Mystery at Burning Springs: A death at an underground lake of West Virginia oil

Dale Brumfield
Oil derrick at Burning Springs, 1860.

In October 1866, a New York man named Alvin C. Temple disappeared about 20 miles east of Ravenswood near Burning Springs, after he and a colleague named Robert S. Steinway made a remarkable discovery while exploring one of the underground caves that litter those mountain hollows.

Steinway was later arrested and charged with Temple’s murder, even though no body was recovered.

But it wasn’t just the bizarre circumstances of flames erupting from holes in the ground due to large underground oil and gas deposits, but a supposed murder that perplexed local law enforcement, leading to a most extraordinary public confession published in the Parkersburg Times newspaper.

And this was just the start of the unraveling of a puzzling fraud within one of West Virginia’s oil towns — a fraud perpetuated for reasons unknown to this day.

With oil and natural gas discovered underground in the late 18th Century, by 1861 Burning Springs was booming. By the end of that year, the population exploded from a couple of dozen stragglers and fortune hunters to over 10,000 wide-eyed investors, wildcatters, and roughnecks creating a boomtown that grew to more than a mile from end-to-end on a curve on the river.

A post office called Rathbone was established, and Burning Springs was suddenly larger than both Elizabeth, the Wirt County seat, and nearby Parkersburg.

On May 9, 1863, the Jones-Imboden Raid — a Confederate military action aimed at disrupting efforts toward the mounting statehood movement in the region — invaded the area and set on fire every oil well as well as 300,000 gallons in barrels sitting ready for shipping.

The resulting conflagration destroyed the town and caused the forested banks of the river to burn for several miles. Billowing black smoke could be seen for 20 miles.

A modest attempt was made to rebuild after the end of the war, but the town could not capture its former boomtown glory.

Then, Alvin C. Temple and John S. Steinway showed up.

Both men were reputedly carpet-bagging New Yorkers exploring post-war entrepreneurial opportunities in the oil fields of southern Ohio and West Virginia.

On October 25, 1866, they arrived in Burning Springs, and after visiting some of the recently rebuilt oil derricks went exploring over the nearby ridges. According to Steinway’s published account in the Parkersburg Times, his partner Temple was an amateur geologist, and carried a pick-hammer and leather sack over his shoulder, collecting rock specimens as they walked.

After crossing Burning Springs Run, Steinway related that they stumbled across a narrow cave on the upper side.

They slithered inside about 15 feet, and after Temple hammered some rocks out of the way, they entered a larger room that was partly illuminated from a fissure near the ceiling. They stopped — in front of them lay an underground lake, according to Steinway about 60 feet long by 20 feet wide.

He reported that Temple knelt and attempted to measure the depth with his hammer when he discovered it wasn’t water at all, but a lake of pure petroleum.

They seemingly hit a motherlode.

Steinway then described what happened next: “[Temple] got as near the brink as he could, and was about executing his design, when the loose stones on which he stood suddenly gave way and he tumbled in. He sunk, rose again, struggled a moment, and I saw him no more. I was powerless to assist him, even if I had not been completely bewildered.”

He then added, “The weight of the specimens in the sack no doubt prevented him from saving himself, as he was a capital swimmer.”

Steinway stood in horror, suddenly alone inside a dark cave where he could not light a match for fear of blowing the top off that mountain, his friend and partner drowned in a lake of oil.

“I called my companion by name again and again,” he claimed, “till terrified by the sepulchral echoes that resounded through the blackness.”

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Steinway found his way out of the cave but did not go straight to law enforcement to report his drowned friend. Instead, he returned to their hotel and sat in his room pondering his next move, admitting that despite the death, the discovery was an important one, and he “resolved to secure the benefits of it.”

He remained quiet about the episode until the next day when he reportedly visited the Rathbone Oil Company agent and secured a lease of the ground over the cave.

But the story at this point gets as murky as the subterranean oil lagoon that consumed Alvin C. Temple.

The hotel owner — recognizing suspicious behavior after years of dealing with fly-by-night opportunists, especially those from up north — noticed that Steinway was suddenly nervously alone, and babbled incoherently about the missing Temple when repeatedly asked about him. The Wirt County Sheriff was called, and within a day or two Steinway was arrested and charged with the murder of his partner in an apparent ploy to cut him out of the profits of their find.

With no friends or family, and “for want of bail,” he was held in prison in Parkersburg.

In an attempt to save himself, Steinway claimed in his published confession that the lease he secured on the land was made out not to himself, but to George and Henry Temple, father and brother of his deceased partner Alvin. “I hope this circumstance will go far to show that I could have no motive in causing the death of my friend,” he wrote on November 13. “Yet I feel that I should never have a moment’s peace of mind until the judgment of everybody shall acquit me of the charge.”

An examination of the actual lease would confirm his claim, however, it was nowhere to be found.

Here the bizarre story of Steinway and Temple seems to end. With one exception, there is no documentation or follow-ups of whether Steinway stood trial, or if Temple’s body was recovered, or what was the disposition of the underground lake of oil discovered by the men.

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“And now, Messrs. Editors,” Steinway concluded his verbose and tearful confession, “I request that you will give the foregoing statement a place in your paper, and therefore oblige a friendless and grief-stricken man.”

Then, a month later on December 17, 1866, the truth came out, and the embarrassed Parkersburg paper apparently refused to publish it.

Other papers, including the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, carried a simple news short that simply stated that “the oil lake into which Alvin Temple was made to fall, existed only in the imagination of the person who concocted that letter, professedly written by R. S. Steinway.

Having been fully convinced that the whole affair was only the emanation of fiction, we make this statement in order to not be further annoyed. There never was a Steinway arrested at Burning Springs, and no Alvin Temple drowned in an oil lake.”

— Dale Brumfield can be reached at