There was Oil in Them Thar Fields|
August 05, 2013
A couple of interesting small towns south and west of Charleston, W.Va., caught my attention for this month. I became intrigued by a note in my collection from the Oil Field National Bank of Griffithsville, W.Va. I had no idea that West Virginia had been an oil producer, and decided that would be a worthwhile basis for one of these articles. So let’s journey to the Mountaineer State and check out not only Griffithsville, but also nearby St. Albans.
We will start with St. Albans, a city of 12,000 located in Kanawha County, W.Va., at the confluence of the Kanawha and Coal rivers. It is easily reached via Interstate 64 and U.S. Route 60, west of Charleston, the state capital. I learned that St. Albans was not really involved with West Virginia’s short-lived oil boom, but it was on the way to Griffithsville.
Fort Tackett once stood near St. Albans. Fort Tackett was built in 1786 on land that originally belonged to George Washington and deeded to him for his service in the French and Indian War, and named for the first white child born in the Kanawha Valley.
The James River & Kanawha Turnpike passed through St. Albans and many inns were established. A covered bridge once crossed the Coal River, but was burnt during the Confederate retreat during the following the Battle of Scary Creek in 1861. Eleven locks and dams were constructed on the Coal River in 1855 and continued until after the Civil War.
St. Albans has also gone by the names of Ft. Tackett, Coalsmouth, Phillipi, Village of Jefferson and the Village of Kanawha City. It was incorporated in 1872 and was named St. Albans by the chief counsel of the C & O railroad, H.C. Parsons, in honor of his hometown in Vermont. The town became prosperous in the early 1900s due to the numerous sawmills in the town and the shipping of coal on the railroads. With that prosperity came the founding of the town’s only national bank.
The First National Bank of St. Albans, W.Va., was organized at the very end of 1909 and received charter 9640. It operated for 23 years until it was closed by the receiver in December 1933 for mismanagement. During the two decades of operations, it was never a large bank, with a total issue of $337,000. It left $19,000 outstanding at close, with just $250 of that number in large-size notes.
Notes from this bank are just plain hard to find. Just a single large note is known, with two uncut sheets and five individual small notes reported. The uncut sheets are the Type 2 serial No. 1 sheets of the $10 and $20 denominations. These have never been cut and are unlikely to be cut, leaving a mere five small notes available to collectors. These are rarely available. I was fortunate enough to purchase a small-size $10 note on this bank at the Florida United Numismatists show about 10 years back, and was lucky to get it, as I have not seen others for sale.
The old First National Bank building still stands in St. Albans today. I have included a 1925 postcard view of the building, then housing both the bank and the U.S. post office, as well as a view of the building as it appears today, little changed and quite impressive.
The story of oil drilling in West Virginia is an interesting one. It actually began as an outgrowth of the salt industry. In the early 1800s, oil and gas had no importance, and though salt makers frequently hit oil or gas in their drilling, they considered it a nuisance. In fact, so much oil was diverted to the Kanawha River by salt manufactures that it was long known as “Old Greasy” to the boatmen.
Gas was first struck in a well drilled for salt at Charleston in 1815. Once the value of oil and gas was realized, the Great Kanawha Valley region became a pioneer in the discovery of petroleum by boring and in the use of oil and gas on a commercial scale.
On the Little Kanawha River, near the Hughes River, was a stream called Burning Springs Run, named because there were two springs at its mouth from which natural gas escaped. As early as 1781, Thomas Jefferson described the brilliant flame that could be produced by thrusting a lighted candle into the escaping gas at this site. Because gas and salt brine were often associated, the Rathbone brothers bored a salt well near these springs. However, at a depth of 200 feet they hit petroleum. Although petroleum was not the treasure that the Rathbones sought, they were encouraged by their find and drilled a second well that yielded 1,200 barrels of petroleum daily in 1859.
News of the Rathbone brothers’ discovery spread rapidly and created tremendous excitement. By 1861, a town with several thousand inhabitants had sprung up. All of the light in the newly formed town, including that for a brilliantly lit hotel, was provided by natural gas. The widespread use of gas in this town marked the beginning of the era of gas development in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were being floated down the river to Parkersburg where they were then sent to other cities by rail or river. The Burning Springs oil field was one of only two oil fields in America prior to the Civil War. But by 1876, there were 292 wells in the state, producing a total of 900 barrels daily.
The Volcano oil field was discovered in 1860, and the heavy lubricants produced led to the development of West Virginia’s first oil pipeline, from Volcano to Parkersburg, in 1879. Also at Volcano, in 1874, W.C. Stiles, Jr., invented the “endless wire” method of pumping many wells from a central engine. Using wheels, belts, and cables, perhaps as many as 40 wells could be pumped by one engine. In 1889, large iron pipes were inserted to prevent clogging of the wells by crumbling walls, and with this discovery much deeper wells could be drilled. With the discovery of deeper oil sands, the Doll’s Run, Eureka, Mannington, and Sistersville fields were found and developed.
Thus, from its early beginnings at Burning Springs in 1859, the oil industry in West Virginia grew to reach its peak production of 16 million barrels in 1900. Although the oil industry then started a decline, natural gas production was growing. From 1906 to 1917 West Virginia was the leader in gas production in the United States.
Griffithsville, W.Va., was located at the southern end of the oil fields, in Lincoln County, about 17 miles as the crow flies south of St. Albans, and about nine miles east of the county seat, Hamlin. During the period from 1905-1925, Griffithsville was a small boom town, with continuous oil drilling and the increased population associated with it. This prosperity led to the founding of a national bank.
The Oil Field National Bank of Griffithsville received charter 10097 in October 1911. It was one of just three national banks nationwide to have an oil related title. (The others are the Oil Belt National Bank of Oblong, Ill., and the Oilfields National Bank of Brea, Calif.) The bank issued $444,000 in large- and small-size notes, of which eight large and 10 small are currently known.
I wish I could relate to you all sorts of interesting information about Griffithsville, but sadly, not only is there virtually nothing available about its history, but also there is virtually nothing left of the town. Griffithsville was clearly boom and bust, framed by the rise and fall of local oil production. A vintage postcard view, accompanying this article, shows oil pipes and drilling equipment being hauled through town, circa 1920. Not a single building or house shown in that postcard view remains today.
Griffithsville, or what is left of it, is located on State Route 3 as it winds its way north toward Hamlin, the seat of Lincoln County. This is an incredibly sparsely populated subdivision with just 22,000 residing in the entire county. As the oil fields dried up and closed down, Griffithsville just melted away. It is just a speck on a map today; Lincoln County has used some of the more than available land just south of the “town” to build the Lincoln County Middle School.
Griffithsville itself is nothing more than two buildings: the modern corrugated-tin roofed post office, and the abandoned Oil Field National Bank building, the only masonry building ever erected in this town. It stands gaunt and boarded up next to the post office. There are no other commercial buildings of any kind, nor even a cluster of homes that would resemble a town, though there are residences scattered willy-nilly in the area.
I have included a photo that shows all that is currently left of Griffithsville. The bank building still proudly boasts the name “OIL FIELD NATIONAL BANK” engraved on the façade. If it weren’t for this, no visitor would ever know that oil was once king in the area.
As you know, an abandoned national bank in a non-existent town is what excites me about national currency. I was delighted to add a large note from this bank to my collection, and even more thrilled to see the derelict vacant building from which it emanated.
I hope your summer will be one of relaxation and serenity, and that you can fill some winsome hours studying your own National Bank Notes and their history.
Readers may address questions or comments about this article or National Bank Notes in general to Mark Hotz directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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