Premiere Set for Documentary Detailing Early Oil, Gas Industry
The State Journal
27 February 2014
By James E. Casto
Burning Springs, an unincorporated community in Wirt County, takes
its name from the natural gas which Native Americans and early
settlers observed bubbling up through the springs. The gas, they
discovered, would burn when lit.
Now, "Burning Springs" is the title of a new video documentary
that explores the early history of West Virginia's oil and gas
The one-hour documentary is a production of MotionMasters, a
Charleston-based company that's done a number of documentaries in
recent years. It will premiere at 8 p.m. March 4 on West Virginia
As the documentary explains, the salt industry of the Kanawha
Valley provided many of the tools, techniques and tradesmen for
the oil and gas industry.
In the early 19th century, wells were drilled at Burning Springs
to produce brine which was evaporated to produce salt. Some oil
was produced along with the salt brine. At first, the oil was
considered a nuisance, but soon it was being sold for use in oil
lamps. Once its value was realized, widespread drilling for it
The wells at Burning Springs produced and sold oil many years
before the famed Drake oil well was drilled at Titusville, Pa., in
1858. By most accounts, Col. Edwin L. Drake's well is considered
to be the beginning of the nation's commercial oil industry. The
new documentary directly challenges that claim.
The first oil derricks at Burning Springs were quickly followed by
many more in a boom much like the California gold rush of 1849.
But the boom was dealt a serious setback during the Civil War. In
April and May of 1863, Confederate cavalry carried the war into
North-Central West Virginia in hopes of disrupting the Baltimore
& Ohio Railroad and weakening federal control in the area. At
Burning Springs, the cavalry set fire to the oilfield, sending a
huge sheet of flame floating down the Little Kanawha River.
Although only a footnote in most histories, the raid is said to be
the first military attack ever staged on an oil field.
MotionMasters CEO Diana Sole Walko said her interest in the
state's early oil and gas industry was sparked by her reading of
two scholarly books on the subject.
"Where It All Began," by David L. McCain and Bernard L. Allen,
published in 1994, is based on years of research from diaries,
deeds, tax records, archival photographs, court documents, maps
and other sources. McCain, whose great-grandfathers participated
in the state's early oil boom, established the non-profit Oil
& Gas Museum in Parkersburg.
"Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil
Industry," by William R. Brice, published in 2009, also raises
questions about the claim that Drake drilled the nation's first
commercial oil well. Brice documents significant developments that
took place in what was then western Virginia.
Walko said that while the new documentary focuses on West
Virginia's early oil and gas industry, "we certainly acknowledge
that the Drake Well in Pennsylvania was obviously a key point in
the industry's history."
The documentary includes archival material from the Oil & Gas
Museum, the West Virginia and Regional History Center at West
Virginia University and other sources.
It's narrated by Lionel Cartwright, a Nashville country music
singer and songwriter who grew up in Glen Dale, in Marshall
"Lionel has a unique voice that proved to be just what we were
looking for," Walko said. "We were scheduled to go to his studio
in Nashville to record his narration, but one of the big
snowstorms kept us home.
"Not wanting to lose any production time, we ended up recording it
using iPads and FaceTime instead."
"Burning Springs" is the latest in a series of documentaries
produced by MotionMasters. Founded in 1987, the firm's
award-winning productions include "The Soul of the Senate: U.S.
Senator Robert C. Byrd" and "A Principled Man: Rev. Leon
Sullivan," as well as "A Moving Monument: The West Virginia State
The documentary was produced in partnership with the University of
Charleston, with major financial support from the West Virginia
Humanities Council. Additional supporters include the Independent
Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia (IOGAWV), the West
Virginia Oil & Natural Gas Association (WVOGA) and Bowles Rice
LLP among others.