When Oil was Big Business in W. Virginia

Morgantown Dominion Post
18 May 2013

ALTHOUGH COAL and natural gas are big business in West Virginia now, there was a time when the oil industry was considered to be better managed.

There were, of course, gripes about certain aspects of oil drilling, not unlike complaints about coal and gas retrieval today.

Early in the 20th century, historian James M. Callahan Sr. wrote that “coal waste in the state would build 10 universities” the size of one (Chicago University) built by oil profits in the late 19th century.

Most complaints about oil production, which began about 1890, concerned the destruction of roads and the movement of farmers to urban areas.

Yet, in 1893, the Sistersville oil field was considered the “greatest producing oil field in the world.” That oil field, and particularly a well called Pole Cat, was opened the winter of 1891-’92.

Much of the oil produced there was transported by pipeline to Morgantown and the tank field we write about so much, then located south of the city (now White Park).

Sistersville, in Tyler County on the Ohio River, was established in 1814 as a county seat. In 1816, the county seat was moved to Middlebourne, which is more centrally located.

First known as Wells Landing, after landowner Charles Wells, Sistersville was established by his daughters Delilah Wells Grier and Sarah Wells McCoy.

Charles Wells is another story, his family leaving its mark at Wellsville, Ohio, and Wellsburg, W.Va.

He and his first wife had 10 children. He had 12 more with his second wife. The 20th child was named Twenty Wells and the 21st was named Plenty Wells.

Sistersville, on the east side of the Ohio River, has for some time had a ferry crossing, since the closest bridges are 12 miles north and south of the city, which now has about 1,900 residents.

Back in the 1890s, when the major oil well was discovered, Sistersville’s population grew practically overnight from 300 inhabitants to 15,000 oil people, including drillers and speculators.

In addition to pipelines, oil was delivered to markets by river barges and railroad cars. The oil pipeline from Sistersville to Morgantown began operation in 1892. There were more than 50 tanks south of Morgantown into which the crude oil was pumped for temporary storage.

West Virginia’s oil production began to decline between 1901 and 1907. There was an increase from 1905 to 1913. New discoveries kept production up for a few years after that.

During the oil boom, farmland in the state was ignored, as were country homes, rural churches and schools.

Except for the people who had worked in the oil tank field, most of us recall the destruction of the tanks and the use of the field for cattle and blackberry picking.

The first summer my family moved to 1st Ward, two oil tanks about 100 yards from our home were struck by lightning.

There were balls of black smoke in addition to flames, and burning oil running toward Cobun Creek. Firefighters mainly hosed down a nearby home to keep it from catching fire. Luckily, only one side’s paint was singed by the heat, which we could feel.

As for waste from oil production, our first thoughts were to a lake of oil that was between Cobun Creek and the city reservoir.

A few years ago, Gordon Williamson, who worked on the pipeline, explained to me that oil was pumped from the bottom of the tanks and sent into separators.
I guess it may have been Sistersville oil.

JOHN SAMSELL is a retired copy editor/special sections editor for The Dominion Post. His column appears Saturday. Email him at columns@dominionpost.com.