West Virginia, in land area, is one of the smallest states in the union. Yet, it has a fairly large number of counties, 55.
Most states with large areas of sparse population have fewer counties. California, much larger than West Virginia in both geographic and population size, has 57 counties. West Virginia, however, formed nearly all of its counties before railroads started extending into every nook and cranny of the state seeking to extract timber and coal. The ridges and hills, valleys and hollows, dictated that local government be granted a relatively small space in underpopulated areas.
Two counties, Mineral and Grant, cleaved off of their mother counties (Hampshire and Hardy respectively.) They feared that returning Confederates would seize local government and tyrannize these Union supporting and Republican dominated areas.
So let's do a fun exercise. Let's get the number of West Virginia counties down to 30, while trying to not do anything outrageous. This includes imposing unnecessary travel burdens to the county seat, gerrymandering one politically dominant area into another, creating megacounties, etc.
Here are the counties which we will eliminate, as well as where we will put them and why:
Fold Hancock and Brooke counties into Ohio.
Rationale: All of these counties are tied to the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. They have similar problems and possibilities.
Fold Wetzel and Tyler into Marshall:
Rationale: All Ohio River counties with similar terrain. Marshall gets to keep the name because he was more historically prominent.
Pleasants, Ritchie, and Doddridge combine to form a single county.
Rationale: Again, similarities of terrain, population. Pick a name from West Virginia history (not Byrd) to adorn this county. None of the three names stands out as more important than the other.
Fold Wirt into Wood
Rationale: No brainer. Wirt is part of Parkersburg's metropolitian area
Taylor should join Marion County.
Rationale: Two counties are connected by US 250. While Taylor and Harrison are connected by a better highway, (US 50) Harrison already has two decent sized cities.
Tucker and Preston counties unite
Rationale: This creates a county of monstrous geographical size (for West Virginia, anyway) but neither county has a large population. A legislative district straddles the two counties anyway. Plus, they have similar interests in timber, extractive industries, and tourism.
Fold Gilmer into Lewis County, Calhoun into Roane
Rationale: A number of counties in the middle of the state have small size, sparse population, but sit astride important highways. This grouping reduces the number of counties as much as possible while keeping the US 33 counties together. A vice president and senator normally deserves to keep the county name over a Virginia judge, but Calhoun was a strident defender of slavery. Gilmer versus Lewis? Pick 'em.
Combine Braxton and Clay
Rationale: Interstate 79 corridor. Clay, a secretary of state, gets the nod.
Combine Monroe, Summers, and Mercer
Rationale: Again, similar area with similar terrain and issues. Monroe is a president, but George Summers was a prominent western Virginian.
Partition Mingo County
Rationale: First thought was getting rid of Wyoming County through partitioning by its neighbors. But looking at its terrain and roads, it's hard to make sensible choices out of where to put what parts of the county. Mingo may be the only county eliminated in part because of its inability to sensibly govern itself. Like Poland in the 1700s, government lapsed into constant turmoil. Wayne, Logan, Wyoming, and McDowell could share the spoils.
Some counties escape the process. Morgan County exists between two gigantic walls that keep it from sensibly combining with Berkeley or Hampshire. Yes, Jefferson sticks out at the end of the state from Berkeley. But Berkeley is staunchly Republican and Jefferson is smaller, but just as staunchly Democratic. Not really fair to fold Jefferson into GOP rule like that, especially since it still grows.
So this is just a proposal made half in fun and half in real consideration of what could be done. County consolidation likely will never happen. Too many traditions, vested interests, and county jobs at stake, even though it makes more sense for the taxpayer.