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Documentary will explore history of state's early oil, gas industry

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By JAMES E. CASTO

Most history books cite Pennsylvania as the birthplace of America's oil and gas industry.

The books are wrong, insists Diana Sole Walko. And she's by no means alone in making that claim. Walko points to a number of experts whose research has documented that long before Col. Edwin L. Drake drilled his famous well at Titusville, Pa., in 1858, oil production was already commonplace in the Kanawha and Ohio River valleys.

Now Walko, CEO of MotionMasters, a Charleston-based video production company, is working to bring that research to the screen in "Burning Springs," a new hour-long documentary exploring the history of West Virginia's early oil and gas industry.

Walko points out that long before the arrival of the first white settlers in what was then western Virginia, the Native Americans recognized — and may have used as a fuel — the natural outflows of petroleum and natural gas found along some creeks and small rivers. The settlers called them "burning springs."

"The state's oil and gas industry," she notes, "began as an outgrowth of the salt industry."

In the early 1800s, the Ruffner family and others found both oil and gas while drilling for salt brine near the present-day town of Malden along the Kanawha River. At first they considered it a nuisance to be disposed of. So much oil was dumped into the Kanawha that the boatmen of the day took to calling the river "Old Greasy."  But once the value of oil and gas was realized, widespread drilling for it began.

Oil was produced successfully near present-day Freeport, along the Hughes River in Wirt County, as early as 1819, nearly 40 years before Drake's well. By the mid-1820s, oil was being used for lamps in West Virginia workshops and factories. By 1876, West Virginia is said to have had nearly 300 operating oil wells.

Walko said the forthcoming documentary will draw on two scholarly books that have been published on the subject.

"Where It All Began," by David L. McCain and Bernard L. Allen, published in 1994, is based on years of research from diaries, deeds, tax records, archival photographs, court documents, maps and other sources. McCain, whose great-grandfathers participated in the state's early oil boom, established the non-profit Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg. He saidDrake was indebted to West Virginia drillers for drilling tools and even used "Pure West Virginia Lubricating Oil" to lubricate his drilling machinery.

"Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry," by William R. Brice, published in 2009, also disputes the claim that Drake drilled the nation's first commercial oil well.

Walko said that while the new documentary will focus on West Virginia's early oil and gas industry, "we will certainly acknowledge that the Drake Well in Pennsylvania was obviously a key point in the industry's history."

"Burning Springs" will be the latest in a series of documentaries produced by MotionMasters. Founded in 1987, the firm's award-winning productions include "The Soul of the Senate: U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd" and "A Principled Man: Rev. Leon Sullivan," as well as "A Moving Monument: The West Virginia State Capitol" and others.

Like the previous productions, "Burning Springs" will be designed for airing on West Virginia Public Television and will be marketed to public broadcasting stations elsewhere. Walko says a companion website with a teacher's guide is planned.

Financial support for the project is being sought from a variety of industry and non-profit organizations. One of the project's early backers is Bowles Rice LLP.

"Bowles Rice is proud to be among the sponsors of this valuable documentary," said Tom Heywood, the law firm's managing partner. "Nearly 100 years ago, the founders of our firm were assisting clients in the West Virginia oil and gas industry and, today, Bowles Rice lawyers continue to provide advocacy, counsel, leadership and service to clients throughout the region who are growing this industry to exciting new heights."

The Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia (IOGA WV ) is another early supporter.

"This is an exciting opportunity to explore the early days," said Charlie Burd, the association's executive director. "It will also demonstrate the vital role oil and gas have played, and continues to play, in the production of energy in our state. IOGAWV is pleased to be part of this very important project that focuses on our strong, capable and competitive natural gas and oil-producing industry here in West Virginia."

Walko said the timeline for completing the documentary is "heavily dependent on our success in generating additional financial support. However, the targeted completion date is this fall." She asks that anyone who has archival photos, suggestions regarding interviewees or who would like to learn more about how to contribute to the project, contact her via email at dsole@motionmasters.com or call 304-345-8800.