|1860s gusher to be site of petroleum park|
Sunday May 5, 2002
By Rick Steelhammer
STAFF WRITER Sunday
BURNING SPRINGS — As a clattering pump jack rocked up and down behind
him, David McKain
opened a valve near the head of the world’s oldest producing oil well, and a
jet of natural gas whooshed
The blast of invisible gas immediately doubled over nearby grass and filled
the air with an earsplitting hiss
and a pungent whiff of sulfur.
“We thought there would still be oil, but finding gas at 18 to 20 pounds of
pressure was kind of a
surprise,” said McKain, after wrenching the valve closed. “We can use it to
power the pump and heat
The gas-powered pump McKain referred to is a restored, 1880-vintage rig
that will be used to draw oil
from the Rathbone Well, making use of an antique band wheel and walking
beam system. The historic
well was recently cleared of debris, lined with cement and refitted with pipe
after being out of production
for several decades.
A classic gusher
The well, dug by a steam-powered drill, was a classic gusher, producing
more than 100 barrels a day
when, in June of 1860, J.C. Rathbone punched through the Burning Springs
Anticline and tapped into a
vast pool of crude at a depth of only 139 feet.
It spurred the state’s first oil boom, drawing speculators and laborers from
far and wide, and remained in
production for more than a century until its output failed to justify its
From here on out, the Rathbone Well’s oil production runs will be used to fill
souvenir jars for visitors to
Rathbone Oil Well Historic Park, now taking shape along the shore of the
Little Kanawha River at the
Wirt County community of Burning Springs.
The park, scheduled to open an initial phase of development this summer, is
located on W.Va. 5, and is
expected to be one of the featured attractions along the newly designated
Little Kanawha Scenic Byway.
A cabin is being remodeled to house museum exhibits from the state’s
oilfield glory days, and pieces of
early-day drilling, pumping and collecting equipment are being placed on a
hillside overlooking the well
site. Picnic pavilions and hiking trails will be a part of the complex, which
will be an extension of the Oil
& Gas Museum in Parkersburg, which McKain was instrumental in
“A great story happened here that almost no one knows anything about,”
said McKain, as he looked
down W.Va. 5 at the smattering of houses and camps that line the road.
“A town of more than 2,000 people once stood here. Oil was being struck at
50 to 150 feet, and new
wells were constantly being blown out. There was so much oil, there was no
way to contain it. They
tried digging ditches to hold it, and at one time, they dammed up Burning
Springs Run and filled it with
oil until it caught on fire,” he said.
Historic accounts tell of a solid line of wagons stretching from Burning
Springs to Parkersburg, bearing
barrels of oil from the new oilfield.
“Fortunes were made in oil and land speculation,” said McKain. “Oil was
selling for $30 a barrel back
then, which would be the current equivalent of about $2,000. Quarter-acre
lots were being sold for
$1,000 plus one-fourth of any oil found.”
By the end of 1860, more than 600 Burning Springs oil leases were
registered in the Wirt County
Courthouse, and as many as nine wells per acre were being sunk.
But the Civil War brought the Burning Springs boom to a sudden, temporary
bust on May 9, 1863, when
Confederate Gen. William E. Jones and 1,300 troops swept through the
oilfield, destroying oil-loaded
barges, storage tanks and virtually everything of value.
Although some accounts place the amount of oil burned in the raid as high
as 300,000 barrels, McKain’s
research estimates the loss at closer to 20,000 barrels.
“It was still an incredible amount of oil,” he said. “According to written
accounts, the fire could be seen
from as far away as Parkersburg, where the convention to nominate West
Virginia’s first governor was
After the war, the Burning Springs oilfield flourished again, but newer, more
productive fields soon
Along the narrow Burning Springs Anticline, a steep arch of stratified rock,
oil could be found at depths
of 50 to 200 feet, McKain said. “Go a mile off the anticline, and you can still
find oil, but you’ll have to
drill 2,000 feet or more,” he said.
While the first Burning Springs well made it possible for the Rathbone family
of Burning Springs to attain
wealth and move to a mansion in Parkersburg, the clan did not abandon its
Grandson Jack Rathbone worked at the Camden Refinery in Parkersburg,
then went on to become the
first president of Exxon.
While Pennsylvania claims to be the home of the world’s first drilled oil well,
with Edward L. Drake’s
1859 gusher along Oil Creek in 1859, McKain is convinced wells were in
production in West Virginia
earlier than the Drake Well.
“We believe the B & O Railroad made use of oil from Petroleum in Ritchie
County years before that,”
said McKain, co-author of “Where It All Began,” a history of the oil and gas
industry in West Virginia
and southeast Ohio.
The railroad named its station near the well site “Petroleum” two years
before the Pennsylvania well was
sunk,” he added.
At an area known as California, located along the old Staunton-Parkersburg
Turnpike (now present-day
W.Va. 47) about 15 miles to the north of Burning Springs, oil was being
produced and used
commercially as a lubricant as early as the 1820s, according to McKain.
At the same time Drake was sinking his well in Pennsylvania in August 1859,
Charles Shattuck and T.T.
Jones were drilling a well at California.
“Hundreds of thousands of people go to the Drake Well Museum in Titusville
[Pa.],” said McKain, “yet
we have a much more exciting story to tell here. Not only do we challenge
the contention that Drake’s
well was the first, we have a Civil War story to tell, as well.”
Donations of land and labor are helping to make the Burning Springs
historical park a reality. Retired
oilfield geologist George Grow Jr. donated the Rathbone Well and five acres
of adjacent land.
The Burke-Parsons-Bowlby lumber company donated another nine acres, and
gave the park access to a
larger adjacent tract for use in its trail system.
Contractor Darrell Perkins of Perkins Oil & Gas donated time, labor and
equipment needed to clean up
the historic well, and the state Division of Highways brought hundreds of
loads of fill to the site, through
its connection to the Scenic Byways program.
A boardwalk and stairway to the well site and museum building have been
erected and a $120,000,
40-foot retaining wall has been installed to keep the site from slipping into
the flood-prone Little
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., recently announced the awarding of a $96,800
grant to help complete
work at the site.
McKain said that in order to collect the grant money, 20 percent of that
amount must be raised locally.
But completion of the Burning Springs park won’t mean that his work is
complete. McKain hopes to
build smaller historical displays at Petroleum and California, and he’s
working on a sequel to his oil and