Black gold in West Virginia

Black gold in West Virginia

A man points to a part of the museum.

Mike Naylor oversees the Volcano Museum in Waverly, W.Va. (Photo by Jamie Rhein)

On August 4, 1879, before the sun rose over the craggy mountains in western West Virginia, the oil boomtown of Volcano turned into a “lake of fire.” By the time the blaze died, Volcano was almost gone. The post office, opera hall, bowling alley, saloons, and all but a few buildings had been reduced to ash.

The fire didn’t end Volcano’s existence right away, as a few remained to continue oil production, but what had been a bustling burg was on an irreversible path to becoming the ghost town that it is today.

These days, those who pass through the hills along Volcano Road in and around what is now Mountwood Park in Wood County might not notice the remnants of what once was. Stands of hardwood trees have returned Volcano to nature, where hikers walk on trails named for its landmarks.

Evidence of its past is scant, though artifacts do exist. A few hulking wooden oil barrels remain, their rusted bands and weather-darkened wood showing their age. Concrete cisterns and rusted machinery parts stick up from the ground like surrealistic flowers.

Fortunately, photos and historic records provide a chronicle of Volcano’s post-Civil War rise to a thriving community of 2,300 people that produced 2.3 million barrels of oil just 20 miles from Parkersburg.

Mike Naylor, whose mother visited the town as a child and often bought penny candy at Schaffer’s store there, oversees the Volcano Museum in Mountwood Park. He can point out the spots where the wealthy oil barons lived, or where the traveling circus once pitched its tent on a baseball field 130 years ago. He also can describe the unique system of wheels, belts, and cables that could pump oil from 40 wells with only one engine. At first, he says, the oil was so close to the surface that it was collected with blankets that were laid on oil puddles and wrung out into barrels.

The museum includes photos and artifacts, including a model of an oil derrick and a 1972 video showing the last oil producer running his machine. The wooden wheel outside the museum is a final testament to the time when Volcano’s oil fields made a fortune.