POSTED: August 13, 2008
Ritchie Mines still largely forgotten
By JODY MURPHY
MACFARLAN - A few miles up a rocky creek bed, through deep mud holes, over ruts and through a half-dozen crossings of Macfarlan Creek, deep in the hills of rural Ritchie County, so deep even the banjo music ceases, there is a fissure in the earth and more than a mile long and in places hundreds of feet deep.
The giant crack starts at the top of a mountain and runs down to the base of a creek. It starts again across the hollow running up the mountain. Two thin metal lines run along each side of the gaping crack to serve as a warning.
To the untrained eye, the fissure is nothing more than a geographic anomaly, an isolated crack in the earth, deep in the woods, surrounded by trees and wildlife and few remnants of a long-abandoned rail line and a brick plant. To locals and historians the fissure is the last remnant of the once-prosperous Ritchie Asphalt Mines.
``It was a geographical wonder,' said local historian Dave McKain.
Along W.Va 47, a small brown sign directs would-be tourists toward Mellin to a gravel parking lot. David Scott, chairman of the Ritchie County Historical Society, said the journey from the parking lot to the mines is about three miles to those who know how to get there.
There are no directional signs.
No markers of any kind informing visitors of the Ritchie Mines history, muchless providing a marked trail to the site.
A local might bypass the trip to Mellin and go to the mines by way of Macfarlan. Parking at the villages lone store, visitors can travel the rugged two miles into the hollow by four-wheeler.
There are many converging dirt roads, creek crossings and trails, making it hard to get to, but easy to get lost. The land, most of it anyway, is owned by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources as part of a 1,000-acre wildlife management area.
Aside from a large wooden sign at the base of the hollow leading into the mine, J.R. Hill, the district game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources said there are no markers leading to the mines or informational signs detailing its history.
``They haven't developed it or spent a penny to develop the significance of it,' Scott said. ``It was the very first asphalt mine in the U.S. and one of the only ones in the world.'
The Ritchie Mine was discovered in the early 1850s, by a farmer who thought he discovered coal. Instead, Frederick Lemon stumbled upon a rare vein of natural asphalt.
Natural asphalt forms when crude petroleum oils work up through cracks and fissures to the earths surface. The action of the sun and wind drive off the lighter oils and gases, leaving a black residue.
Local historians say residents in the area tried to burn the residue in their homes. Unlike coal, the residue would explode. Pat Parsons, executive director of the Asphalt Pavement Association of West Virginia, said it was soon realized the asphalt could be used for road paving material.
``It was a great improvement to (road building) to bind the rock together and water proof the road. It was a great boon for transportation,' he said.
Having found it a use, the asphalt mine produced yet-another boom town in the blooming coal and gas fields. In 1859 the mine, which included a railroad, began producing unrefined asphalt. The product was a sensational hit, bringing $90 a ton, three times the price of oil.
Early accounts state the asphalt from Ritchie County was used to pave Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., as well as city streets in New York, London and Prussia.
``It was rare at the time,' Parsons said. ``They shipped it all over the world.'
Natural asphalts were extensively used until the early 1900s - though production in Ritchie County was temporarily crippled by the Civil War. The mine, which expanded from a fissure into an actual mine once the source of the vein was found, was in and out of operation until 1910, when it finally ceased production.
By the turn of the century Parsons said natural asphalt had become impractical as well as dangerous to mine and had given way to newer, refined methods of paving.
The one-time boomtown of Macfarlan, a once-thriving town of 2,500 residents with a brick hotel, paved streets, a school and a newspaper, was left to wither a die. The village has little more than a few houses, a postage stamp size post office and a store.
It's a forgettable little spot along the road.
Within the Macfarlan hills lies the forgotten mine. In the early 1980s, a rock slide buried the entrance to the mine, leaving only the original hollowed out vein visible to tourists, who can still find granules of asphalt near the site.A spokeswoman for the states Historic Preservation office said the mines were documented in 1976 as a ``potential resource.' They are not listed on the national register of historic places.
Hill said the DNR has a map, available to the public, but primarily used by hunters, that details the mines location, along with the location of a small grave site near the mines.
``We wouldnt be adverse to putting some markers up,' he said.
McKain hopes to construct a small visitors center along Rt. 47 at Macfarlan, similar to one at California. McKain wants to provide some literature explaining the mines history and significance.
Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Cultural History Jacquelin Proctor said a sponsor could step forward and request a historical marker for the site. Proctor said the markers cost about $1,400 plus installation and transportation.
``Sponsors should submit an application to the division and it goes from there,' she said, noting the sponsors are often the ones who also provide the funding. ``No one has requested a marker be placed there.'
``In the meantime, the area remains an obscure and isolated oddity of West Virginia history,' she said. ``It is a historical site and we would be at least interested in identifying it.'
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