U.S. Senator and industrialist Johnson Newlon Camden (March 6, 1828-April 25, 1908) was born in Lewis County. He opened one of the first oil wells in West Virginia in January 1861 and later helped John D. Rockefeller establish Standard Oil’s national monopoly of the oil business. Camden was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a young man but resigned after two years to study law. Before going into the oil business, he was a lawyer, ran a store and worked in a bank, was elected to local political offices, and speculated on land and oil production.
Camden’s first oil well stood along Burning Springs Run in Wirt County on property that he leased from W. P. and J. C. Rathbone. He entered the refining business at Parkersburg in 1869. In 1875, Camden and his partners quietly sold out to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, while continuing to operate as the Camden Consolidated Oil Company. Running the company as a secret subsidiary for Rockefeller, Camden bought competitors and sometimes shut them down. He bought surplus oil to keep it from going to market, and starved independent Pittsburgh-area refineries of barrel staves to help establish Standard Oil’s control of the industry. Standard Oil later sent him to Washington as an ‘‘observer’’ and lobbyist.
Camden’s business interests linked him to Northern Republicans during and after the Civil War, but he was a member of the Democratic Party, which was filled with ex-Confederates in the post-war years. The West Virginia legislature elected Camden to the U.S. Senate in 1881. He exploited his Senate position for personal and business advantage. Senator Camden speculated financially on attempts to settle West Virginia’s pre-statehood portion of the Virginia state debt. He also helped Standard Oil get into markets in Turkey and Japan, and worked to repeal laws unwanted by the oil industry.
From oil, Camden turned to building railroads to connect the Baltimore & Ohio in the northern part of the state to the Chesapeake & Ohio in the south and to provide streetcar service in Huntington and neighboring areas. The new rail lines opened up coal mines and timbering in new areas. Historian John Alexander Williams describes Camden as one of the first of West Virginia’s political leaders to use his public position to serve his industry, a prototype of some who followed.
This Article was written by Dawn Miller
Last Revised on September 27, 2012
Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.
Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. New York: Random House, 1998.
Lewis, Ronald L. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.