Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Touring the Little Kanawha Oilfields

Replica derrick equipment at Burning Springs
Museum at Burning Springs, W.Va.
THE LOW WOODED HILLS THAT OVERLOOK the valley of the Little Kanawha River conceal one of West Virginia's most important histories -- that of its first oil boom. Where farmsteads and hunting cabins now stand, so stood tanks and derricks by the score; and the river now renown for its tranquility ran black in the oily wake of steamboat traffic.

Though West Virginia came to be known for its coal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, oil fueled its creation before, during, and after the Civil War. The wealth won more recently by coal barons could hardly be compared to that amassed by oil tycoons such as Johnson Camden, Michael Benedum, William Rathbone, and Peter Van Winkle, all of whom later reinvested in coal mining.

Though the hills may attempt to hide the memory of drilling, not everyone is satisfied to allow this chaper in West Virginia's history to fade into obscurity. Patrons of the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum, led by founder David McKain, have resurrected artifacts of the oil industry throughout the region. Thanks to their efforts, important historical sites over an area of more than 100 square miles have been restored and interpreted, fostering community pride and providing an additional venue to bolster an already substantial travel industry. At sites such as Burning Springs, where the nation's oldest operating oil well still produces petroleum for souvenirs, proponents have established a branch museum that includes a replica derrick and a collection of engines and relics of the oil industry.

Little Kanawha River, also formerly known as "Ol' Greasy"
Here follows a brief oilfield tour (see: oilfield tour map), which we've generated in concert with McKain's work. Keep in mind there are a host of attractions in the region that we have not included in this itinerary, but which we encourage you to visit along the way. These include shops, parks, and restaurants. We will provide a brief list of these at the end of the article and encourage readers to contact us with others that we might have missed.

We also encourage everyone who takes this tour to lend their support to the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum. In most cases, it has fallen upon state, local, or federal agencies to establish park systems such as this. In this case, patrons have provided the backbone needed to support the endeavor, and residents of Wirt, Wood, and Ritchie counties have benefited through increased tourism. Though no local government entity has kept a tally of traffic to these sites, all agree that it must amount to tens of thousands of visitors annually.

1. Bushrod Creel & California House

As near as anyone can determine, the birth of the oil industry in West Virginia begins with Bushrod Creel, who settled along the Hughes River near its mouth on the Little Kanawha in 1810. According to author Charles A. Whiteshot in his book "The Oil-Well Driller," Creel, a hunter and trapper, discovered oil seeping from a bank along the Hughes and bottled it for sale as an elixir in nearby Marietta, Ohio. Every spring for another 45 years he returned to the bank and dug down into a gravel bed where he found plenty of supply. The gravel bed later became known as "Sand Diggings." According to David McKain, the site was located somewhere near the present-day border of Wirt and Ritchie county.

Replica well at California
In 1849, Creel built a way station -- a place of rest for weary travelers -- near the diggings, along the route of the Stanton & Parkersburg Turnpike, which had recently been completed across the Allegheny Mountains between the valleys of Ohio and Virginia. Many travelers who stopped at the house were bound westward to California in search of gold, and the frequency with which these "Forty-Niners" stayed at the rest resulted in its being named "California House."

The ruins of California House, which include a rubble foundation and an old barn, have been donated to the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum, along with a surrounding five-acre tract, by petroleum geologist George C. Grow, and the museum society has stabilized the site and established a wayside, picnic shelter, and replica oil derrick along W.Va. Route 47. A gentle path leads from the shelter through a wood to the barn and foundations, which visitors are encouraged to cautiously inspect.

2. Rathbone Well & Burning Springs Museum

Just downstream of Burning Springs, the Rathbone Well at the Burning Springs Museum is believed to be the oldest operating oil well in the world (though it operates intermittently to provide souvenir bottles of petroleum for tourists). William Rathbone and his sons were among the first entrepreneurial families in the 1840s to descend on the valley near Burning Springs. Having heard of the worth of brine wells, which were being tapped frequently in the region, they set their sights on exploring salt-production there. At the time, petroleum, or "rock oil," was considered a pollutant, and wells that struck oil were either abandoned or allowed to discharge into the river. As a result, the Little Kanawha became known as Old Greasy. In 1859, General Samuel Karns, of Pittsburgh, leased a salt well from the Rathbones known as the "old greasy waterhole." After a few days, it began to produce pure oil at the rate of several barrels a day, and each gallon was valued at 50 cents. Within a matter of months, the Rathbones and other drillers were operating day-and-night to pump oil to ship downriver.

Exhibit at Burning Springs
The Rathbone Well has since been outfitted with a replica derrick and pumphouse and is the centerpiece of the Burning Springs Museum. The museum and more than an acre of surrounding park are part of the a 50-acre tract owned and operated by the state oil museum. The museum interior is open by appointment, though the larger part of its exhibits, which include engines and drilling equipment and machinery, stand outdoors where visitors are invited to inspect them daily between dawn and dusk.

Tours of the Burning Springs Museum may be arranged by appointment by calling the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg at (304) 485-5446. The museum is located on W.Va. Route 5 along the bank of the Little Kanawha, a drive of some 35 miles southeast of Parkersburg.

3. Burning Springs, W.Va.

Just southeast of the Burning Springs Museum is the site of Burning Springs. Now a quiet waymeet on the banks of the Little Kanawha River, several thousand people lived within a short walk of the valley in 1861, only two years after drillers recognized the oil polluting their salt wells was more valuable than the salt. The natural gas that seeped from the springs, for which the town had been named, now brilliantly lighted a hotel, according to an article published by the W.Va. Geological and Economic Survey. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were being shipped down-river to Parkersburg.

Historical marker at museum
The boom at Burning Springs was to be short lived, however, as a result of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. In January 1863, the Federal government placed a revenue of a dollar on each barrel sold and authorized J. Cassius Rathbone, a son of William Rathbone, to organize a regiment to defend the oil operations. In April, rebels began to raid the region's oil fields, including those developing nearby at Cairo, Petroleum, and California House. In May, a raiding party of more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers commanded by General William E. Jones famously swept through the region, razing as they went. Rathbone and 500 men were stationed on a fortified hill overlooking the town, ready to defend. Jones, however, convinced Rathbone to surrender, and no lives were lost.

Jones may have prevented the loss of life, though he prevented little else. According to Whiteshot's history, he allowed his forces to wholly destroy the field and terrorize its residents:

"Houses and stores were robbed and set on fire, all the oil wells and tanks were set on fire and all the coopers shops, barrels of oil, loaded and empty barges were set on fire, and in a short time the whole river was a solid blaze of fire and [it] burned the timber on both sides of the river for a distance of eight miles down the river."

4. Petroleum, W.Va.

North Bend Trail at Petroleum, W.Va.
The community of Petroleum, some fifteen miles north of Burning Springs, had also been sacked by the Confederate raiders. At Burning Springs, they sought to destroy a source of Federal revenue. Here, they sought to interfere with progress on the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, which was to become part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The town of Petroleum had grown around a station and shop created by the railroad. While building the line -- the first of its kind through western Virginia -- engineers discovered large quantities of oil seeping into aptly named Oil Springs Run. The raiders had earlier sought to set fire to timbers used within the railroad's No. 18 tunnel near Cairo, but had been repelled by Union forces there.

Little remains of Petroleum today apart from a handful of houses. The route of the railroad through the community has notably become the route of the North Bend Rail Trail, a 72 mile recreational trail and part of the American Discovery Trail.

5. Volcano, W.Va.

In 1864, near the head of Oil Spring Run (the stream that had attracted engineers at Petroleum), the Volcanic Oil & Gas Company opened an operation and within six years, the town of Volcano had erupted into one of the most successful boom towns in the oilfield. According to one legend, three unnamed immigrants of Irish descent had set up a "spring-pole" drill near the site in 1866, and after reaching 100 feet below the surface, their well came in "like a volcano."

Marker at Volcano, W.Va.
By 1868, scores of derricks rose like skeletal pines from the hills and a branch of the B&O Railroad -- the Laurel Fork and Sand Hill Railroad -- had been built through a series of switchbacks and steep grades a distance from the mainline to the field. According to Brooks Pepper, a resident who published a brief history of Volcano in 1973, more than 10,000 inhabitants were strolling the streets in the 1870s. In the winter of 1879, however, the town was completely destroyed by a wind-driven fire, and few residents returned to rebuild. A historic marker along Wood County Route 28 marks the general site of the town. The museum board plans to develop an exhibit at Volcano.

6. W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum & Parkersburg, W.Va.

W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum
More than any other site on the tour, the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg conveys the import of the history of these industries on West Virginia and the dedication of museum patrons. Artifacts, both purchased and donated, fill room after room in the museum's historic four-story edifice. Masses of manuscripts await the archivist's careful eye. Exhibits and a short instructional film wait ready for the thousands of visitors who tour the site annually.

At 119 Third Street near the Wood County Court House, the museum is open from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m. weekdays, from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m. Saturdays, and  from noon till 5 p.m. Sundays. Group tours are encouraged. For information or to arrange a tour, call (304) 485-5446.

Parkersburg is itself a monument to oil. Some of West Virginia's largest and most luxurious residences were built along its avenues by oil magnates in the late 1800s. Much of the crude that left the Hughes and Little Kanawha basin was shipped through Parkersburg, where refineries were ready to perform processing. Perhaps best known among these tycoons was Johnson N. Camden, who first operated a well on the Rathbone property at Burning Springs, but in 1869 he opened a refinery in Parkersburg and soon began working silently for the Standard Oil Co., which he helped anchor in the West Virginia fields using questionable practices.

According to an entry in the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Camden practiced stealth in his operation. "In 1875, Camden and his partners quietly sold out to Rockerfeller's Standard Oil, while continuing to operate as the Camden Consolidated Oil Company. Running the company as a secret subsidiary for Rockerfeller, Camden bought competitors and sometimes shut them down. He bought surplus oil to keep it from going to market and starved independent Pittsburgh-area refineries of barrel staves to help establish Standard Oil's control of the industry."

The West Virginia towns of Camden, in Lewis County, and Camden-on-Gauley, in Webster County, were named for Camden, as was Camden-Clark Hospital, at Parkersburg, and Camden Park, at Huntington, W.Va.

Many fantastic homes of oil tycoons may be found in Parkersburg's Julia-Ann Square and Avery Street national historic districts.

7. Henderson Hall

Henderson Hall
Built between in 1856 and 1859 on the banks of the Ohio River, Henderson Hall is an excellent example of the Italianate residential style, which became popular in Ohio in particular. Now owned by the W.Va. Oil & Gas Museum, the residence and surrounding plantation are archetypes of the affluence won my landowners in West Virginia.

The hall was commissioned by George Washington Henderson, the son of Alexander Henderson, who settled on the Little Kanawha River opposite Burning Springs in 1799. The family owned more than 25,000 acres in northern West Virginia and amassed great wealth through their interests. According to McKain, a correspondence in possession of the museum archives indicates that George Washington Henderson and David Paden in 1861 sold a tract at Burning Springs to an investor for $80,000 -- "a phenomenal price," McKain emphasized in a museum newsletter.

The Hendersons had moved from Burning Springs to the Ohio by the time of the boom, though the family maintained a general store at the springs and installed an overseer downstream of the town on Henderson Run. Their home on the Ohio was part of one of the largest plantations along the Ohio in West Virginia well into the 1930s. A family home until it was transferred to the museum in 2009, all relics of its past remain in place, a unique situation for a building so old. The hall is open to visitors from noon until 5 p.m.daily. For more information, or to arrange a tour, call (304) 485-5446.

8. Elizabeth, W.Va., & Wells Lock & Dam

Few communities enjoyed the rewards of the oil boom as much as Elizabeth, the seat of government for Wirt County. Ten miles downstream of Burning Springs on the Little Kanawha, the town was somewhat insulated from the pollution caused by drilling, but benefited from the commerce. Settled in 1796 by William Beauchamp, it was first known as Beauchamp Mill's, and milling was long its chief industry. Little changed for much of half a century (with the exception of its name, which was changed in 1817 to Elizabeth in honor Beauchamp's daughter-in-law). In 1848 the county of Wirt was established, and Elizabeth was made its seat. Still, the town remained a sleepy crossroads until the discovery of oil. According to the documentation used to nominate the Wirt County Court House to the National Register of Historic Places, fewer than 20 permanent residents lived in Elizabeth before the discovery of oil at Burnings Springs, but more than 6,000 hopefuls arrived soon thereafter.

Valley at Elizabeth, W.Va.
As at Burning Springs, Confederate troops under the command of General William Jones raided in May 1863, setting fire to the town and burning its courthouse. Neither Elizabeth nor the field at Burning Springs wholly recovered from the attack. The town remains a small commercial and governmental center for a largely rural county. Fewer than 900 residents called Elizabeth home in the 2000 U.S. Census. Oil returned to play a role in the town's history in the early 1900s, however, when two of the industry's most affluent personalities took lead positions in building the present Neoclassical courthouse in the town square. Senator Peter VanWinkle, president of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, designed the structure and his father-in-law, William Rathbone, supervised its construction.

On a tight bend in the Little Kanawha just north of the courthouse, the Wells Lock and Dam is the last remaining improvement that allowed navigation on the river. Built in 1891, the lock accommodated river traffic between Glenville and Parkersburg (a distance of more than 70 miles by roadway today). The ruins of a second lock and dam cross the river at Palestine off W.Va. Route 14 near the Palestine State Fish Hatchery. Both sites are publicly accessible fishing and picnicking locales and are among the few remaining lock-and-dam structures in the U.S. that were successfully funded by private investors.

9. Ritchie Mines

A long, dark crevice on a wooded hillside above McFarlan Creek is all that remains of the Ritchie Mine, a mine that worked a vein of natural asphalt, also known as crystallized petroleum or grahamite -- unique in the eastern U.S. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, the vein measures between one- and five-feet wide and was discovered in 1852 by oil-prospector Frederick Lemon. A series of owners after Lemon -- including J.A. Graham, for whom the name "grahamite" was coined -- mined the rock to a depth of about 300 feet. The grahamite yielded about 150 gallons of petroleum per ton when melted. However, it was cheaper to pump oil from wells, and the endeavor proved better-suited to the provision of paving material. According to the encyclopedia, it was used to pave streets in London, England, and Washington, D.C. An explosion in 1873 caused the mines to be closed. A new owner resumed mining in 1885, but the operation was abandoned in 1909, and the area has since been reclaimed by the Ritchie County woodlands.

Though now protected within the 2,300-acre Ritchie Mines Wildlife Management Area and accessible to the public, the crevice may be difficult to locate, and the site has not been developed. In a 2008 interview printed in the Parkersburg News & Sentinel, the deputy director for the W.Va. Division of Culture & History said the agency would be willing to work with sponsors to install a historic marker near the site. Until then, we recommend that readers who are interested in exploring the site contact the W.Va. Division of Natural Resources in Parkersburg at (304) 420-4550.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Driving the Little Kanawha Oilfields

ALL OF THE SITES ON OUR TOUR ARE ACCESSIBLE by paved road, with the notable exception of the Ritchie Mine, which is accessible only on foot. You'll find mapped directions to the above sites on our Map of the Little Kanawha Oilfields at We also encourage travelers to visit some of the following businesses that make a tour of the region that much more pleasureable.

Through the following lists, we've tried to refer travelers to parks, national landmarks, and other attractions along or near the tour routes. Admittedly, shops and restaurants (with websites) are hard to find along the route's far reaches, and we encourage travelers to alert us to any we've left out.

Historic Districts

Avery Street Historic District (Parkersburg)
Burning Springs Historic District (Burning Springs)
Henderson Hall Historic District (Boaz)
Julia-Ann Square Historic District (Parkersburg)
Ritchie County Historic Landmarks
Washington Avenue Historic District (Parkersburg)
Wirt County Historic Landmarks
Wood County Historic Landmarks

Parks & Public Lands

Blennerhassett Island State Park
Fort Boreman Park
Hughes River Wildlife Management Area
Mountwood Park
North Bend State Park
North Bend Trail
Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Ritchie Mines Wildlife Management Area
Sand Hill Wildlife Management Area


Blennerhassett Hotel (Parkersburg)
Da Vinci'e Italian Restaurant (Williamstown)
Giovanni's Pizza (Elizabeth)
North Bend State Park Lodge (Cairo)
Subway (Elizabeth)


Fenton Art Glass (Williamstown) 
Grand Central Mall (Vienna)
Holl's Swiss Chocolatier (Vienna)
Wine Tree Vineyards (Vienna)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Article References

The following references were either cited in the above article or cast light on the relevant history of the region. Please let us know of any other resources we might include in this list.

Hodge, Janet; "Ritchie Mine: A Beginning in History," Ritchie Gazette, Harrisville, W.Va., 1992.

Eggleston, Jane R.; "History of WV Mineral Industries, Oil & Gas," W.Va. Geological & Economic Survey, Morgantown, W.Va., 2004.

Murphy, Jody; "Asphalt Mines largely unremembered;" News & Sentinel, Parkersburg, W.Va., Aug. 13, 2008.

Pepper, Brooks; "Volcano: Twilight of a Boomtown," Sunday Gazette-Mail, Charleston, W.Va., June 3, 1973.

Whiteshot, Charles Austin; "The Oil-Well Driller," Mannington, W.Va., 1905.

Historical Maps

Burning Springs (USGS, NE Spencer, W.Va., 1928)
California House  (USGS, SE Elizabeth, W.Va., 1926)
Elizabeth (USGS, SW Elizabeth, W.Va., 1926)
Volcano-Petroleum (USGS, NE Elizabeth, W.Va., 1926)
Ritchie Mines (USGS, SW Harrisville, W.Va. 1924)

Text by David T. Sibray
Edited by Sarah Plummer