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Oil Country (Mid-Ohio Valley)

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Oil and West Virginia are seldom thought of together, yet at the beginning of the twentieth century, the area along the Ohio River between the Kanawha River and the Northern Panhandle was one of America's leading producers of petroleum, natural gas, and related products. First developed around the time of the Civil War, West Virginia's oil fields were the second to be opened in the country, after those in western Pennsylvania.

Of course, settlement in the region long predated the discovery of oil. After rival claims between French and English explorers were settled, early development of the mid–Ohio Valley followed patterns similar to those both up and downstream. Agriculture and timber, in that order, provided the main sources of income in the early days. Consequently, river bottoms were settled first, while development of the hinterlands—here hilly but hardly mountainous—lagged behind. George Washington owned some of the best land; one of his tracts, near the confluence of the Little Kanawha and Ohio rivers, dubbed Washington's Bottom, was patented December 15, 1772.

In 1784 Major General Peter Muhlenberg traveled downstream in a five-boat flotilla, which he hoped would make a strong impression, to “avoid any danger from Indians.” Although the northern side of the river was commonly known then as “the Indian shore,” he encountered no hostility. In fact, the name of one of the vessels in the convoy suggests it was more a problem than the Indians. Trailing behind boats named Muhlenberg, Lewis, Ellis, and Dowdon, Carpenter's Mistakebrought up the rear. Indians and leaky boats aside, it was the area's potential that most interested Muhlenberg, as he recorded in his journal: “From what I have hitherto seen of the River Ohio, and the lands on both sides, I make no doubt that in time this will be the first and most valuable settlement in North America. At present, it is inhabited by wild beasts only.…”

Thomas Jefferson wrote not of the lands, but of the river itself: “The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks or rapids, a single instance only excepted.” High praise indeed for one who never saw it; in this description, published in his Notes on Virginia (1785), Jefferson depended on the observations of his Albemarle County neighbor, the intrepid explorer Dr. Thomas Walker. French explorers who first saw the Ohio years earlier certainly agreed. They called it simply la belle rivière, the beautiful river.

Settlement on both sides of the river escalated in the early nineteenth century, especially on the northern side as new states were created from the former Northwest Territory. Soon observers began to note increasing disparities between the two shores; many, like Thaddeus Mason Harris, who is quoted in the introduction to this volume, interpreted evidence of lagging development on the Virginia side as the result of a slavery-based economy. There was, however, one extraordinary exception. In 1798–1800 Harmon and Margaret Blennerhassett, recently emigrated from Ireland, built a remarkable Palladian mansion near the northern end of one of the largest islands in the river (see WD24). The mansion acquired almost legendary status, impressing everyone who saw it with its promise of civilization at the very edge of the wilderness. Even the negative views of one H. M. Brackenridge, who published his Recollectionsin 1834, long after the mansion burned, prove just how fabulous it was: “It looked more like a vision of the future than a real landscape in the yet infant West.… Such improvements are too far in advance of the state of society.… The English nobility and gentry, if they will come, should remain in our cities, and keep away from the backwoods; they are as little fitted for the situation as the wild Indian is for city life.” Except for the Blennerhassett establishment, Brackenridge, like so many others, was singularly unimpressed with the Virginia side of the river: “As this was the Sabbath, the banks, chiefly on the Ohio side, were alive with people going to or returning from places of worship.… On the Virginia side, instead of seeing dwellings, we saw occasionally houses of more ambitious structure, but unfinished, and already showing marks of decay.”

No matter that the Virginia shore seemed desolate; the Ohio River was essential to the development of the western portion of the state and to its growing trade. In 1855 Virginia State Engineer E. Lorraine attempted to persuade the General Assembly to provide more funds for the James River and Kanawha Canal in an effort to bind eastern and western Virginia. He was one among many who realized that “the trade and commerce [of the people of western Virginia] is principally with the people of Ohio. They educate their children at Cincinnati.”

Traffic on the Ohio increased exponentially just before the Civil War. Although members of the Rathbone family profited from a small oil well at Burning Springs in Wirt County as early as the 1830s, it was not until 1860, when a deeper bore increased production dramatically, that a full-fledged oil boom began. The Rathbones shrewdly leased one-acre parcels of their 600-acre tract, all the while maintaining one-third royalty rights on production. The rush was on, and wildcatters and speculators came to participate in the boom. Soon barges laden with barrels of petroleum crowded the Little Kanawha River downstream to Parkersburg, which, thanks to its location on the Ohio, became the distribution point and metropolis of the entire region. A Confederate raid on Burning Springs in May 1863 destroyed some 20,000 barrels awaiting shipment and effectively ended that settlement's role as a major producer.

J. H. Diss Debar correctly predicted that the burgeoning industry would have a great future once hostilities ceased. When he designed the West Virginia state seal in 1863, he depicted oil barrels on the obverse side and “a derrick and a shed, appertaining to the production of salt and petroleum” on the reverse. Production of oil and its concomitant product, natural gas, continued to expand during the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. By 1906 West Virginia was the nation's leading producer of natural gas, a position it held for more than a decade.

Although the oil wells were mostly in the hinterlands, Ohio River towns such as New Martinsville and Sistersville began to profit as distribution points after fields opened far to the north of Parkersburg. In 1941 the WPA guide described New Martinsville as “a river town with large frame and brick houses built by farmers who suddenly found themselves well-to-do with the discovery of oil on their lands.” Sistersville, in the center of a rich field, was both port and producer. Views of the town at the height of its boom show mansions and derricks in close proximity to each other, as well as to the town wharf.

West Virginia's oil and gas country continues to produce, but little evidence of present-day activity is visible above ground. The elegant structures that the first flush of oil-based wealth brought to the region, however, remain the premier architectural attractions, especially in Parkersburg and, in smaller measure, Sistersville.

In more recent years, the area has become known for its examples of a regional art form known as Appalachian baptistery paintings. Generally installed above and behind baptisteries in Baptist and Church of Christ sanctuaries, they depict landscapes that may be Biblical or local. Streams flow between mountains, and trees and occasional stones embellish foregrounds in images equally appropriate to the Holy Land or to West Virginia. Some scenes are springlike; others, with brilliantly colored foliage, represent autumn. Several paintings were commissioned when churches were built. Others were installed later; many when baptisteries were built onto older churches. In these latter instances, an indoor baptistery often replaced a pool or stream where earlier converts had been baptized, and the painting provides a visual link between the “old way” and the new. These paintings never depict human figures. Instead, they “come alive” at the time of baptism when, according to Baptist and Church of Christ tenets, believers are fully immersed in the living waters.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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