The place name Witton or Whitton is fairly common in the north of England. The name sometimes derives from "white farm" but in the case of Witton-le-Wear, as with many others, Witton refers to a farm (Anglo-Saxon: ton) in or near woodland (Anglo-Saxon: widu). Witton-le-Wear's name is attested as Wudeton from 1104, but had become Wotton in Werdale by 1313. This subsequently evolved to the present form.
The then farming hamlet of Witton-le-Wear was part of the Witton Castle estate, which was bought in 1816 by Sir William Chaytor for £78,000 from the Stobart family. He redeveloped the Castle, and in 1819 developed the Jayne Pitt as part of the large Witton Park Colliery complex. This brought about the development of transport into the area, including the Etherley Incline Railway by George Stephenson, that connected to his Stockton and Darlington Railway at , and hence onwards via to Newport on the River Tees.
After the S&DR was extended into , the railway was able to access the limestone deposits within the upper River Wear valley. This brough employment to the valley through both mining, as well as production of both pig iron and cement, which was distributed by the railway to all parts of the United Kingdom.
However as the price of road haulage dropped the line fell into disuse and carried its last train in the early 1990s. Over recent years the Weardale Railway has been reinstated by BARRS and again used to transport locally mined opencast coal to Scunthorpe and Ratcliffe Power Station. A heritage line operates on many weekends and holidays by Weardale Railway Trust in conjunction with BARRS, and provides a tourist route in and out of Weardale. A railway halt has been provided at Witton le Wear since early 2013.