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 industry.

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 Public Broadcasting.

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 began.

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 County.

"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 Capitol."

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.