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Revised Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oil and Gas Museum Opens New Park in Ritchie County

POSTED: October 7, 2008

The Oil and Gas Museum recently opened a new park at California, which is about 27 miles east of Parkersburg on West Virginia 47. The park features a visitors' shelter and the ruins of the California House hotel, where travelers rested on their way to the gold rush in California. The hotel burned in 1901, but its barn still stands. California is the site of one of the worldás first two oil wells.

Staff Writer

CALIFORNIA - If you're traveling down West Virginia 47 near where Wood, Ritchie and Wirt counties meet, or maybe just want to take a look back in time, then California is the place you ought to be.

California, is located about 27 miles east of Parkersburg and just east of Freeport. It is named for the once famous California House, the ruins of which is in the park.

The Oil and Gas Museum recently opened a new park at the site. The park boasts a shelter for visitors to stop and take a rest when traveling along W.Va. 47. The shelter has tables for sitting as well as an explanation of the area's history and maps.

Beside the shelter is a footpath which runs to the California House, or at least its ruins. The house itself is gone, but its foundation still stands, as does the barn where 19th-century travelers put up their horses for the night.

Besides the historical significance of the California House, California is the site of one of the world's first two oil wells (the other is the more famous Drake well in Pennsylvania). Oil and Gas Museum director Dave McKain said California is an important historical gem.

"This is an extension of the Oil and Gas Museum. The most important relic is the Rathbone well at Burning Springs, it's the oldest producing well in the world. But, the earliest story is here in California," McKain said.

The California House was built in 1851 and served as a hotel for weary travelers. The hotel sat along the Parkersburg-Staunton Turnpike, the remains of sections can still be seen in the park. The road was built to connect the Shennandoah Valley in Virginia with the Ohio Valley and all points west. As the first actual road through the central Appalachians, many of those settling the American West traveled the winding path.

The California House burned in 1901, McKain said.

"We know it was two stories, had a 24-foot-by-24-foot cellar and two porches with pillars. I hope somebody can prove me wrong on this, but as far as we know, there are no surviving pictures of the hotel," he said.

Bushrod Washington Creel named his hotel the California House because of the onrush of customers stopping while traveling to California in hopes of finding gold. Creel's true gold, however, was black - he developed the oil field in California.

Oil production in California dates to the early 1800s and is documented as being used to lubricate machinery in Cincinnati as early as 1819. At that time, crude oil bubbled to the surface and those selling it commercially simply dug trenches to collect it.

A water well also produced oil in the early 1850s. It was commercially drilled in the summer of 1859.

George Lemon drilled the first oil-producing well in the area in 1852, but he was drilling for brine, from which he planned to extract salt for sale. That's not considered the world's first oil well, however, as Lemon hadn't been speculating for oil. He developed a process for separating the oil from the brine, making it a successful oil-producing venture, however.

The oil was bubbling from the ground and all Lemon had to do was scoop it up from hand-dug trenches.

Just a few hundred yards from where the park stands today, Charles Shattuck began drilling a well, specifically targeting oil at the same time Col. E.L. Drake was drilling what is considered to be the first oil well in Pennsylvania. The well was completed in Oct. 1859.

"When Drake was drilling in Pennsylvania, Shattuck was drilling right here," McKain said.

The year after Shattuck drilled his well, Jacob Blair, struck a major gusher of black gold in California, starting an oil boom.

That first oil boom would be cut short, however, by the Civil War. Confederate guerrillas based in Big Bend along the Little Kanawha River, struck at their leisure. In 1863, a major Confederate raid tore through the area and burned the Burning Springs oil field.

The land was donated to the museum by George Grow, and McKain developed the park with the aid of Robert Lowe, Roy Copen, William Stutler and Gary Jones.

Contact Dave Payne Sr. at dpayne@newsandsentinel.com.

Oil & Gas Museum
P.O. Box 1685
119 Third Street
Parkersburg, West Virginia 26101


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