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The Oil Boom Days

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Oil Ridge twists high behind Sistersville, West Virginia, overlooking the Ohio Valley. My grandfather was an oilfield pumper there in the 1930s, living in an oil company house and running monster engines that kept hilltop wells flowing.

When I was a tot, a visit to Oil Ridge was awesome. The wham-wham-wham of the great single-piston machines could be heard before we reached Grandfather's house. He took me on his rounds, locking vivid impressions forever into my memory.

In my child's eyes, the black pumper engines looked as big as railway locomotives. Flywheels taller than Grandfather whirled. Long steel rods rammed pistons into barrel-size cylinders. Spinning brass governors spread outward as speed increased, reducing gas flow and slowing the behemoths.

Power from the banging pumpers was conveyed by cables that ran like a network to several wells. The cables slid back and forth in ditches and wooden slots in the ground. Some rode on "walking beams" that swayed to and fro. It was fascinating.

Today, my sister and I sometimes visit the state Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg or the annual Oil and Gas Festival held at Sistersville each mid-September. Nostalgia floods us as we see the mighty pumpers running again, tended by hobbyists who preserved and reconditioned them.

At this year's festival, we found more books on Sistersville and West Virginia's oil-and-gas boom. From them, here's a thumbnail history:

Back in the 1700s, this region had two "burning springs" where emissions from the ground often caught fire. One was on the Kanawha River near Charleston. After surveying the region, George Washington bought 250 acres there in 1771, "making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator," the Oil and Gas Museum says. The other was on the Little Kanawha River near Parkersburg. An amazed Thomas Jefferson wrote that a candle could ignite dazzling flame from the spring.

Salt-drillers upriver from Charleston often were disgusted when they hit oil instead, and diverted the greasy goo into the Kanawha River. But the value of oil and gas became apparent. "Natural gas was moved in wooden pipes from wells to be used as a manufacturing heat source by the Kanawha salt manufacturers as early as 1831," the museum says.

U.S. history books often say the world's first oil well was drilled in 1859 at Titusville, Pa. but some West Virginia archivists say the Mountain State was well ahead of Pennsylvania.

By 1860, oil was worth $30 a barrel, and various West Virginia families became millionaires by drilling shallow wells. Several of them used their wealth to fund the break from Virginia during the Civil War. Confederate troops raiding through West Virginia destroyed many oil rigs to keep fuel from the Yankees.

Sistersville was pioneered by Charles Wells, who previously founded Wellsburg and Wellsville in the Northern Panhandle. In 1802, he floated his family of 22 children down the Ohio on a flatboat and landed at fertile bottom territory. After trees were cleared, the sector became thriving farms. Upon his death, he left two large tracts to two daughters, and these sisters started Sistersville in 1815.

A new pictorial history of Sistersville and Tyler County by Luke Peters says the sisters wanted their town to be the county seat, and laid out a place for "the courthouse, jail, whipping post, and offices of the lawyers." But the Virginia legislature chose Middlebourne as county seat.

Sistersville remained small and agricultural until 1891, when a farmer on Pole Cat Run struck a gusher and started a black gold rush. Drilling flared everywhere. Wooden derricks rose amid homes on many Sistersville streets, along the riverbank, and at nearby farms. Hordes of money-seekers rushed to the river town, overwhelming the community.

Historian Peters says the swarming newcomers slept in tents, in crude wooden hotels and in "houseboats four and five deep" tied to the riverbank. Saloons, bordellos, a casino and a brewery sprang up to serve the workers. Muddy streets were paved with bricks provided by "the saloonkeepers and gambling house proprietors, since they were operating illegally without licenses."

The oil upsurge spawned great wealth for owner families, who built Victorian mansions that still grace Sistersville as historic treasures.

Not long ago, my sister and I drove out Oil Ridge, retracing our roots, but we couldn't find even the foundation of Grandfather's company house. And the great pumper engines are long silent, except when hobbyists revive their wham-wham-wham at the Oil and Gas Festival.

This column appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail paper on Sept. 30, 2007.

 

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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