We are in the midst of an oil and gas boom today. The late David McKain documents in his book Where It All Began that our area truly had a pioneering - and often overlooked - role in the oil and gas industry.
A previous article on this blog discussed early activity in Washington County, Ohio. This article will cover similar developments in West Virginia, much of it within 50 miles of the Marietta-Parkersburg area.
The West Virginia oil story traces back to the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson witnessed a Wirt County WV flaming natural gas vent in 1781. George Washington owned Kanawha River property with oil and gas deposits and visited it in 1775. Wilderness scout Jesse Hughes discovered a gas spring east of Parkersburg on a tributary of the Little Kanawha, which he named "Burning Springs Run."
Below are some of the events, innovations, and personalities involved in the story.
Pioneering drillers: The oil and gas activity was an outgrowth of the salt industry. Salt and brine were usually accompanied by oil and gas deposits. David and James Ruffner sought more and better quality brine at the Kanawha River salt deposits. They completed the first drilled salt well at a depth of 40 feet in 1808. They endured multiple setbacks, persevering for 18 months that included two unsuccessful wells. Their techniques and improvised tools became the basis for drilling in oil and gas recovery.
Drillers for natural gas: William Tompkins was the first to use natural gas from his salt drilling along the Kanawha River to fire his salt furnaces. In 1843, Dickenson and Shrewsberry drilled for brine near Tompkins. They found a huge flow of gas just below 1,000 ft. The gas pressure created a 150 foot high geyser of brine and gas. The roar was audible for miles. The gas pressure caused the brine to flow up from 1,000 feet deep to the surface. And it also fueled the salt furnaces and lights. One historian noted wryly: the only thing that gas power failed to do was "lift the salt and pack it in barrels."
Source: Historical collections of Virginia, View of the Salt-Works on the Kanawha (p.345)
Creative innovator: Billy Morris was a skilled salt well driller in the 1830's in the Kanawha salt region. He invented the "jar," a device which would "jar" loose stuck drilling tools. It was used for boring salt wells but made drilling for oil much simpler and more economical. Variations of jars are use today.
Oil digger: In 1819, George Lemon recovered oil (dubbed "sand oil") from hand dug pits along the Hughes River, 20 miles east of Parkersburg. He later drilled a well for salt, which also produced oil, using water power (a first in the industry) from the river.
Disruptor and entrepreneur: Bushrod Creel owned the land that Lemon was working. Creel claimed rights to the property which resulted in Lemon's ouster. This was the first documented oil rights legal dispute. He accumulated considerable wealth from oil. Creel also built a 25 room lodge for travelers along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. It was named "California House" since many travelers were headed west to the California gold rush. They often asked Creel if he was going west. He replied, "No, I am going to stay here and get rich." He did.
Bushrod Creel photo: from ancestry.com
First dealers in oil: Oil was sold by Lemon, then Creel, to brokers in Marietta. The first sale was through August Stone, a broker in Harmar (now part of Marietta), in the 1820's. The successor firm of Bosworth and Wells bought their oil in the 1840's and 50's. They resold the oil nationally.
West Virginia oil sold as lubricant: Oil in the early days was sold mainly as a medicinal formulation. The market for oil expanded as its lubrication value for machinery was realized. Records document that William C. Stiles from Philadelphia, then just 20 years old, was selling oil from Petroleum WV to the B&O Railroad for use as a lubricant in 1857. A businessman later stated that the B&O "introduced petroleum as a lubricator to the world. Mr. Harrison, Master of Machinery, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, first tried it on a yard engine and step by step until, finding it stood every test...it was used along the entire (rail)road."
Oil pioneers: William P. Rathbone was a New York City alderman and judge. Financial reverses in the Panic of 1837 prompted him to look westward for opportunity. Rathbone and his four sons saw economic potential in the Burning Springs area and settled there in 1840. They acquired 12,000 acres of land and set up commercial businesses, including a grist mill, boat yard, and general store.
They sold oil recovered from a salt well as a cure-all medical remedy called "Rathbone's Rock Oil, Nature's Wonder Cure." A salt well drilled on their property in 1842 would later produce enormous profits for the Rathbone family.
William P Rathbone portrait. findagrave.com photo added to the website by Robert Boehm Rathbun
Dr. Robert Hazlett of Wheeling was a physician, and an investor in coal oil manufacturing, who retired from his medical practice for health reasons. He learned about the oil deposits at Petroleum in Ritchie County WV. Historian McKain reports that Hazlett’s investor group acquired land there in January, 1859. They drilled producing wells - possibly before the historic "first" well of Edwin Drake.
Charles Shattuck of Pennsylvania came to Parkersburg during the summer of 1859, after learning by chance from a panhandler of the Hughes River oil in West Virginia. He visited the earlier mentioned Bushrod Creel, acquired 10 acres near Creel, and soon was drilling. He completed his first well only 59 days after the August 29, 1859 completion of the Drake well. His initial efforts were mediocre, though he attained notable success later.
General Samuel Karns, a New York promoter, heard about the oil potential in western Virginia. He met with Charles Shattuck in February of 1860. Karns negotiated a lease with the Rathbones to deepen their 1842 well and share proceeds with them. Within a few months Karns' group was producing 25 to 30 barrels a day from the well.
Samuel Karns was a quintessential promoter who had gained national attention as a lobbyist, speculator, traveler, and poker player. It was said that he would light his pipe with $10 bills. He and his group quickly acquired rights to drill on other properties in the Burning Springs area.
Motivated by Karns' success on their property, the Rathbones drilled their own well. In July of 1860, their well was producing an amazing 100 barrels of oil per day at a depth of only 140 feet. It became known as the "Rathbone Flowing Well," and generated real excitement at Burning Springs.
Rathbone Well at Burning springs- Oil and Gas Museum, Parkersburg. oilandgasmuseum.com
There were other even more spectacular gusher wells. E. S. Lewellyn, a New York investor, struck a gusher at 100 feet in January 1861. It created a 15 foot geyser and soon produced 2,000 barrels per day. A news account stated, "This well, without pumping, will yield a barrel of oil a minute. This is sober truth, extravagant as it may seem."
At the same time Johnson Newlon Camden, a 32 year old attorney from Weston WV, and three others drilled on a one acre lease from William P. and John C. Rathbone near Burning Spring. They too struck oil which blew tools out the ground and created a 20 foot geyser. The well was named "The Eternal Center."
J. N. Camden, J.V. Rathbone, and S.D. Karnes at Burning Springs, Joseph H. Diss DeBarr sketches. wvculture.org
Burning Springs Oil Field scene - Oil and Gas Museum
These successes created frenzied activity in Burning Springs. These are some descriptions from observers:
The Rathbone farms "soon became a city of huts. Nothing could be seen but great piles of derricks, barrels, scaffolds.
"All...properties in the area were...quickly leased and derricks sprang up."
"Fortunes were made and lost overnight."
"Congressmen, Senators, investors, speculators,...and mankind of every description arrived (at Burning Springs)."
This feverish activity continued until 1862 when the Civil War virtually shut down oilfields in West Virginia. That was devastating to some but was only temporary. West Virginia and Ohio remained major oil producers through the rest of the 19th century.