GHOST TOWN: THOUSANDS FLOCKED TO BURNING SPRINGS 1860 - A Lawless Oil Boom - Boats, Barges, Brothels, Hotels, Warehouses, Stores, Saloons, Bakeries

(05/05/2022)
By Bob Weaver 2022

A number of WV historians and writers have written about the powerful years of oil and natural gas days at Burning Springs, Wirt County, which once had 7,000-10,000 residents, now a ghost town.

Perhaps a misunderstanding is the exact location of the town, most believing it is located at the Burning Springs Museum and relpica of the original Rathbone Well.

Actually it was located up stream near the mouth of Burning Springs Run and WV Rt. 5, near the present standing of the Rader Hotel and the Burning Springs Masonic Lodge. There are virtually no remnants left of the ghost town.

In the 21st Century, traveling on Route 5, it is difficult to imagine Burning Springs as a boom town, or the destruction of Burning Springs during the Civil War, when thousands of gallons of oil were spilled into the Little Kanawha River and set on fire, the river burning all the way to Parkersburg.

It is difficult to imagine the money and work effort in the late 1800s to build five locks and dams on the Little Kanawha River, the last built at Burning Springs.

Steamboats and later gasoline driven boats opened the Little Kanawha River valley, some boats traveling all the way from Parkersburg to Burnsville. Photos show steamboats in Creston Harbor.

History reveals a failed multi-million dollar efforts to build the Little Kanawha Railroad from Parkersburg to Burnsville, with the tracks stopping just east of Elizabeth at Palestine/Owensport.

The locks and dams are all gone, with the Wells Lock and Dam near Elizabeth barely standing, river transportation having faded in the 1930s, and a few remnants of the LK Railroad still being found by scrupulous history hunters at Owensport.

Oil and natural gas in the region was discovered in the 1700s, its benefit unknown. Gas and oil would escape through cracks and crevices, called "Devils Blow Holes, Devils Winds and Old Scratch," by native Americans.

One early development on the river in 1833 was made by William and John Perry, a water driven corn and sawmill on Little Kanawha at the end of Enterprise Road. Later the "Perry Ferry" operation was launched.

The Rathbone Family developed operations to extract salt, which led to the official discovery of oil at Burning Springs about 1859, historians debunking the account that oil was first discovered in America at Titusville PA. Much of the early oil was used for medicinal purposes.

Rathbone sold off one acre lots for oil drilling, and men came in "gold rush" fashion to seek their fortunes. Depending upon the account, 7,000 to 10,000 settled in Burning Springs, the town covering a two mile area along the river.

The town had numerous hotels, warehouses, stores, offices, saloons, blacksmiths, bakeries, dance halls and brothels. The main brothel was operated by Maggie Merriel, the town having six to ten women at multiple locations.

The classy hotel was the Chicago House, with others being the Ball, Rader, Pierpont, Wetzel, Farnsworth and Kessler. The Chicago had 20 rooms and burned in 1871, was rebuilt and burned in 1890.

The Rader Hotel, now a private residence, is still standing, likely its third construction. Across the road is the Masonic Lodge built in 1875. The town actually stood near the hotel at the junction of Burning Springs Road and State Route 5, Burning Springs was described as a lawless community, with criminals and derelicts living on the waterfront and crowded houseboats, running up and down the Little Kanawha, pilfering and robbing.

A diary left by John Clark in 1862 said he hired six armed men to travel the river to Creston to protect him from bandits. Burning Springs had two peace officers, a town sergeant and a deputy sheriff named Spot Hopkins, a native of Creston.

An account about Spot Hopkins said a man shot and wounded another man during a poker game at the Red Bird saloon. As the man was being arrested by Hopkins, he jerked and ran away, shooting back at officer Hopkins. Hopkins dropped him dead with a single shot.

The account says a proper funeral was discussed for the man, but it was decided to dig a hole, roll him in it, throw his gun in and cover him up. Hopkins apparently went west hoping to find a lawless town that needed a peace officer, never to be heard from again.

In 1861, a secret organization of vigilantes was organized to assist with law enforcement and rid the town of gunmen and undesirables. When incidents happened, the group issued a written notice to "Take The Hack And Leave Town" - or else. Most left after the warning.

One such incident involved a girl from a brothel. She was accused of "cutting in" on another girl's customer. In a fight between the women, a kerosene lantern overturned and exploded. The fire destroyed the brothel and both women caught fire, one dying. A madam who seemed unconcerned about the death was given a note by the "secret group" to leave town before daylight. She did.

Another madam recruited a local farmer's daughter to be a prostitute. When the farmer went to get his daughter, the madam appeared with a gun, pointing it at the farmer. He knocked the gun from her hand, knocked her down, kicked her, she losing some teeth. The madam was served the notice "To Take The Hack And Leave Town." She did.

The secret vigilantes were feared and helped hold down lawless activities.

In 1862 a young man, 19-year-old Bryant Dulin was ambushed by "guerrillas," his grave marked by a rock near the historic Rathbone Well.

Perhaps the most traumatic event in Burning Springs was the attack of 1,500 Confederate soldier led by General Sam Jones on May 9, 1863. Homes and stores were robbed, horses and cattle driven away, and fire was set to every derrick, oil house and tank.

Thousands of barrels of oil stood on barges waiting for the river to raise. Soldiers ignited each boat with torches. As they exploded and floated down the Little Kanawha, the fire ignited about everything downstream to Parkersburg.

The raid faded quickly on that one day, success declared. The military object was to destroy the oil field, the Union government collecting a $1 barrel tax. The oil industry was feared doomed.

A new effort was started after the Civil War by Camden MacFarland and the McConaughey Brothers, along with Rathbone and Roberts, but in 1866 the field was struck again by fire. Yet another boom was started.

A well was drilled by Jones, the natural pressure so great, it was uncontrollable. It was thought they tapped the "center of the earth," spreading oil on the Little Kanawha River six inches thick, traveling downstream for ten miles. The air was so saturated, people fled.

In 1868, David Angela Roberts moved his family to Burning Springs, building the Methodist Episcopal Church and secured the first minister and started the first independent school while the population rapidly declined.

A modern day event happened on the Bruce Bell farm on Sanoma Road near Burning Springs. A record breaking gas well roared to life March 1, 1968, that was heard in my Village of Hur, many miles away.

It exploded with a daily production of over 50,000,000 cubic feet, and my family drove near the site to witness the spectacle, with newspaper and TV stations covering the event.

Unable to bring it under control, a call was made to a famous Texas oil and gas man Red Adair, who brought a team of 50 men to the site, making an effort to tame the beast.

The well casing was too light and finally the well was plugged, and Burning Springs experienced another "doomsday."

It is easy to see why history buffs have been fascinated with Burning Springs, including David McKain's "Where it all Began," Howard Lee's "Burning Springs and Tales of the Little Kanawha," Mabel Sites and Delores Bain Patterson's "History of Burning Springs and Old Ruble Church," Margaret Ferrell Roberts' "Full of Thy Riches," and Elza Kidwell Webb's fact and fiction story called "The Mystery of the Old Mill," built at Shertzville, two miles above Sanoma. More recent "Images of America: Wirt County," by Richard T. Lowe and Wirt native Hugh Sheppard's fictional take on Burning Springs called "$2000 Dollars a Barrel."