’s. At which time it was torn down and the present courthouse was built. It was completed in 1902. Cost of the new courthouse was $175,000. The building wasn’t the only thing that changed in the town, the municipality’s name was changed along the way to New Martinsville.
Over the years, the building has begun to show its age. The foundation has endured settling over the years as it stood alongside the Ohio River. When you consider flood waters which have surrounded the building on many occasions, the stone structure has done well. Given the age and what the building has endured over time, it is a credit to those who built the courthouse. With all the challenges of time this grand old building has remained the county’s center of government since it first stood on Main Street.
Over many years, county commissioners have made repairs and changes to the building to upgrade and modernize portions of the structure. Not long ago an elevator was added to make the building more accessible to all our community’s citizens. The basement has been cleaned and painted to play a useful part in the building’s many functions. On the main floor the high ceilings still give those who pass below the feeling of the grandness of the original builder’s ideals. Offices along the main floor seem small and sometimes crowded by today’s standards. But yet, they still function much as they have for 111 years.
The second floor is mostly taken up by the county’s center of justice-the Wetzel County Courtroom. Citizens of our county have participated in the proceedings to bring justice to those brought before the courts. Some that have sat in the court room are being judged for alleged crimes, while others are those who have been called upon to listen to the evidence and decide the accused’s fate. The room sits at the center of the great building and is the heart of justice.
Recently, I was in the courtroom and as I looked about the room I noticed the murals on the walls and the many shelves filled with books of laws. I tried to imagine the history of our county that had passed through the room over the last century. Some say if you listen, voices of those from the past can be heard in the stillness. Perhaps it is voices of those who have gone before us or it may simply be the sounds of the old building feeling its age. Either way, within the walls of this historic structure the county’s history has been decided by its elected officials and its citizens.
The exterior of the building is covered in large sand stones that rise over 100 feet from the street level. The roof is accented by tall steeples at the four corners of the building. In the center is the tallest part of any building in our county, the tower.
Recently, I visited the clock tower after its four faces were replaced. A few weeks before I watched from the street as workers changed the faces out with new ones. At the exterior corner of the courthouse sat a large wooden container holding the new faces. The old ones that had been removed were nowhere to be seen. I wondered what they looked like and where they were after being replaced.
I was given the opportunity to make my way up to the clock tower. Leaving the courtroom floor, it is like returning back in time to when the building was first constructed. Great wooden beams make up the building’s roof support system. Beams that were milled from old growth timber were still straight and true even after a century.
After a long climb, I came onto the open deck where the bell that chimes the hour stands. It is a standard size bell, but somehow I envisioned the large bell in Notre-Dame Cathedral and protected by Quasimodo. It is a bell no more than 30 inches in size. It does not move as it chimes the hours. Some years ago the bell’s striker was replaced with a new striking device that performs the operations.
Finally, I climbed into the clock tower behind the faces. Sitting in the corners were the old glass faces. Each face is 76 inches across and nearly three quarters of an inch thick. They weigh nearly 400 pounds each. Their size and weight make it impossible to bring them down inside the courthouse and would have needed a large crane and special slings to remove from the outside. For now, the old faces will remain safely housed where they are. The new faces are made from a lightweight resin material and should last for many years.
The clock also has a new device to drive the four sets of hands. It is now electronic and operated by a direct drive electric motor. Inside a wooden enclosure I saw the remains of previous clock works. Three different works have driven the clocks over the last 100 years. The first was driven by a set of weights that operated the clock works. Those needed someone every few days to pull them back into place to keep the clocks working. The next two systems were electric motors that drove gear systems.
The courthouse is part of the community that we pass each time as we travel Main Street. If you are like me, I tended to pay little attention as I passed. But, I have come to appreciate it is very much part of our community. As I stood in the top and looked out onto the Ohio River, I realized that the original workers could watch steamboats making their way up the river before dams controlled its level. The Wetzel County Courthouse is an important part of our history and part of West Virginia’s, as we look Thru the Lens.
See more photos of Chuck Clegg’s visit to the clocktower with his column at www.wetzelchronicle. com