Burning Springs was one of two oil fields in the world prior to the Civil War and the Rathbone Well within Burning Springs is the oldest producing oil well in the world. The Rathbone family mainly owned and operated this oil field until the Oil Boom of 1861 in which over 10,000 people moved to the area in less than a year. In 1863 during the Civil War, the Confederate army burned the town and over 120,000 barrels of oil which drastically hurt the Union. Today, Burning Springs has few inhabitants, but is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and has a small park commemorating the oil industry.
Burning Springs was first inhabited by Native Americans. It
was discovered by Europeans first in 1772 on an expedition of the Little
Kanawha and Ohio Rivers by Jesse and Ellis Hughes and Colonel William Lowther.
In 1792, several people hunting in this area were killed by some of the area
Native Americans. It is recorded that by 1810, several Europeans resided in this
area. There were some schools and churches built around this time.
The first well was drilled in 1832, however, this was an
unsuccessful salt well. John V. Rathbone purchased one hundred acres of land in
this area in 1842. In 1852, another salt well was drilled, but was abandoned
because it contained more oil than salt. Two brothers, J. Cass Rathbone and
John V. Rathbone had been gathering oil from the river for several years and
sold it as medicine. In 1859, they leased the oil-contaminated salt well and
produced 7 40-gallon barrels of oil a day. With the success of this well, the
brothers decided to drill deeper wells for oil in 1860. They drilled 303 feet to find a well
that produced 500 barrels of oil per day. This is the famous Rathbone well. All
sources differ on the production amounts of the wells drilled following this,
but no matter the number, it was an extraordinary amount of oil produced in
When word spread that oil had been found in Burning Springs,
people from all around the United States came to invest in oil. This was the
Oil Boom of 1861. The Rathbone Brothers sold over 70 leases of one acre each
for people to drill on. At its peak prior to the Civil War, some records show
that over 10,000 people lived in the town of Burning Springs. This was much
more than nearby Elizabeth and Parkersburg at the time. In less
than a year, the town of Burning Springs sprang up with several hotels, stores, saloons, machine
shops, oil well supplies, blacksmith shops, and much more. The town ran about a
mile and a half long. People came not only to drill oil, but to cater to oil
boomers, manufacture oil barrels, and transport the oil to Parkersburg, WV. Oil
was transported mainly by the Little Kanawha River.
During the boom, the Civil War was in full swing. On May 9,
1863, Confederate General William Jones and his troops invaded the town of
Burning Springs. Businesses and homes were robbed. Every oil derrick and oil
boat was set on fire along with about 120,000 barrels of oil waiting for
transport. The Little Kanawha River was in flames for miles, destroying house
boats and timber along the shore. The Confederate Army did this to prevent the
United States from collecting the tax from each barrel of oil.
After this disaster at Burning Springs, it was thought that
the oil industry may be over here. However, the Rathbones and some other
families persevered and had more growing success. The Rathbones eventually sold
out in 1865 for $400,000. Hundreds more wells were drilled within the next few
decades. A great deal of oil was still produced at Burning Springs until the late 19th
century. Some oil is still produced today in some remaining wells.
Today and for the past half a century, there are not many
original structures standing due to fires. In 1971, Burning Springs was placed on the
National Register of Historical Places. A park and museum at the location were opened in 2004 and are still in operation today.