CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Pleasants County has an inviting name. Now it has the distinction of being West Virginia’s healthiest county.
A report released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin researchers ranked the state’s 55 counties using more than two dozen factors such as smoking, drinking, obesity, premature deaths, and other areas including education, access to health care and unemployment.
Pleasants County jumped to the top this year from seventh in last year’s study, overtaking Monongalia County, which slipped to second. Pendleton County, which was first in studies released from 2010-12, was third, followed by Doddridge, Jefferson, Hampshire, Upshur, Tucker, Berkeley and Ritchie.
Putnam County slipped from seventh to 12th. Kanawha County, the state’s largest, was 37th.
Located along the Ohio River north of Parkersburg and named after Virginia Gov. James Pleasants Jr., Pleasants County is the state’s third-least-populated county with just 7,600 residents. It consists of only 135 square miles.
St. Marys, the county seat, has a population of about 1,900. Belmont, population 900, is the county’s other significant community. The rest of the county is unincorporated.
In downtown St. Marys, a CSX freight train carrying a variety of goods from coal to chemicals to insulation makes its way through the middle of downtown at least twice a day, rattling the windows of buildings just a few feet away. The train shares the same street with moving vehicles and foot traffic.
That might seem like a big health risk, but residents call it nothing more than a slow-moving nuisance.
“They blow their horn constantly,” said Holly West, a building clerk for the city of St. Marys. “It numbs your eardrums. I’m used to it. Whatever side of the tracks you’re on, you have to stop. It’s an awesome sight.”
West touted a low crime rate and opportunities for exercise as reasons the county could stand out as healthy. A bridge connects St. Marys to an island that’s part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and West said people often use the island, a riverfront marina and the county’s parks system for walking and jogging. In addition, the new St. Marys High School currently under construction will include an eight-lane, all-weather track.
Steve Taylor didn’t invent exercising in Pleasants County, but he certainly helped give it a big boost.
Seven years after St. Marys High School won a state championship in track and field in 1976, Taylor set the fastest time among small high schools in the 3,200 meters. His 1983 record still stands and is nearly 12 seconds faster than the nearest small-schools competitor.
Taylor, who comes from a large family of long-distance runners, said he’s proud to know that he and his classmates helped mold a mentality of staying active in Pleasants County.
“Now we’re into the next generation,” said Taylor, currently the men’s cross-country and track coach at the University of Richmond. “Those people who were on those championship teams, their children are competing and are leading healthy lifestyles.”
Richard Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said the health behaviors of Pleasants County residents “are markedly different than the rest of the state, and I think the health outcomes tend to follow that.”
Fueling Pleasants County’s improvement was a jump from 26th to second in the quality-of-life category.
The percentage of Pleasants County residents in poor or fair health dropped from 16 percent last year to 13 percent. Residents reporting poor physical or mental health days also fell, and the percentage of low birth weights was trimmed from 9.6 percent to 7.7 percent.
The percentage of Pleasants County adults who smoke, were obese and were physically inactive were below the state average.
Pleasants County also jumped from 46th to 41st in the physical environment category, whose factors included air particulates, drinking water safety and violations, and housing and transit issues.
Monongalia County went from 43rd to 48th in the same category.
On the negative side, McDowell County ranked last among all 55 counties for the fifth straight year that the report has been released. The 10 counties at the bottom of the list remain unchanged from last year.
Other counties with the poorest health were Wyoming, Mingo, Logan, Boone, Mercer, Wayne, Lincoln, Fayette and Summers — all in the southern part of the state.
Compared to their southern counterparts, northern counties tend to have lower percentages of premature death, adult smokers, residents in poor physical or mental health and fewer children living in poverty, the report found.