Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood
January 1865

Richmond Daily Dispatch
March 21, 1861

The oil region of Virginia.

The oil excitement : A visit to the wells : The great Influx of people from all quarters : Prospects for a large town in a few months, &c., &c.

[Correspondence of the Richmond Dispatch.]

Three Forks, Roane county, Va., March 12th, 1861.

I was here some three years ago, and wrote you from this place. Some of your readers about Richmond thought the letter an amusing fabrication, and the people in this immediate neighborhood thought is an ill-tempered exposure of their poverty. The editor of a paper in this region assailed my motives, and some of his county correspondents regarded it as being wanting in truthfulness; but I stated facts simply then, and I hope I shall be equally sincere and candid now.

This country (the Northwest,) has, within the period above named, improved remarkably --no part of it more than this little settlement or village from which I write to-night. Instead of a miserable cabin for a hotel, I am seated in a large, well-arranged hotel, of ample dimensions for any village of this size in Virginia. The accommodations generally are good, and I hear no word whatever of complaint. I have no disposition to imitate my course when here before : i. e., leave before daybreak to-morrow, but may remain here several days.

As many of your readers may wish to know how to get out here, I will tell them. It you take the Fredericksburg train any morning, you will, without accident, be put down the following morning either at Ellenboro', Cairo, or at Petroleum, on the Parkersburg branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and from either of these points horses can be had to the "wells." The latter point will be found the most convenient, as horses can be gotten there without difficulty. The hire ($1.50 per day) is very high for this country, as heretofore it was only 50 cents. I went to the wells yesterday from Ritchie Court-House, where I had business, and although everybody with whom I conversed had something to say about the "wells," yet I was not fully, indeed, not at all, prepared for what I really witnessed. My road lay, for the most part, through a rough and uninhabited country, and just before reaching the "wells, " along a very high ridge from which a view of the country for many miles around was obtained, away in the west, I saw the rising town. Cabin after cabin ranged along the hill- side, so new that you imagined they were as yet unoccupied. I was forcibly reminded of the ideas I had conceived in regard to some newly- discovered "Diggins" in California. Presently we began to descend the ridge and wind around its base, when all at once the solitude of my long journey across the mountains was exchanged for the bustle and hum of city life. I had always spoken to every man, woman and child I met in the road, but now I did not think of it. There were squads of men standing in the muddy roads, while ox-carts, loaded with timber, were struggling along the deep ravines, and recently-felled trees and split boards lay on every side. I had never seen anything like it before; and as I got nearer the village I saw, not far off, derrick after derrick, with men busily engaged at the base and upon the top of them, boring for the precious oil. My excitement quickened rapidly. I hastened forward, my horse throwing the muddy water from, heels to head, until I found myself in the midst of the "Wells," and soon at the door of a hotel, half-finished, with no steps to the front door, so that it was necessary to enter the back way : the house being on a steep hill-side, there was no difficulty. I never saw such a "mess," to use a vulgar expression, before-- saddles and saddle-bags, bags of beans, dried apples, peaches and potatoes, and barrels of flour, all piled up together in the passage and in the dining-room, amid mud and dirt. I looked for a stable, but it had not been built : a shed for the present sufficed. The bar-room, as usual, was crowded. But I must not trespass upon your readers, but give you, in as few words as possible, a description of the "wells;" and, first, as to how they are dug: After the rock is reached, a few feet below the surface, the machinery for digging is prepared : a scaffold, about 35 feet high, 8 or 10 feet square at the base, and about 4 or 5 feet at the top, made of four poles, united by scantling, is erected; at the top of this is a "block," through which a rope is passed, by which the long "sinker, " made of iron, pointed with steel, is lifted and let fall.--After the well has been dug to a considerable depth rods are screwed on, thus lengthening the shaft; and, in order to lift it, a long pole is used, called a "scoop," (often 50 feet,) one end of which is fastened to the ground, and the other is attached to the top of the rod, by which it is lifted from the bottom. These rods are not more than two inches in diameter. The "well" is, therefore, very small : not more than three or four inches in diameter. If you have seen poles used in raising water from wells, you will readily understand what I mean. The men (two or three of them) at the top of the scaffold swing upon the end of the pole to which the sinker is attached, thus thrusting it down, and "poking" the bottom, followed by a metallic "click; " and again letting go the pole, the sinker is again raised; and so they continue, occasionally pulling up the apparatus to pump out the water and debris. The cost of boring is about $1.75 per foot for the first hundred feet, and $2 for all beyond. Within a space of a half-mile there are about 150 "wells," either already dug or in process of digging. They begin on the Little Kanawha, 200 yards or more below the mouth of " Burning Spring Rup," and continue up the run to its source. There are only six or eight wells that are yielding oil. All who have gone deep enough have been rewarded with success--not a single well has been abandoned. Perhaps four-fifths of the wells have been very recently begun. The progress made is from one foot to ten or fifteen feet per day. Some wells have been in process of digging for three or four weeks, but have not gotten more than 120 feet. The average depth is from 115 to 145 feet. Some persons have gone 200 feet without finding oil, but are not discouraged. Some dig on the hill-sides, but most of them in the bottom. I visited every well that was yielding oil. That of Llewellyn & Co. was yielding very rapidly; often it produces one barrel per minute. Think of it! I saw them filling seven barrels at the same time. A friend timed them, and they filled 14 barrels in 15 minutes--i. e., one hundred and forty dollars in a quarter of an hour, or $560 per hour. This is making money after a fashion. I never saw before. The oil sells readily at 25 cents per gallon, or $10 per bbl.--The expense of getting it is a mere nothing, after you once reach it. Sometimes it runs spontaneously, at other times it is pumped up. The flat-boats (of which I saw upwards of 100,) take it to Parkersburg, in 24 hours. Day before yesterday 2,000 or 3,000 barrels left the "wells" for that destination.

The well of Llewellyn & Co. is much the most productive. There are several others that yield 30 and 40 bbls. per day. Many of the wells are not worked, for want of barrels. If my friends, Messrs. Weston & Co., will bring one of their admirable stave-cutters out here, they will get abundant employment. Barrels bring $2 apiece. The timber here is superb, and very abundant. There is a small cooper's establishment here, but no steam used. The oil is peculiar. I saw some when out here two years ago, at Roane Court- House, exuding from a marsh, which was black and viscid, somewhat like tar; but this is fluid, and of a "bottle-green" color, sometimes yellow, like molasses. Its specific gravity is about 40 deg., water being 60 deg. It is as liquid as the "fluid" which you burn in Richmond, and is used here in fluid lamps, and, I understand, does not smoke. It can, as you know, be refined and made perfectly limpid. I learn this is done at little expense at several places on the Ohio, and also in New York, whenever much of it is shipped.

Well, Mr. Editor, would you not like to take a lease after all this? If you wish a half acre lot you must pay $500 cash, and another $500 when you strike the oil in sufficient quantity to work it, and then one-third of the oil delivered in barrels at the wells to the company's agent.

Having a good deal of land in this county. I determined, before leasing, to see whether the oil was confined to the Burning Spring Valley. The point from which I write is about 12 miles South of Burning Spring, and here to-day I find a man boring with every prospect of success. The indications here are very marked, and I have also seen them to-day six miles above this point.

The elevation of the surface here is very little above that of Burning Spring; and on comparing the different strata through which the man boring here has traversed and that encountered at the "wells," there is a singular agreement. Leases can be had here for a song. I shall take one or two myself, I think, though I have land in the neighborhood very similar in character, and on which there are signs of oil.

This is a remarkably fine country, (forget I own any land in it, if you please,) and, like a great many individuals, is not appreciated from home. The growth is most extraordinary. The beach, Lynn, poplar and oak are worth looking at. The lands are stiff, generally, and produce fine wheat and excellent grass, tobacco, corn, and, indeed, anything that can be produced in any other part of Virginia. If the whistle of the locomotive were heard here to-morrow, in less than two years this whole country would be entirely changed. Indeed, the Legislature should authorize a survey for this purpose, especially, if the promise of the oil wells should be realized. Hundreds of thousands of hogsheads of oil will, I doubt not, be shipped from this section in less than twelve months. I should like to see Virginias sharing fully in this wonderful production of our dear old State. Let them come out. As yet they are greatly in the majority, (10 to 1,) but Northern enterprise will soon turn the scale, unless we bestir ourselves.

A word on the subject of politics, and I have done. I have talked with almost everybody I have met, and there is but one opinion--no submission to Black Republican rule. They prefer peace, but stand ready to maintain their rights, either in or out of the Union. I have not met with a single doubtful man here.

Now, Mr. Editor, begging your pardon for this lengthy epistle, which you are at liberty to administer to your readers in one "bolus," or in broken doses, as you think best,

I am yours,


The Parkersburg (Virginia) Gazette, noticing the oil discoveries treated of in our correspondent's letter, says that two barrel factories are being built in that town, capable of turning out 400 barrels per day, and that at Burning Springs a factory is being erected to manufacture 1,000 barrels per day. The same paper furnishes the following items:

Since our last issue, this section has been visited by some pretty heavy rains, causing a considerable rise in the rivers. The Little Kanawha rose sufficient to let out quite a fleet of boats loaded with oil. We were informed that there were at least 175 boats loaded at Burning Springs, awaiting the rise, besides others constantly arriving. Estimating that these boats, nearly all of which number have arrived, will average sixty barrels each, and we have the round sum of 10,000 barrels as this week's receipt.

Edward Braidon, of this place, met with a painful accident at Burning Springs, on Wednesdaynight last. He was standing near his well, with a lamp in his hand, when a vein of gas was reached, which, pouring out, was ignited by the flame of the lamp. Mr. B.'s face was so badly burned that it is severely blistered, and his eye-brows and hair were also badly singed.

Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: Undated: March 1861

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