History of WV Mineral Industries - Oil and Gas
Long before the arrival of European settlers, it is believed that the
Native Americans recognized and perhaps used as a fuel source the "burning
springs" and outflows of petroleum on the Little Kanawha, Kanawha, and Big
Sandy rivers. Records show that the early settlers were also aware of the
"burning springs" which were natural gas vents. One such burning spring,
located on the Kanawha River, was visited by George Washington in 1775.
The oil and gas industry in West Virginia actually began as an outgrowth of
the salt industry. In the early 1800s, oil and gas had no importance in
West Virginia, and though saltmakers frequently hit oil or gas in their
drilling, they considered it a nuisance. In fact, so much oil was diverted
to the Kanawha River by salt manufactures that it was long known as "Old
Greasy" to the boatmen. Gas was first struck in a well drilled for salt at
Charleston in 1815. Once the value of oil and gas was realized, the Great
Kanawha Valley region became a pioneer in the discovery of petroleum by
boring and in the use of oil and gas on a commercial scale. By 1826, oil
was used for lamps in workshops and factories. The drilling tools, jars,
and casing, first developed in 1806 by the Ruffner brothers for the salt
industry, became essential equipment to the petroleum industry of the United
On the Little Kanawha River, near the Hughes River, was a stream called
Burning Springs Run, named because there were two springs at its mouth from
which natural gas escaped. As early as 1781, Thomas Jefferson described the
brilliant flame which could be produced by thrusting a lighted candle into the
escaping gas at this site. Because gas and salt brine were often associated,
the Rathbone brothers bored a salt well near these springs. However, rather
than salt, at a depth of 200 feet they hit petroleum and by boring deeper,
they were able to produce 200 barrels per day in 1859. Although petroleum was
not the treasure that the Rathbones sought, they were encouraged by their find
and drilled a second well which yielded 1,200 barrels of petroleum daily.
News of the Rathbone brothers' discovery spread rapidly and created tremendous
excitement. By 1861, a town with several thousand inhabitants had sprung up.
All of the light in the newly-formed town, including that for a brilliantly
lit hotel, was provided by natural gas. The widespread use of gas in this
town marked the beginning of the era of gas development in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were being floated down the
river to Parkersburg where they were then sent to other cities by rail or
river. The Burning Springs oil field was one of only two oil fields in America
prior to the Civil War. But by 1876, there were 292 wells in the State,
producing a total of 900 barrels daily. Parkersburg was the chief oil market.
The Volcano oil field was discovered in 1860, and from 1865 to 1870 drilling
was very active, producing from the Salt sand at a depth of about 360 feet.
The heavy lubricants produced led to the development of West Virginia's first
oil pipeline, from Volcano to Parkersburg, in 1879. Also at Volcano, in 1874,
W. C. Stiles, Jr., invented the "endless wire" method of pumping many wells
from a central engine. Using wheels, belts, and cables, perhaps as many as
40 wells could be pumped by one engine. One of the systems operated until
From 1879 to 1889, oil production declined steadily due in great part to the
inability of the drillers to bore to the deeper sands and to deal with softer
rock they encountered. But in 1889, large iron pipes were inserted to prevent
clogging of the wells by crumbling walls, and with this discovery much deeper
wells could be drilled. With the discovery of deeper oil sands, the Doll's
Run, Eureka, Mannington, and Sistersville fields were found and developed.
It was about this time that the anticlinal theory of gas and oil accumulation
was first proposed. Dr. I.C. White, well-known geologist who later became
West Virginia State Geologist, was one of the major initiators of this
anticlinal theory, insisting that the theory be tested in West Virginia.
His discovery and development of the Mannington oil field in 1888 proved the
theory and convinced the oil industry of its importance. The Mannington
field became one of the largest in the State, with the largest well producing
about 1,600 barrels per day.
Thus, from its early beginnings at Burning Springs in 1859, the oil industry
in West Virginia grew to reach its peak production of 16 million barrels in
1900. Although the oil industry then started a decline, natural gas
production was growing. From 1906 to 1917 West Virginia was the leader in
gas production in the United States. From 1917 to 1934 the State's output
declined markedly, then increased again until about 1970.
(adapted from an article by Jane R. Eggleston, updated September 1996)
Page last revised: July 16, 2004