history of senator johnson newlon camden parkersburg wv - Mackey's Antiques & Clock Repair

History of Parkersburg U.S. Senator and Industrialist Johnson Newlon Camden


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One of the most successful men West Virginia has ever produced is the subject of this sketch. He was born at Collins Settlement, Lewis County, Virginia, March 6, 1828. His grandfather emigrated from Maryland to that county about the beginning of the present century, and there reared his family, which included four sons, all of whom have made their mark upon the history of the State. One of them, John S. Camden, the father of Johnson N. Camden, intermarried with the Newlon family of Lewis County, and moved to Sutton, the seat of justice of Braxton County, in the spring of 1838. 

Young Johnson N. Camden, one of the children of this marriage, spent his early boyhood in Braxton County. He had the benefit of the limited schooling which that section then afforded. In 1842, at the age of fourteen, he went to Weston and entered the office of the County Clerk of Lewis County as an assistant, remaining there a year or two. Returning to school, he spent two years at the Northwestern Academy at Clarksburg and returned to Braxton, serving a year as Deputy Clerk of the Circuit Court of that county under his uncle, Colonel William Newlon.  

At the age of eighteen he received an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point, and after two years' study there resigned his cadetship and taking up a course of legal study was admitted to the bar in 1851. He served as Commonwealth Attorney of Braxton, and subsequently for Nicholas County, became interested in surveying and secured possession of several tracts of wild lands in these counties, and in 1853 went to Weston, in Lewis County, and accepted a position in the bank there, holding it for the next four years. A feeling that he needed more active employment and a wider field induced him to quit the bank in 1857, and soon after becoming convinced that his abilities lay in the direction of promoting new enterprises and industries rather than in the practice of law he gave up that profession as a means of a livelihood. 

Up to this time his change of employment had doubtless been regarded as a misfortune by his friends, but his varied experience in a limited field fitted him admirably for the wider sphere that awaited him. In 1859, he turned his attention to the West Virginia oil field, which was just beginning to attract notice at Burning Springs, on the Little Kanawha River. Petroleum had long disturbed the working of the salt wells at that point and those who operated them, referring to its injurious effect upon the salt, called it "devil's grease.'' There was but one oil well at the point which has since become famous in the history of West Virginia petroleum interests, when Mr. Camden organized a working company, leased a piece of land and began boring for oil with the rude appliances then in vogue. The oil lay near the surface. Within a few weeks a stream of crude petroleum poured out so rapidly that no provision could be made to control or store it, and as a temporary measure it was run through troughs into an old flatboat in the Little Kanawha, a few rods distant.  

Fortunately two thousand oil barrels had been forwarded a few days previously from New York to General Karnes, the owner of the only other well in that section. His well was not then producing. The barrels were turned over to Mr. Camden, filled by hand from the flatboat and shipped to Parkersburg, and the result of this first week's work to the company which he controlled was about $23,000. This success induced a speculative fever, of which Mr. Camden was quick to take advantage. The property was rapidly being taken up or leased when he effected an arrangement to purchase one-half of the Rathbone tract from its owner, Mr. Rathbone, for $100,000 and to work it henceforth in connection with that gentleman. 

The would-be purchaser had scarcely a tenth of the sum required, but investors having faith in his sagacity came forward with offers for an interest with him, and he was able to sell three-fourths of his contract for $100,000 and secure a fourth as his profit on the transaction. What the result of this enterprise would have been, if the proposed arrangement for developing the tract had been carried out, cannot be told. The Civil War came on soon after the transfer of the property was made, the absence of many of the parties interested and who went South with the Confederacy, interfered with the payment of the consideration agreed upon and the contract was finally canceled by mutual consent. The West Virginia oil field being part of the debatable ground of the two armies and subject to hostile raids, soon became comparatively deserted. Nevertheless Mr. Camden did a profitable business there during the next three years.

He arranged a partnership with John and J. C. Rathbone, the original owners of a most profitable oil tract, and developed that and other property in the West Virginia oil belt. Their business increased so that banking facilities were needed, and in the early part of 1862 the First National Bank of Parkersburg, one of the most successful banking institutions of the State, was organized with Mr. Camden as its President. During these years it is safe to say that he owned an interest, with one exception, in every oil-producing territory in the State of West Virginia, and the history of its oil-producing interests would be lacking its central figure if the part he took in its development were left unwritten.  

In 1864, Mr. Camden made another change in his business, and perhaps no single act of his life better proved his keen foresight and accurate judgment in business matters at that time. During the early years of the war the Pennsylvania oil region began to take the lead in petroleum interests. The Pennsylvania oil tract was larger than that of West Virginia, and its wells were more enduring and reliable. The capital necessary for development was more readily concentrated there than in the new State, and Mr. Camden rightly judged that it was destined to take precedence as the oil producing territory of the country. With these points settled he only waited an opportunity to transfer his capital and energy to another branch of the business. This opportunity came in 1866. In that year he and his partners sold their property on the Little Kanawha to parties in New York for $410,000, and abandoning almost entirely the business of producing petroleum, began the work of refining the oil products of West Virginia and neighboring territory.  

He and his associates built ample storage tanks at Parkersburg and erected an extensive refinery at that point, which soon built up an extensive and profitable business. The diminution of the West Virginia oil field which had been anticipated, followed later, and the refinery at Parkersburg was frequently embarrassed for want of crude oil sufficient to run its stills, and while considering ways and means of obviating this difficulty, Mr. Camden came in contact with the Standard Oil Company, which was then just beginning its commercial career, and recognizing the futility of continuing independent action in the limited field which he had hitherto occupied, he formed the alliance with the Standard, known as the Camden Consolidated Oil Company, which was intended to embrace a friendly union of all refining interests in West Virginia. With this combination began Mr. Camden's wonderful financial career, which thenceforth and until this time has been one of unbroken prosperity.

 The Standard Oil Company, quick to recognize his executive ability, made him one of its directors, and gave him personal control of its West Virginia and Maryland combinations. The Parkersburg refinery became one of the great sources of supply for the South and West, and so continued until the necessities of trade and commerce required the transfer of a portion of its business to the seacoast. During its best years more than 300,000 barrels of refined oil were turned out annually, and upward of 15,000,000 of staves were used each year in the manufacture of the barrels in which the oil was transported to market. When the export business of the combination necessitated the removal of the refining interest to the seaboard, Mr. Camden brought about the union of the oil refineries of Baltimore under the single management of the Baltimore United Oil Company, an organization with $1,000,000 capital, of which he was elected president. 

One phase of Mr. Camden's career which has commended him to the admiration and affection of West Virginians has been his constant attention to the development of his native State. At home or abroad, whether engaged in enterprises which required the world for a field of action, or those which were limited to his own immediate neighborhood, he has never lost faith in the promise of the State as a mining, manufacturing, commercial and agricultural center, nor ceased his efforts to bring out its magnificent possibilities. When he began his work in the valley of the Little Kanawha the various sections of the State were unconnected by any satisfactory or reliable

means of communication. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad connected the Northern and Eastern Panhandles, but the Northern and Southern portions of the State were practically disconnected during a considerable portion of the year, and water transportation between them was at all times limited and unreliable, while the interior of the State still lay remote from the paths of progress and development. The improvement of the Little Kanawha River and the establishment of slack water navigation from Parkersburg was the first public enterprise in which Mr. Camden bore a part, in connection with General Jackson and other enterprising citizens of the Little Kanawha Valley, and the work still stands as the pioneer of the splendid system of river and harbor improvements now in progress on other streams of the Commonwealth. By the time this improvement was established he had made his earliest successful ventures in developing the oil interests of the State, and it is characteristic of the man that with the first fruits of his enterprise he undertook to open up the section in which his boyhood days were spent and around which his fondest associations clustered. 

He joined in the project of a narrow-gauge railroad between Clarksburg and Weston, and with his accustomed vigor pushed it through to successful completion. Still later he joined with ex-Senator Henry G. Davis and others in the construction of the West Virginia Central Railroad. Of- the Ohio River Railroad, between Wheeling and Huntington, it may be said that its existence is mainly due to Mr. Camden's zeal and energy. A glance at the map shows; the present and prospective value to the State of the railroad enterprises which Mr. Camden has been largely instrumental in securing; As before stated, the Ohio River Railroad follows- the Ohio River from Wheeling to Huntington, and at Point Pleasant connects with, the Kanawha and Ohio, furnishing a through route from Wheeling to Charleston, the State capital, and the coal fields of the Upper Kanawha. The Monongahela River Railroad from Fairmont to Clarksburg develops

one of the finest coal fields in the State, it being a continuation of the Pittsburgh and Connellsville veins into West Virginia. In connection with this road Mr. Camden also organized a coal and coke company, in which he is largely interested, with a large capital for the development of the coal and the erection of coke ovens along the line of the road Mr. Camden has never been a dickcrer or speculator. He never organized a company into which he did not put his own money and energy, and in all his creations and operations he has been governed by broad business principles.  

Mr. Camden's political life has been marked by the same boldness and vigor "which appear so prominently in' his business history. He came to the front in 1867 as. a leader of the movement to enfranchise citizens of the State who had been denied the right of suffrage for their adherence to the fortunes of the Southern Confederacy. The Conservative party, as those who supported this movement were termed, nominated him for Governor a year later, and he made an aggressive and well-organized campaign, but the operation of the disfranchising statutes reduced his support to the extent that he was defeated by 2,500 majority. During the two years following an amendment was submitted to repeal the disfranchising clause of the State Constitution and modify other clauses of it not in harmony with amendments to the Federal Constitution already adopted.

Mr. Camden indorsed the proposed amendment throughout, and there by prevented his re-nomination by the Democratic party of the State in 1870, but in 1872 the Democrats of the State again made him their standard bearer, with the exception of those who united with the Republicans to defeat the new Constitution of the State, adopted in that year. This combination again deferred Mr. Camden's success, but rendered him none the less prominent among the leaders of his party. He had a large and devoted support in the Senatorial contest of 1874, and in 1880 was almost the unanimous choice of the Democratic caucus for United States Senator and was promptly elected by the Legislature of that year. At the expiration of his six years' term of service in the Senate, he was again the nominee of his party caucus for a second term, but by means of a disaffection in his party ranks the majority on joint ballot being small—he was not re-elected, although he had the power to name and elect the gentleman who succeeded him March 4, 1887. 

As a Senator, Mr. Camden was a. worker rather than a talker, although he has the faculty of expressing his views clearly and forcefully when the. necessity arises. His business experience, added to the professional training of his younger years, enabled him to take hold intelligently of the varied questions presented for the consideration of the Senate, and close attention to the duties of his position and courteous bearing toward his associates gave him a position and influence in that body which enabled him to represent the State ably and efficiently. After retiring from the Senate, Mr. Camden was urged by his party friends to allow his name to be used in connection with a nomination for the gubernatorial office. He refused, declaring his intention of retiring from politics, and at the same time stating that by giving his entire time and energies to the development of the great natural resources of his native State, he hoped to be able to prove himself, to some extent, a benefactor of his fellow-citizens. This was a wise determination, for with his vast means and wide acquaintance with wealthy and influential men in other States, by the carrying out of the vast public enterprises in which he is now engaged, he will rear for himself a monument that party dissenters cannot tear down, and which will cause his name to be remembered for generations to come.  

Mr. Camden's personal appearance is a very fair index of his mental characteristics. Heavily framed, his tall stout figure still suggests the military training of his early days, although time has rounded out its ample outlines. A good gray head and beard likewise whitened with the " snow that never melts," show the advance of age, but there is no suggestion of antiquity in his firm movement, and his whole appearance indicates a vigorous and well-sustained physical organization. Keen gray eyes, a prominent nose, and lips that close firmly under a clipped mustache give his countenance a firm look in repose, but the features lighten up with animation in conversation, and the general expression is pleasant and kindly. Ordinarily slow of speech and guarded in his statements, choosing his words with deliberation

and evidently weighing his remarks well before giving them utterance, his manner as well as his matter inspires confidence in business conversation and conveys the impression of a modest and careful, but self contained and resolute character, cautious in forming conclusions but ready to act upon them when formed.  

In social intercourse there are few men more entertaining and attractive. A good liver, hospitable and generous, true to his friends and singularly free from continued resentments, with the ability to separate himself entirely from business cares in social circles, and a mind cultivated by reading, travel and observation, he can adapt himself readily to any surroundings and there are few people thrown into social communication with him who do not become his admiring friends. In his domestic life he has been as fortunate as in his business and political career. In 1858 he was married to Miss Anna Thompson, daughter of the late George W. Thompson, of Wheeling. They have a son and daughter who, with the mother, make up a home circle of marked cultivation and refinement.


 More History on  U.S. Senator and industrialist Johnson Newlon Camden

U.S. Senator and industrialist Johnson Newlon Camden (March 6, 1828-April 25, 1908) was born in Lewis County . He opened one of the first oil wells in West Virginia in January 1861 and later helped John D. Rockefeller establish Standard Oil’s national monopoly of the oil business. Camden was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a young man but resigned after two years to study law. Before going into the oil business, he was a lawyer, ran a store and worked in a bank, was elected to local political offices, and speculated on land and oil production.

Camden ’s first oil well stood along Burning Springs Run in Wirt County on property that he leased from W. P. and J. C. Rathbone. He entered the refining business at Parkersburg in 1869. In 1875, Camden and his partners quietly sold out to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, while continuing to operate as the Camden Consolidated Oil Company. Running the company as a secret subsidiary for Rockefeller, Camden bought competitors and sometimes shut them down. He bought surplus oil to keep it from going to market, and starved independent Pittsburgh-area refineries of barrel staves to help establish Standard Oil’s control of the industry. Standard Oil later sent him to Washington as an ‘‘observer’’ and lobbyist.

Camden ’s business interests linked him to Northern Republicans during and after the Civil War, but he was a member of the Democratic Party, which was filled with ex-Confederates in the post-war years. The West Virginia legislature elected Camden to the U.S. Senate in 1881. He exploited his Senate position for personal and business advantage. Senator Camden speculated financially on attempts to settle West Virginia ’s pre-statehood portion of the Virginia state debt. He also helped Standard Oil get into markets in Turkey and Japan , and worked to repeal laws unwanted by the oil industry.

From oil, Camden turned to building railroads to connect the Baltimore & Ohio in the northern part of the state to the Chesapeake & Ohio in the south and to provide streetcar service in Huntington and neighboring areas. The new rail lines opened up coal mines and timbering in new areas. Historian John Alexander Williams describes Camden as one of the first of West Virginia ’s political leaders to use his public position to serve his industry, a prototype of some who followed.

The richest man in the State of West Virginia and one of the richest in the United States is ex-Senator Johnson N. Camden . His wealth is estimated at between eight and ten millions of dollars. In 1860, when oil was first discovered in West Virginia, Mr. Camden had a few acres of land in the Burning Springs district, about thirty miles north of Parkersburg, on the Little Kanawha River. Johnson Newlon Camden Died on April 25, 1908  


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