Refers to the northernmost West Virginia counties of Hancock, Brooke, Ohio and Marshall County. It is distinct from everywhere else in West Virginia in that it is located in the North and carries an extremely strong Pittsburgh influence - some of the towns/cities located in the area are actually within a 45 minute drive on US 22/Parkway West to the center of Pittsburgh.
Historically, like most of the Pittsburgh area, the people Northern Panhandle were classified as ethnic and very hard working. Mainly in Brooke/Hancock counties European immigrants from Poland, Germany, Greece, Albania, Italy, etc. set their roots in the Northern Panhandle throughout the 1890s up until the 1960s. These immigrants came to the area to work in the mills/other industries until the decline in the 1970s. If you go throughout the area, you'll still see remnants of this through seeing some of the ethnic last names of doctor/law offices of second-third generation immigrants who ended up staying in the area. However, nowadays these are increasingly sparse due to some demographic changes.
After the decline of the steel industry throughout the Greater Pittsburgh area, major demographic changes occurred. Starting in the 1970s-1980s, more people began to leave the valley for college. Those that left for college/other jobs ended up never coming back and settling elsewhere for a better quality of life/job security. A these people now live in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NYC and DC, but still go back once in a while to visit family that managed to continue living in the valley.
The economy is now pretty horrible with all of the mills shutting down. There are still some strong ethnic areas, specifically Follansbee which is has a strong, vibrant Italian community. You can still get some of the best pizza in the world in follansbee and weirton - specifically at DeCarlo's and Curly's Pizza.
The population has drastically shrunk within the past 40 years or so. Wheeling and the towns south of it have probably been hit hard the most due to it's location further down the river, making it further away from Pittsburgh. However, the Steubenville, OH area which includes Weirton and Follansbee has seen somewhat of a marginal population gain from people who want to buy cheaper land/build big homes and commute to Pittsburgh. But this has been sparse, especially in WV. Most people buy in the outskirts of Steubenville
Nowadays, while the area has slowly become more like the rest of WV in terms of demographics, the area has retained its uniqueness and ethnic character that ties it close with Pittsburgh. The steelers/penguins/pirates fans in the town bars are just as hardcore as the ones in PA. Local bakeries still exist and ethnic traditions still exist, along with Eastern Orthodox/Catholic/Luthern churches frequented by ethnic Greeks/Italians/Germans. There was even a Muslim community many years ago formed by Sufi Muslim immigrants from Albania, though they all have moved away to Detroit in the 1970s.
The northern panhandle has had a history of partying among the kids. High School football is mainly the hot topic of discussion. People RELIGIOUSLY follow high school football along with college football. WVU is the top school that most HS grads end up going after graduation, most others head to University of Pittsburgh, Mellon, Marshall, Bethany, etc. And just like the rest of WV, people from the Northern Panhandle love to vacation in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Like the rest of WV, there are some crack heads, white trash, meth labs, and extremely overweight people. The crime is worse over in Stuebenville but is still kind of bad in Weirton. Racial tension is unfortunately present in this area with the recent influx of African-Americans. That's more of an issue in Steubenville though, less so in Weirton or Wheeling.
Two movies were filmed in the northern panhandle: Reckless in 1984 and The Deer Hunter in 1978.