Look Back: Danger, adventure in Ritchie Mines

Photo provided by the Ritchie County Historical Society The rare picture above shows an interior passage of the famed Ritchie Mines. The photo must have been taken when the mine was entered for the last time in 1983 by two very lucky adventurers.

In James Ankrom’s 1929 account of the Cairo and Kanawha Railway, he describes the inner workings of the mine. Excerpts from his account follow: “The mine was worked in a northwesterly direction from Macfarland Creek and the vein of asphalt was found. The initial shaft was vertical and about 20 feet wide at the opening, funneling down to a three foot passage 40 feet below. A windlass hoist was rigged over the opening to lower workers and equipment to a sloping floor at the bottom.

“The men crawled into numerous, black, low openings and dug the Graphamite out with picks. They then loaded the ore into burlap bags which were carried to larger openings, where they were wheeled in wheelbarrows to the main shaft. From there it was hauled to the top and taken in small ore cars down an incline track to a loading platform of the railroad tract.

“At the height of its output in 1873, 15-25 gondolas per day were transported by the Calico Railroad.”


Fatal occurrence

Yesterday morning, an explosion took place in the asphaltum mines of the Ritchie Company, situated nine miles from Cairo, by which three persons, whose names we could not learn, were instantly killed. We have no particulars.

The Parkersburg Orthopolitan

Feb. 26, 1873


Events in Ritchie

Cairo, Feb. 28, 1873 — Gas caused the blast at the Ritchie Mines. In setting off a blast, the gas which had accumulated in large quantities in the chambers of the mine ignited, and a terrific explosion was the result. Three men lost their lives, viz.: Thomas Pierce, John Nee, and George Wickinhover; two others were injured, but it is thought not fatally. Pierce was buried by the Odd Fellows of Cairo, with the honors of that worthy order.

The Parkersburg Orthopolitan

March 1, 1873


The excerpt that follows was written by Janet Hodge and appeared in the Ritchie Gazette in 1992:

“Almost 75 years after the mines halted production, two adventurous young men realized their childhood dream to explore the reaches of Ritchie Mines.

“David Westfall and Mark Gaston, in 1983, made a perilous journey deep into the Ritchie Mines, nearly 100 feet below the earth’s surface. In order to go into the Mines, the young men, fully equipped with headlamps and other gear, had to lower themselves with repelling ropes and harness into the unknown reaches of the mine.

“Once in the Mines, the two found things much as they had been left years before. Picks were stuck in the asphalt and, and one-hundred-year-old timbers lined the roof to prevent cave-ins.

“It was the experience of a life time. Within a year after the team went into the deep reaches of the Mines, a cave-in occurred, blocking off the entrance by which the two had gained access.

“From a humble beginning in the early 1800s, Ritchie Mines has seen both progress and failure, riches and ruin. Although the stories will never be forgotten about the legendary asphalt lode, the land itself, has reverted back to a virtual wilderness — much as it was when the first discovery of asphalt was made.”


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.