Sistersville’s rich history begins with George Washington really sleeping there in 1770 when he surveyed the Ohio Valley. In his journal, Washington called this stretch of the river “the Long Reach of the Ohio River.” The river is broad and deep here with hills covered in trees for as far as the eye can see.
Charles Wells was the first to settle here permanently in 1802 naming his settlement Wells’ Landing. While Wells was primarily a farmer, he also served as a representative in the Virginia state legislature. He’s remembered for having fathered 22 children by two wives. Child 20 was named Twenty and 21 Enough. But Betsy came along as child 22.
When he died in 1815, Wells bequeathed the property that makes up much of the business district of the present town to two of his daughters, 17 and 18, named Sarah and Delilah. Each of the children received some property at this time.
The Wells sisters were good businesswomen and laid out the land into 96 lots with eight streets. The town is named for them, Sistersville.
In 1817, the Sistersville Ferry was started to take passengers across the Ohio River to Fly, Ohio. It is the oldest ferry in West Virginia and continues to operate until this day.
Before the Civil War, a 51-man military unit, the Sisterville Blues was formed. However, when fighting began, some of these men joined the Confederate Army while others went to the Union Army. The great-granddaughters of Charles Wells had to hide their Confederate flag behind the wallpaper in their dining room.
When the Civil War ended, Sistersville returned to its quiet farm community. Their first public school was built in 1869 at a cost of $4,000. School lasted only four months then with the teacher being paid $30 a month.
Peace and quiet came to an end in 1892 when oil was discovered in Pole Cat Hollow just up the river from Sistersville. Quickly, the Sistersville Oil Field began producing over 16,000 barrels of oil a day at 55 cents a barrel. This meant an increase in oil field workers and Sistersville boomed from a town of 600 to one of 12,000. Money flowed in that town as well as the oil wells.
Twenty-two miles east of Sistersville, The Big Moses Well drilled on the farm of Moses Spencer is attributed as being the greatest oil well in W.V. Drilled in September 1894, it had a daily capacity of 100 million cu.ft. This well blew until December 1895.
You can imagine all the businesses that opened for so many new residents. Banks, a newspaper, boarding houses and of course, saloons, gambling parlors and brothels, many of which were located on Sinner’s Boulevard. With this quick growth in population, many lived in houseboats called floating shanties along the riverbanks. Others lived in oil field shacks, which cost about $500. The only inside plumbing was usually a cold water faucet in the kitchen with outdoor toilets on every property.
The well-to-do lived in beautiful homes and five of them are still in existence today in Sistersville on Main Street. As the city grew, new sections opened. Old Rough and Ready, Cow House, and Happy Hollow are a few of the descriptively named neighborhoods. A washerwoman’s house in Happy Hollow bore the sign “Men’s Working Clothes Laundered While You Wait.”
During the oil boom, Sistersville imposed heavy taxes on saloon keepers and gambling house owners. The city also offered bonds for sale to finance improvements. In 1890, water works and a sewer system were installed. All the streets and alleys were paved with brick. A trolley line was built to connect Sistersville with its neighbors, Paden City and New Martinsville to the north and Friendly to the south.
The boom days produced an interesting mix of residents. The original farmers, business people, oil field workers, hooligans, and prostitutes lived side by side among oil derricks and pumping wells. A city resident who was a child during these heady days reported that Madam Stoddard, proprietor of a “sporting house,” was loved by the town’s children. Every year when the circus came to town, Madam Stoddard had her butler round up all the neighborhood children and take them to see the show. The Madam also happened to be the sister of the chief of police.
More respectable forms of entertainment also grew. Private social clubs were formed such as the Americus Club, The Sistersville Music and Literary Club, and the “selective, exclusive” Sistersville Mandolin and Guitar Society.
In the 1890s, Sistersville had three thriving theaters: the Columbia, the Auditorium, and Olsen’s Opera House. The Columbia specialized in vaudeville, and the Auditorium could accommodate 1,000 patrons. For less than a dollar, a person could enjoy a performance by the Boston Lyric Opera Company. Silent film star Ben Turpin performed at the Comique, a nightclub.
The Wells Inn was built in 1895 by Charles Wells’ grandson, Ephraim. It had 35 rooms, a bar, and a dining room. During boom days, when there were several hotels in Sistersville, the Wells Inn was considered the most elegant. Today it is the only hotel in town, and it has been nicely renovated.
In 1911, the Little Sister well was drilled in the Big Injun Sand to a depth of 1481 feet and was in operation for many years. That derrick is being restored by Quaker State Oil Refining Corp. and The W.V. Oil and Gas Festival, Inc.
Today Sistersville has an excellent display of the Little Sister Well on the banks of the Ohio River. While visiting, you’ll want to be certain to take a ride on the Sistersville/Fly Ferry.