Most sources place the genesis of the American oil industry in Titusville, PA in 1859 when Edwin L Drake, a New York businessman, successfully used a drilling rig to strike oil. The Drake Well was not the first oil-producing well in America; however, it did unleash a deluge of industry across Pennsylvania and into the Appalachian Mountains which would culminate in a multi-decade oil boom that would help shape the American economy and grow one of the world’s largest industries into what it is today.
In the July of 1860, a year after Edwin Drake struck black gold in the Quaker State, the town of Burning Springs, WV whose salt and petroleum wells were already well established, became the epicenter of the Appalachian boom when landowner and businessman Cass Rathbone struck oil. Rathbone’s discovery birthed a migration of workers and industrialists from across the nation seeking their fortunes in the fields which grew Burning Springs into a bustling center of industry until the spring of 1863, when Confederate forces led by General William Jones raided the town, setting fire to the fields. The conflagration was enormous, setting the Little Kanawha River ablaze and burning ,by some estimates, around 150,000 barrels of oil.
The Burning Springs raid was a significant blow to the United States and served in some ways as Virginia’s final parting shot to West Virginia which, through a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, joined the United States of America as a sovereign state on June 20, 1863, after two years of delegation. The raid did not, however, totally kill production in Burning Springs, WV, as more wells and oil towns sprang up across the region over the next few years.
One such town was called Volcano.
Volcano, WV sprung up in the mid-1800s and, in a similar fashion to Burning Springs, exploded onto the national stage as an oil and natural gas producer in the 1860s, enjoying a large and lucrative growth between 1864 and 1879. The wells were numerous and facilitated the hemorrhage of oil which burned from the towers like great mechanical candles, gas flares lighting the night skies like magmatic ejections from a volcanic fissure – giving the town its unusual name.
As workers and wealth descended upon the town so too descended investors and entrepreneurs. Needing to move product and people, workers erected The Laurel Fork and Sandhill railroad, a connector to the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, between 1866 and 1869. This railway – the first of its gauge in West Virginia – was a game changer, bringing in more workers and facilitating expansion, growing the town’s population to somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000. As workers moved in, businesses began springing up around the fields. Oil and liquor flowed freely with some quipping that saloons outnumbered grocery stores in Volcano.
Volcano proved a lucrative venture but with all industrial ventures, it had its risks. A fire erupted on August 4, 1879, and quickly burned through most of the town, igniting oil barrels and letting loose the burning oil which, according to a New York Times article from 1879, “ran through the streets, setting fire to everything on either side.” The town was reduced to ashes. Volcano would eventually rise from the soot and return to production, however, the damage was irreversible. The once thriving boomtown would never again return to the heights it enjoyed before tragedy struck and closed production for good in the 1970s, over a century after it rose to prominence.
Today the memory of Volcano lives on at Mountwood Park in Waverly, WV where the area’s rich oil and gas history is celebrated every September at the Volcano Days Antique Engine Show & Festival. Thousands of visitors attend Volcano Days each year to learn about Volcano and our region’s rich oil & gas history. This three-day event features engine displays, live music, and vendors, as well as tractor rides up to the Stiles Mansion, which once overlooked the town.
Those interested in a more detailed history of the area’s oil and gas history can visit The Oil & Gas Museum in downtown Parkersburg, WV.