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History of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a center of trade and industry for well over 200 years, grew out of the roots of a permanent settlement established by Captain James Neal, a veteran of Lord Dunmore’s War and the Revolutionary War.  Captain Alexander Parker purchased the land in 1783.  The settlement was first surveyed in 1796 as Springfield.  In 1810, Parkersburg was resurveyed and renamed as Parkersburg—in honor of Capt. Parker.
In the years before the Civil War, Parkersburg became the terminal point of two state pikes, the Northwestern Turnpike, completed in 1838, and the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, finished in 1847.
In 1857, the B & O Railroad completed its southern trunk, the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, through Wood County* to its seat at Parkersburg, on the Ohio River.
The Ohio River, called La Belle Riviere (the beautiful river) in French, derives its name from an Iroquois word meaning “good river” or “large river.”  The Ohio flows generally along a southwesterly 981-mile journey from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Illinois, where its water flows into the Mississippi River.
The Ohio River is the largest tributary of the Mississippi River—the longest in North America.
About two miles south of Parkersburg, the Ohio flows around Blennerhassett Island, named for Harman Blennerhassett, who purchased the north end of the island in 1798.  Harman Blennerhassett and Aaron Burr are alleged to have plotted treason against the United States, the so-called Burr Conspiracy.
The island is the site of Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park and the location of Blennerhassett House.  While the original mansion burned to the ground long ago, a detailed replica, which can be toured, has been built on its foundation.
One may easily visit the park and mansion by traveling via sternwheeler from Point Park on 2nd Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  The name of the park has apparently changed since 1941.  That year’s edition of West Virginia, A Guide to the Mountain State, recalls that “The POINT, at the confluence of the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, now occupied by Murphy Park, a tiny strip of green with a walk and benches, was the scene of the first settlement and activities on the site of Parkersburg.  Washington stopped here on his trip down the Ohio in 1770.  Prior to 1800, the first cabins of Stokelyville were built near here.  The public landing for packets and flatboats was on the Point, a scene of lively activity during the early days of westward migration on the Ohio River.”
The nineteenth-century-style riverboat, with an absence of old-style steam power, makes regular departures from its dock near the Point.  Public excursions are available from May 1 through the last weekend of October on a varying schedule.  For a schedule of departure times, with transportation and admissions fees, contact Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, 137 Juliana Street, Parkersburg, WV 26101 at 304-420-4800 or toll-free 1-800-CALL WVA.
The ride down this West Virginia river takes about 20 minutes.
The return trip may take a little longer, considering that the boat is then wheeling against the river current.
If the Captain of the Spirit courteously decides to idle his vessel out of the way to wait for a riverboat to push its long train of barges by, the trip will take even longer.
But that's great for then he has more time to spend with important passengers.
Their parents may purchase tickets for the exciting excursion at the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History, which operates in conjunction with the state park on the island; and all the pertinent information on the escape to an island with a mysterious history can be acquired there.
The museum is located two blocks from the riverboat landing at the corner of 2nd and Juliana Streets.
This was due to the drilling of West Virginia’s first oil wells, along the Hughes and Little Kanawha Rivers, in 1859-60, and the subsequent development of the rich Burning Springs field.  It takes its name from the natural gas which bubbled up through the springs and would burn when exposed to fire. Other wells drilled here to produce salt water actually produced oil as much as twenty years earlier, making the much touted 1859 well at Titusville, Pennsylvania a late comer to oil production.  In the mad rush for black gold, Parkersburg prospered as the nearest point for their supplies and shipments.
The first white explorers in western Virginia discovered oil and gas deposits, but the first prominent petroleum and natural gas speculator was apparently George Washington—who acquired 250 acres in 1771 in what is now West Virginia because of its oil and gas springs.  The oil industry here began to thrive after 1819, but the first major wells were drilled at Petroleum and California in 1859.  A year later oil drilling began in Burning Springs.

Wells dug to a depth of 100 feet produced gushers of oil selling for $30.00 a barrel, and the sales produced very wealthy oil barons—governor, senators, and congressmen who had their money sunk into the Burning Springs oil wells in 1860 and 1861.  These monetary interests of these important men were the catalyst for the drive for West Virginia statehood.

General Jones and his Confederate raiders destroyed the important burning Springs oil fields during the Civil War.  After this terrible conflict between the States, which cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, the industry came back alive and well and spread throughout West Virginia
A few steps up the sidewalk to third street stands the Oil and Gas Museum, with numerous mementos, artifacts from Parkersburg's heritage, from the oil and gas industry that made the town begin to grow and prosper rapidly, just before the beginning of the Civil War. 
Above and below, we see photographs lifted from the November 1907 issue of Mines and Minerals of oil well equipment that probably mimics much of that used in West Virginia in the nineteenth century.  This type of was equipment was illustrated with an article on the oil field on the Robert Underwood farm located on Buffalo, Creek about four miles from the Ohio River.
The lettering on the photographs of the side and rear of the nitroglycerine wagon is explained in detail in the article, but I will save the long feature for a separate Web page.
Let it suffice for me here to say that in the third picture, of the exploding Demetrius Brady Oil Well No. 3, 80 quarts of nitroglycerine created the discharge.

“When the condition of the weather permits, a goodly number of men, women, and children camp out in the woods in the neighborhood of the well during the day of the ‘shooting’ so as to be ‘on the spot’ to witness the work,” wrote the Editor.

“The ‘shooter’ in the Brooke County district is Mr. James Kane, of Jewett Ohio, who has been engaged in this business for over 12 years.  The fatalities among the men doing this work are numerous.  Their demise is very sudden, and the formality of a burial permit is not needed.  In fact, there is seldom anything found of the remains of the man, team, or wagon, as the explosion is very effective and funeral expenses are not necessary.”
“While the job is not a very jovial one,” he added, yet the artist soon gets used to assuming the risk and does the work of course to earn a living, just as thousands of others are working every day under deadly conditions [as in coal fields].  In most of these latter cases, however, it is entirely possible for an industrial betterment of conditions that will prevent such a large loss of life [like the Monongah coal mine explosion in the same year].”
Oil and gas are still produced in West Virginia, and some remnants of its heyday remain in the Parkersburg today.
One of the city's oil wells, illustrated above, still stands along its floodwall.
However, much of the surviving equipment from its energy-producing days rests idle at its Oil and Gas Museum on Third Street.
The Parkersburg Rig & Reel Company was one of the most prominent companies producing such oil field equipment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Back in 1896, the company was organized and began manufacturing oil field equipment, and eventually produced a variety of steel derricks and steel crown blocks, chain driven sand reels and bailing reels, rigs, rig irons, portable drilling machines, bolted steel tanks, and other drilling equipment.
Below we see one of the remaining products manufactured by the Parkersburg Rig & Reel Company in the early twentieth century.
The ten-foot handmade wood and metal bandwheel pumped several oil well pumps at one time on Burning Springs Run—along Route 5, a few miles from Elizabeth, West Virginia.
The Company's products eventually worked their way into petroleum producing centers throughout the world.
Its Parkersburg plant, once one of the largest in the world, was located at 620 Depot Street, near the Main Line B & O Railroad Station.
Nevertheless, returning now to the Parkersburg Rig and Reel Company, we find that before becoming Parmac, Inc., a subsidiary of Maloney Crawford Tank Corp, in 1966, six hundred persons busied themselves in its long, low rambling, multi-windowed factory that covered nearly two blocks beside the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, a vital artery for commercial growth in the northeastern half of the United States since the American Civil War.
Nevertheless, returning now to the Parkersburg Rig and Reel Company, we find that before becoming Parmac, Inc., a subsidiary of Maloney Crawford Tank Corp, in 1966, six hundred persons busied themselves in its long, low rambling, multi-windowed factory that covered nearly two blocks beside the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, a vital artery for commercial growth in the northeastern half of the United States since the American Civil War.
That's when, in July 1863, members of the 15th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Colonel William Wallace, guarded the Blennerhassett Island ford at the lower end of the island during the famous raid into Ohio by Confederate forces under John Hunt Morgan.  However, the anticipated crossing never materialized.
At the same time, the Union was manning Fort Boreman on Mount Logan, a nearby hill overlooking the junction of the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, two turnpikes, and the B & O Railroad, to prevent the Confederate troops from interrupting those vital arteries transporting troops and equipment for the Northern war effort.  Our 1941 West Virginia Guide to the Mountain State describes the park located there under a different name than it brandishes now.
It states: “NEMESIS PARK, on the summit of a hill, originally known as Mount Logan, just south of the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, occupies the site of Fort Boreman, erected in 1863 to protect the city from Confederate invasion.
“The park, landscaped and developed as a public area, is owned by the Shriners but is open to the public during summer months.  From the winding drive that encircles the hill, there is an excellent view of Parkersburg, Blennerhassett Island, and the surrounding country.  After the war, the fort was converted into a private residence and stood until 1916 when it was destroyed by fire.  The last public hangings in Wood County, those of two murderers, Crogan and Boice, were held on this hill in 1866.  A large white oak tree used for the hangings is on the south slope of the hill.”
According to one of the informational plaques at Fort Boreman, this is not correct.  It states:  “Just to the left of this entry road to Fort Boreman Park is the site of the infamous 1867 hangings.  Three men, Daniel Grogan, Thomas Boice, and Mortimer-Gibbony, were convicted for the murder of Abram Deem, a well-respected Wood County farmer who was a Confederate sympathizer.  Though local lore credits a notorious ‘hanging tree’ as the gallows, the men were actually hanged from a scaffold.”**
The north slope of Fort Boreman overlooked a large bend in the Ohio River.
No other location in the Mid-Ohio Valley, then as today, commands such a wide-ranging view of its commercial activity.  Fort Boreman was a natural citadel for governing river traffic.
During the Civil War, tens of thousands of Union soldiers passed through Parkersburg.
“In May, 1861, the dashing but inept General George B. McClellan sent his troops across the Ohio through Wheeling and Parkersburg,” states the authors of Parkersburg: An Early Portrait.  “On May 26th, the general and his staff crossed the river at Parkersburg on their way to Grafton, where McClellan took command of Federal operations. In the fall of the same year, the Twenty-third Illinois Volunteers under Colonel James Mulligan came through Parkesburg on their way to join the Union forces in Southeastern Virginia.  They made camp on Quincy Hill before moving on.”
The Union forces were serviced by five Parkersburg military hospitals as well as a supply depot and commissary.
No bridges existed at Parkersburg at the time.  From 1857 t0 1860, cars of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad (B & O) and the Marietta-Cincinnati Railroad had to be uncoupled, ferried across the Ohio River, and reassembled on the other side.
The lengthy and cumbersome operation ceased when the B & O Railroad Bridge across the Ohio River was completed in 1871.
Cargo then moved as swiftly by rail on the B & O through Parkersburg and Belpre as it still does today on the CSX.
The first stone of the B & O Railroad bridge across the Ohio River at Parkersburg was laid on July 9, 1869, and it was opened and ready for passage of trains on January 7, 1871.
The spans of the high-level bridge cover 4397 feet on its way over Parkersburg, the Ohio River, and Belpre.  This magnificent engineering feat ran for 7140 feet, and at the time it was built, it was the longest bridge of its kind in the world.
After the completion of the Parkersburg B & O Bridge connection, the railroad lines east and west were more closely knit, but their gauges did not match.  Therefore, the gauge of the western lines, which formerly had been four feet, nine and a half inches, was changed to the standard*** four feet, eight and a half inches of the eastern lines.
Today, this is the standard gauge of practically every mile of railroad here in the United States.
The B & O tracks completely sever historic Belpre, Ohio, the second oldest permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory.  Members of the Ohio Company of Associates settled on the Belpre, short for Belle Prairie, in 1789.  The meadow was actually surveyed as "Belle Prairie," French for “beautiful meadow.”  The quaint little settlement still adorns that old prairie across the Ohio River from Parkersburg today.

*Wood County was created in 1799 when it was taken from Virginia’s Harrison County, covering 1,223 square miles that included all the islands in the Ohio River along its 60 miles of shoreline. Later, Wood County relinquished much of its territory to other newly-formed counties, and now it retains only a quarter of its original size.
The beautiful Wood County Courthouse, listed on the National Historic Register, is probably fireproof, considering the massive amounts of iron and steel in its framework. The Masonic organization laid its cornerstone in place at the Wood County Centennial Celebration in 1899.
**A good example of such an account—of a white oak tree being used for hangings on Fort Boreman Hill—is found in Parkersburg: An Early Portrait.  Therein, James Dawson and Gary Null tell us:

Parkersburg was known to dispense one of the harshest forms of capital punishment to its serious felons.  A large, white oak on Mount Logan, later called Fort Boreman, stood as the city’s hanging tree, and there many public hangings were carried out.  Observers on Mount Logan would look down from their overlook of the city and watch the procession from the jail as the condemned man, hands tied behind his back, would be led horseback to the hanging tree.  When the “parade” crossed the Market Street bridge and disappeared under the trees along the road, the spectators would simply turn their horses around and wait for it to circle around Marrtown Road and approach the top from the winding dirt road.  Once on the hill, the sentence was carried out.

Over the years, numerous hangings occurred on the hilltop.  The last one on Fort Boreman didn’t come until after the Civil War.  On September 16, 1864 in Wadesville, three men killed another by the name of Abram Deems.  The three were caught shortly afterward and brought to trial in Parkersburg.  On October 26, the first man, Dan Grogan, was found guilty of murder.  On the first two days of November the other two. Thomas Boice and Mortimer Gibbony, were also found guilty.  All were sentenced to hang on June 16, 1865, but the punishment was reset for February 1866.

During the long wait, Gibbony escaped.  Not an exceedingly bright individual, his life had been spent on the riverboats and they were all he knew.  He managed to catch one going downriver and so eluded the Parkersburg authorities.  However, his hideout was his downfall.  Knowing his familiarity with steamboats, the law knew generally where to look, and returned him to custody on March 10, 1866.  By this time, his companions had gone to their deaths as scheduled on February 9th, and Gibbony had to make his last ride up to Fort Boreman alone.  His hanging on June 15th of that year marked the last on Fort Boreman.

However, that did not abolish hanging in the county.  The fairgrounds, now the City Park, was the scene of the next and last big public hanging in January, 1868.  A man named John Schafer, alias Joseph Eisle, had killed two people and was attempting to murder another.  The intended victim saw Schafer’s reflection in a mirror as the madman approached him and managed to escape the sudden death marked for him.  Though he was badly maimed, he lived to testify against John Schafer and the murderer was hanged.


No other such morbid public events have occurred in Parkersburg, West Virginia in recent memory, but more astounding attractions have since replaced them with more history and pictures of Parkersburg.



***The US standard railroad gauge is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.



Why was that gauge used?


Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US Railroads.


Why did the English build them like that?


Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.


Why did “they” use that gauge then?


Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.


Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?


Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.


So who built those old rutted roads?


Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.


And the ruts in the roads?


Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.


The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for! an Imperial Roman war chariot. And bureaucracies live forever


So the next time you are handed a spec and told we have always done it that way and wonder what horse’s ass came up with that, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.


Now the twist to the story…


When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.


The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is bout as wide as two horses’ behinds.


So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s ass.


And you thought being a horse’s ass wasn’t important.






This page was last modified on Monday, February 19, 2018