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The Rathbone Well, West Virginia’s first major oil well, was drilled in 1860. William P. Rathbone, a New York City judge and alderman, and his sons, John Castelli ‘‘Cass’’ Rathbone and John Valleau ‘‘Val’’ Rathbone, had purchased 12,000 acres at Burning Springs Run in Wirt County in 1840. They laid out a small village, Burning Springs, later Rathbone, and operated a general store, gristmill, and boat yard. They also bottled and sold petroleum as a medicine, ‘‘Rathbone’s Rock Oil, Nature’s Wonder Cure.’’

In 1860, a Pennsylvania promoter, Samuel D. Karnes, leased an acre from the Rathbones and introduced derrick drilling techniques modeled after those of the pioneering Drake oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania. Within a few weeks, Karnes was producing 30 barrels of oil a day. Following his lead, Cass Rathbone sank a well on his property to a depth of 140 feet, hitting a gusher that produced 100 barrels a day. News spread and others rushed to Burning Springs. Johnson Newlon Camden, later a U.S. senator and Standard Oil director, along with partners including John Jay Jackson Sr., brought in ‘‘The Eternal Center’’ well in January 1861, earning them $23,000 the first week of production. The Rathbones made a fortune leasing one-acre tracts to wildcatters.

On May 9, 1863, a Confederate raiding party under Gen. William E. Jones set fire to the Burning Springs oil field and to crude oil being stored in the area. Flames from the fire could be seen in Parkersburg, 40 miles away. Though Camden and the Rathbones repaired the damage and continued to drill, Burning Springs never rose to its pre-war production. The discovery of new fields elsewhere in Wirt and surrounding counties moved the center of the industry to other locations.

This Article was written by Philip Sturm

Last Revised on March 11, 2014


Cite This Article

Sturm, Philip "The Rathbone Well." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 11 March 2014. Web. 18 October 2018.

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