Look Back: Asphalt and a new railway

Historical newspaper excerpts from the Wood County Historical Society

Photo provided by Ritchie County Historic Society The people shown in the undated photo above, are standing in the fissure that initially allowed access to the asphalt rock of what became the Ritchie mines. It is recorded that several eastern cities purchased the asphalt tar to pave major streets, including Fifth Avenue in New York and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Although the fissure is practically all that remains of “the Mines” today, it is still a popular hiking site, affording an opportunity to visit one of the most interesting historic sites in the area.

The creation of the Ritchie Mines and the Calico Railroad

The following is an excerpt from “The Cairo & Kanawha Railway,” written by James Ankrom in 1929:

“…Every railroad that was ever built had some purpose for its being. In the case of the Calico Road, that purpose can be traced back to the autumn of 1852 when West Virginia was in the western corner of Virginia. At that time an enterprising blacksmith named Frederick Lemon was walking through a wooded area a few miles north of Macfarlan and discovered a place where a bad flood had washed away the soil from what looked like a vein of coal. To his surprise though, when he took some of the mineral home to burn in his forge, it started melting like pitch and caused a fire in his shop. Lemon wasn’t sure what he had discovered, but he did know it must have some commercial value, so he went back to the vein, concealed it and decided to make a deal to purchase the land.

“It took six years of negotiating before he was able to buy the land. A grim surprise awaited him however. When he sold the Grahamite to his neighbors as coal, they complained to him that it melted their stoves. Luckily, though, a piece of the mineral was assayed, and soon mineral operators flocked to his door, eager to purchase the property.

“What Lemon had discovered was part of a freak geological formation in an anticline, or arched upheaval, of impervious rock. Formed during prehistoric times, this anticline trapped oil and gas and when this oxidized over the years, it formed Grahamite, from which high grade machine oil and asphalt are derived.”

Commercialization of the mineral soon began and a railroad, locally called the Calico, was laid from the Ritchie mines to Cairo, allowing the product to reach the B&O railroad for shipments to the east.


Solidified petroleum

The Philadelphia Shipping Lists says: “We are informed, upon what we consider good authority, that men owning grounds in West Virginia found upon their premises a hard, black substance which was supposed to be coal. Upon chemical analysis, it was found to be solidified petroleum, crystallized upon the outside of the grain and granulated inside. It lay in stratified form, and the vein was from forty-five inches deep to 250 feet thick. The location of this petroleum mine is ten miles from Cairo and 31 miles east of Parkersburg.

An excerpt from the Parkersburg Daily Times

Oct. 28, 1865


Bob Enoch is the president of the Wood County Historical Society. The group meets at 7p.m. on the last Monday of each month in the Summers Auditorium at the Wood County Public Library on Emerson Avenue. They do not meet in December. For more information, contact P.O. Box 565, Parkersburg, WV 26102.