The Elk Refinery
The Elk Refinery is a forgotten piece of West Virginia history tucked away on the South bank of the Elk River in Falling Rock, about three miles downstream from the town of Clendenin. The refinery's history spans six decades, and over that time the site has seen dramatic changes. Initially, the location was home to a distillation plant supported by a local cannel coal mining operation. However, following the discovery of the Blue Creek oilfield in the 1910s, Harry A. Logan and Fredrick G. Bannerot, Sr. of Pennsylvania chartered the Elk Refining Company and opened the Elk Refinery in 1913. The plant operated continuously until its closure in 1982.
Backstory and Context
Harry A. Logan and Fredrick Bannerot got their start in the oil business in Warrenton, Pennsylvania where they both had a controlling interest in a plant known as the United Refining Company. In the years 1911 and 1912 the Blue Creek Oilfield was developed along the Elk River, and the surrounding area saw a massive economic boom. Logan and Bannerot may have gotten their start in Pennsylvania, but it was in the Elk River Valley where they would start their oil enterprise. They chartered the Elk Refining Company in 1913, and decided to open an oil refinery in the midst of an Elk River oil boom. Elk Refining Company was one of the first four companies to work the Bluecreek Field, with the refinery located upriver in Falling Rock.3 Logan and Bannerot purchased the land from J.B. Weir, a descendant of the Weir family that bought and operated the cannel coal refinery.4
Two pipelines that went in both directions up and down the river fed oil to the refinery for processing. Initially, the plant produced oil-based products, but by the 1930s the refinery had taken part in the growing gasoline business, producing the fuel for Keystone. The grandson of Fredrick Bannerot later said that:
“we practically had every mom-and-pop grocery store in the state with a Keystone pump out front.” 5
During the Second World War, the plant added a polymerization unit, and by the 1950s it was capable of producing explosives, plastics, and synthetic rubber.6 In 1952, Harry A. Logan sold his interests in the company to the South Penn Oil Company (later to be known as Pennzoil). At the refinery's peak, it was producing 5,000 barrels of crude oil a day processed by the plant's 160 employees. By 1965, Bannerot's son followed the same path of his father's former business partner and sold his interests to Pennzoil, giving complete control over the refinery to the larger company.
In the early 1980s, production at the refinery had dropped significantly to 500-600 barrels a day of crude oil. This drop in output, along with the hefty cost of $15-20 million in expenses related to modernizing, caused Pennzoil to close the refinery in 1982 and shift most of the production to their facility at Ashland, Kentucky. Robert Harper, a spokesman for Pennzoil, said this about closing the refinery:
“It really has to do with the fact that it’s a very old refinery, we had conducted a study to determine what it would cost to upgrade the refinery, and it's not feasible.”5
The plant's closure marked the beginning of a significant economic slide for the nearby town of Clendenin, leaving an industrial vacuum that still has not been filled.
Traveling to the town of Falling Rock today, one can see remnants of the Elk Refinery on the far side of the Elk River. With no work being done to preserve the site, all that remains is an area covered with a few abandoned buildings and debris. However, the most prominent feature is a smokestack that can be seen by drivers on Route 119 from the other side of the river. There is no nearby bridge to the old site. To access it requires traveling to Clendenin and then heading back down on the other side of Elk River to reach the former refinery site.
2. B&O Charleston Division Part I. WVNC Rails. . Accessed April 04, 2018. https://www.wvncrails.org/bo-charleston-division-part-i--charleston-to-blue-creek.html.
3. McKain, David. Allen, Bernard. Where it all Began: The Story of the People and Places Where the Oil & Gas Industry Began: West Virginia and Southeastern Ohio. Parkersburg, WV. 1994.
4. Blue Creek Historical Society. Elk River Communities in Kanawha County. Vol. II. Charleston, WV. Chapman Printing Company, 1999.
5. Maurice, Johanna. "Pennzoil To Close The Elk Refinery; 129 Workers Will Be Affected." Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston) August 12, 1982.
6. "Brilliant New Performance From New Platinum Treated Keystone Gasoline." Beckley Post Herald (Beckley) February 06, 1953. 2018https://www.newspapers.com/image/15731160