The earliest production of oil as a lubricant has been known for thousands of years but the collection of oil originated from Salt Water wells.
Oil and natural gas are byproducts of the wells that produce salt water. Oil was skimmed from the service of the water in salt wells and sold starting in the early 1800s in the United States. This would only supply a small amount of oil but was not considered a money making business.
On August 28, 1859 George Bissell and Edwin J. Drake made the first successful use of a drilling rig on a well drilled especially to produce oil, at the site on Oil Creek near Titusville, PA. The Drake well is often referred to as the “first” commercial oil well.
The success of the Drake well quickly led to oil drilling in other locations in the western Appalachian mountains, where oil was seeping to the surface, or where salt drillers had previously found oil fouling their salt wells.
Two of these locations in West Virginia were located in Burning Sprints, Wirt County, WV. Burning Springs had gotten it’s name due to natural gas escaping from Salt water wells could be ignited very easily. Volcano, Wood County, WV was another place that was producing oil and natural gas a byproduct from the Salt wells.
William Cooper Stiles, Jr. (the subject of this narrative) was one of the pioneers of West Virginia and Ohio oil fields, and his
connection with the oil producing industry in those states dates back to 1863.
William was born in Philadelphia, PA on July 27th 1839, the son of Henry A. and Elizabeth Gaul Stiles. William met and married Eleanor Magill in September 4, 1861 and in 1863 he invested considerable in test wells near Fifteen Mile Creek, Ohio, but soon returned to Philadelphia poorer and wiser. The following year he came to Volcano, WV, purchased several thousand acres of land and the next year formed the Volcano Oil & Coal Company, which took the most of the land owned by him. It was what was then known as the Volcano sand, but is now known as Salt sand, At that time the operators acted on the theory that oil could only be produced on the creeks and runs, and drilled accordingly. William C. Stiles, Jr. was the first one at Volcano to try drilling elsewhere. His first well so drilled was a disappointment at the start, and after watching it pump water for a few hours he started for home, but before he had gone far his men shouted that the well was making oil. This was true, and it produced several barrels a day. More wells were drilled after this and the sand was found to be regular. This sand produced oil on a regular basis for many years. Since these wells will not produce oil on a regular basis unless there is some sort of a pumping device. At this time William, who had seen power transmitted by means of wire cable, applied it to pumping oil wells. This was done by means of an endless wire cable which is set in motion by a large wheel which carries the oil to the surface. Economically this was not possible unless a system could be developed to run several wells from one power source. This was accomplished by the means of running a cable from a single power source using a series of grooved wheels leading to several wells at the same time. This system of pumping also enables the pumper to pull the tubing and rods, the same as with steam, thus making a well that only pumps a quarter of a barrel a day a paying well. William, at the time of his death had two leases running with this power, one with 45 wells and the other with 33 wells. There were a large number of other leases at Volcano and other fields pumped in this manner, and it has been the salvation of small wells. This system of pumping small oil wells was used as late as 1974
With his success in the oil business William decided to build a mansion suitable for his wife and children.
He spent $60,000 to build a mansion shaped like a Maltese Cross on a hilltop overlooking the hastily built community of Volcano. The three floor mansion had 25 rooms and was surrounded by flower gardens, a wine cellar, a tennis court, stables, a barn and a groundskeeper’s residence. By 1870 the town’s population peaked at 2,300 and included an opera house, post office, bowling alley, two newspapers, several hotels and restaurants, numerous retail shops and hundreds of wood-frame houses.
Tragically, on August 4, 1879, a fire broke out in the basement of Volcano dry goods store.
Whipped by high winds, the fire quickly spread through the compact wooden community, destroying all but a handful of structures. The mansion, known as Thornhill Mansion was one of the few structures spared by the fire. It sat on a hill top overlooking the town thus was not effected by the fire.
William had 6 children as follows:
Edward Magill born September 6, 1862, Robert Gratz born August 20, 2863, Charlotte M. born 1864, Ella Virginia born May 2, 1867, Albert Magill born November 28, 1870 died December 17, 1938, and Samuel Brown born April 7, 1873 died August 27, 1953.
All the children, in some sort participated in the oil business but after the death of William on December 17, 1896 at his beloved home at Thornhill, the operation of the business was taken up by Robert G. and Samuel B. Stiles. Robert worked at the day by day of the operation of the oil fields and Samuel continued as taken care of the financial operation of the business.
Little is known of Robert but Samuel Brown met and married Meigs A. Jackson of Clarksburg on January 22, 1902. Meigs came from a well known prominent family of Harrison County. Meigs was the daughter of Meigs and Martha Bassell Jackson and the great grand daughter of John George and May Sophia Meigs Jackson. There is a named for Samuel B. Stiles, Stiles Steet is located in north Clarksburg. There is also a street name, probably for Mrs. Stiles' father, Meigs Ave. in the Broadoaks section of Clarksburg.
After there marriage Samuel and Meigs moved to Parkersburg where the oil and coal business was headquartered;
Over the following years Thornhill after the death of William in 1896 the mansion and its auxiliary structure soon went into slow, steady decline, hastened by area residents scavenging for building materials during the Great Depression years.
The remains of Thorhill and its outbuildings, along with an assortment of crumbling oil derricks and rusting machinery, lie within the boundaries of Mountwood Park, a 2,600 acre recreational complex and forest reserve managed by Wood County. The mansion grounds can be reached by a two mile hike along a park hiking and biking trail, or by a quarter mile hike up a dirt road from an unmarked parking lot along SR 28, a short distance from a roadside historical marker in the town site of Volcano. The only activity occurring at Thornhill is work preformed by park employees and the Friends of Mountwood. Brush has been removed from the ruins over the past years and archaeological digs have produced some interesting artifacts which can be found in a small museum in the basement of the Mountwood Park’s administration building.
Excavation began in the summer of 2010 with work continuing in the summer of 2011 and 2012. Excavation is supervised by professional archeologists, Dr. Annette Ericksen and another archeologist from Hockng College. There are slots available for volunteers to aid in the archeologist excavations
The hands-on archeology sessions will also raise funds for future excavations at Thornhill and Volcano. Volunteer diggers must register and pay a fee per day. No fees are involved in viewing the excavation as it proceeds, although items will be on sale at the dig site. Participants are asked to pack and bring their own lunches to the site.
More information can be found at the Mountwood Parks administration building or the Mountwood Park Web Site