PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - When visitors enter the Oil and Gas Museum, they will find themselves stepping out of the 21st century and into a pre-Civil War era.
Though the East Coast’s first oil well was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Parkersburg historians agree that the oil movement began 245 miles south - on West Virginia soil.
Upon entering the museum’s video chamber, visitors view a short documentary about the Mountain State’s history and impact of the oil industry. Museum founder Dave McKain, the late author and Parkersburg historian, narrates the story.
J.C. Rathbone, who would later become a prominent figure in the oil industry, began digging for salt in 1849 and soon discovered a reserve of oil instead. In an era where producing kerosene from coal had become too expensive, companies began using oil for cheaper manufacturing.
The year 1861 brought a rush of population to western Virginia as Wirt County began leasing sections of property to oil drillers from across the country. But those who could afford the $1,000 lease, mostly doctors and lawyers, had no means of crating the oil they exposed.
At one point, ironbound barrels were used to dam oil that flowed into a West Virginia creek to prevent it from flowing further.
With the promise of one-third of the oil’s profit, 10 leases at $1,000 each, the Rathbone family was cashing in an income of $10,000 daily.
Then the Civil War began.
The economic-boosting wells became the target of a mass torching from the Confederate soldiers, whose lack of knowledge on oil flammability quickly led to their demise. At the end of the burning, 20,000 barrels were lost.
A need to protect the western portion of the state’s economy, citizens and progressive elimination of slavery soon provoked a Union judge and later congressman Jacob Beeson Blair’s visit to the White House.
To preserve the proposed statehood for West Virginia, Blair entered Lincoln’s office through a window on the first floor and convinced him to consider the matter further. By January 1, 1863, West Virginia was admitted to the Union.
“If Blair had not visited D.C., West Virginia wouldn’t be,” McKain concludes.
At the end of the war, oil drillers returned to the region, but it wasn’t until the late 1880s that the art of deep-well drilling was exposed. In the early 1890s, a new boom was underway.
In the next 30 years, The New York Herald reported a vast $60 million profit for the West Virginia oil industry; approximately $5 billion to $6 billion today.
As the industry continued, oil remained a renowned aspect of the newfound state - even West Virginia’s first governor, Parkersburg native Arthur Boreman, had heritage with the oil industry.
This summer, the Oil and Gas Museum debuted an exhibit on an additional prominent Parkersburg industry: cycolac production.
The Borg Warner Chemicals plant, known for producing an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic, employed 4,000 internationally. Approximately 2,000 were employed at the Parkersburg location, which became the headquarters.
Artifacts inside the exhibit include a factory lab, various hardhats, hot plate stirrers and pouches of pellets manufactured inside the plant.
Paul Hoblitzell, president of the museum, was employed by Borg Warner for 13 years.
“I was in central engineering and I was in maintenance the last few years I was there,” Hoblitzell said.
Following the plant’s management transition to General Electric in 2007, the plant was then sold to SABIC where it closed two years later. Hoblitzell said he was approached by Borg Warner retirees who wished to install a new exhibit to preserve their company’s heritage.
“They put this together to save some of the SABIC material since it was closing here and being torn down,” Hoblitzell said. “They’d like to put together a display somewhere that depicts how cycolac is made just as educational reference. It was more of a structural plastic.”
The plastic was sold and distributed in pellet-form with customized colors, Hoblitzell explained. RCA and Western Electric became the first buyers of the products, using the plastic for constructing radios and telephones.
Hoblitzell pointed to a world map dotted with red gemstones displaying each of the Borg Warner plants.
“I suppose the standout is that they were a local company that went worldwide to become the largest producer of ABS plastic in the world,” Hoblitzell said.
Hoblitzell said he hoped visitors exited the exhibit with further knowledge on a major piece of Parkersburg history.
“The purpose of this exhibit is for preservation and education,” Hoblitzell said.
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, https://www.charlestondailymail.com
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