City a bustling place in 1864

Think back 150 years ago to 1864, make it March. Your town is swamped with thousands of transient men in uniform. If you work downtown, and most did, you could leave your place of employment and meet and greet your U.S. Senator, P. G. Van Winkle, coming out of his office on third street. Think of it, you live in a town of four to five thousand people and you can personally rub shoulders with your senator. Further, if you have a good day, you can walk a few more steps and shake hands with your governor, A. I. Boreman, who also has his law office downtown. And then that evening you might be invited to a political meeting at the courthouse with your state’s congressman, Jacob Beeson Blair, who convinced President Lincoln to sign the statehood bill. And he might be meeting with the West Virginia Commissioner of Immigration, J. H. Diss Debar, who just designed the new West Virginia state seal, along with the honorable federal Judge John J. Jackson, who lives out the pike below Fort Logan.

It also wouldn’t be unusual for you to rub shoulders with important politicians passing through and staying at one of several hotels. The Swann being most important and a new hotel was built at the point, across from the train terminal on Kanawha Street. If you were here for legal reasons needing to be at the courthouse, then you would stay at the U. S. Hotel, one of the oldest in town. For old-timers, that was the Stratford Hotel on Court Square.

There were also a number of ranking military men coming through the town because the railroad had no bridge, meaning all passengers had get off the train and wait for a ferry and favorable river levels to cross the river. Then the passengers were picked up by the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad on their way west to Cincinnati. Celebrities that we know were here were future President James Garfield and future President Rutherford Hayes. Garfield had been here in the beginnings of the oil industry at Burning Springs. Hayes came through on numerous occasions while in the Army because he was from Delaware, Ohio. Also because of the important politicians living here, there would have been many important people coming here asking for favors. So, if you paid attention, you could meet with some important persons particularly at the Swann House Tavern, where many national businessman and politicians met.

On the military side, Fort Boreman was now mostly completed, fortified with cannon and staffed. But guerillas at Burning Springs and California, out on the Staunton Turnpike, were still there and always a potential problem, even though they were less organized than previously.

The Union Army was also active trying to round up the guerillas. While their activities had subsided in 1864, they were still a problem and created continuing turmoil. Here is an article carried in the Wheeling Intelligencer on February 1864: “Capture of a Gang of Bushwhackers. We learn from Sen. W. D. Roll-on, that a few days ago a scouting party from the 10th West Virginia Infantry came upon a gang of bushwhackers in Webster County, and captured the celebrated Dan Dusky, P. B. Adams, formerly a lawyer in Braxton County, Dick Cunningham and 15 others. The thieves are expected to arrive here (Wheeling) daily.”

The next day they reported – “The same old Cuss Dan Dusky, (from Calhoun County) bushwhacker, who was captured the other day in Webster county, by a squad of men from the 109thWest Virginia Infantry, is the same old ‘cuss’ who was tried by the Federal Court (Judge Jackson) in this city for robbing the mail and sentenced to the United States Penitentiary in Washington about two years ago, and who was afterwards released and for some decent Union man confined in the penitentiary at Richmond. He is a most pestiferous old scoundrel, and we hope that he will not again be permitted to escape the clutches of our authorities.”

The oil industry certainly took a backseat to politics and the war during this period, but the industry was not dead as revealed by this article in the Marietta Home News, dated Mar. 20, 1863:

“Good Luck. – The next best thing to being lucky yourself is to have your friends in luck. This is our fix. We therefore rejoice to announce, that our friends Buell & Bro., Dr. F. Regnier, W. H. Gurley, L. W. Repart and Israel Waters have met with glorious success in their search after the coveted carbon. – They struck oil in their well, on the Rathbone place on the Little Kanawha, last week, at a depth of 190 feet. The oil stands 60 feet deep in the tube, and competent judges pronounce it a hundred and fifty barrel well.

We hear that oil is offered at the wells up Kanawha for 8 cents per gallon. Over 5000 barrels arrived at Parkersburg last week, the high water enabling the boats to come over the dams.”

This exciting event occurred just days before the Jones raiders burned the Burning Springs oilfield, and this well probably was one of it casualties.

About a year later, March 1864, the Parkersburg Gazette reported: “Last week, on Bull creek (in Pleasant County), a well was struck that yields from 600 to 2,000 barrels a day. Rightly managed, it will soon make the owners millionaires. Judge Jackson sold his interest in a well on Saturday last, which cost him $250 for $1,000 and was laughed at. The fact is the product of oil around is only in its infancy. It will yet be brought forth in millions of gallons per day, and the demand for export and domestic consumption will be fully equal to the supply.”

If they could see the activity in West Virginia today, with the new technology they would see how prophetic they were in 1864.

One of my local critics made the comment the other day about my Civil War columns and quipped “I can’t wait to find out who wins the war.” Be patient, friend, we will get there. President Lincoln found General Grant. Another hint, the Union had a huge manpower pool to work with.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave McKain is director of the Oil and Gas Museum and is chairman of the area Civil War Roundtable which is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Contact him at