1860 WIRT GUSHER AT PETRO PARK - Charleston Gazette Tells Burning Springs Story

1860s gusher to be site of petroleum park

Sunday May 5, 2002

By Rick Steelhammer
STAFF WRITER Sunday Gazette-Mail

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 out.

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 museum."

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 expense.

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 founding.

"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 going on."

After the war, the Burning Springs oilfield flourished again, but newer, more productive fields soon eclipsed it.

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 oily roots.

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 Kanawha.

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 gas history.