Chapter VII
Petroleum, Natural Gas, Distilleries, Statistics



A Franciscan priest, Louis de la Roche, was the first person to notice a coating of oil on a spring in Cuba, Allegheny county, New York, in 1629. He made no use of the discovery, except to bottle the oil for medicinal purposes. For many years after de la Roche's discovery different persons put up the oil in fancy labeled bottles, claiming miraculous virtues for it in rheumatism and other diseases, calling it "Seneca Oil."



Another oil, made from cannel coal, was brought out by Eli Hancock in 1694, who obtained a patent for the process of distilling it. In 1761 many persons started distilleries for the production of oil from bituminous shale in various parts of Pennsylvania.

The North American Oil Works were established by a joint stock company in 1856 and were located on the right bank of the Kiskiminetas, about 200 rods above its mouth. Oil for illuminating purposes was manufactured from cannel coal, which abounds in pots rather than regular strata in that region. The coal was placed in revolving retorts, which were heated by external coal fires. Thus the coal in the retorts was roasted and its oleaginous matter expelled in the form of gas, which was conducted into a number of iron pipes several inches in diameter, which were placed horizontally and side by side in reservoirs of cold water, where it was condensed into the form of crude oil, which was conducted into large tanks, from which it was drawn off, refined, and prepared for burning by the use of chemical agencies and suitable apparatus. The capacity of these works was from 1,500 to 2,000 barrels a month. Dr. David Alter of Freeport was a stockholder in this company, and the inventor of the process of refining.

The first to introduce the making of oil from coal into Pennsylvania was an Austrian named Toch, who built a refinery at Tarentum in 1853 for the firm of Peterson & Dale. After that date the refineries increased rapidly in numbers, and were successful until the development of the petroleum industry.

The oil made from coal was of different consistency and quality from petroleum, but owing to the source of both being in the same State, many persons called petroleum "coal oil," and the name has stuck ever since.



In 1858 a well was dug to the oil sand by J. M. Williams of Oil Creek in Venango county, and soon thereafter a well was drilled at the same place, by Colonel Drake. This was the inception of the oil industry in Pennsylvania.

In 1860 Thomas McConnell, W. D. Robinson, Smith K. Campbell and J. B. Finley bought two acres of Elisha Robinson, Sr., on Thom's run and the Allegheny river, in Hovey township, and organized the Foxburg Oil Co. They drilled a well for 460 feet, but were stopped by the breaking out of the war. Fortunately for the oil industry this territory was later found to be dry. If they had completed this well and been disappointed in their search the industry would have delayed in development for many years. They returned from the war in 1865 and bought 100 acres more of Robinson, south of the first tract. On this they drilled a well, known as Clarion No. I, and brought in the first producer. The flow was 18 barrels a day until 1869, when it was increased to 25 barrels.

From this beginning arose the forest of derricks that soon dotted the country around Parker City. In July, 1869, there were 25 wells, producing 310 barrels a day. In November there were 1,058 wells, in the Parker and Lawrenceburg fields.

These wells were from 1,200 to 1,600 feet deep, and were mostly in the fourth sands. Oil advanced in 1876 to $4.00 a barrel and there were in these fields 1,002 wells, producing 9,904 barrels a day.



To convey an idea of the fortunes made in the oil boom the careers of two of the old Armstrong county operators are given. John McKeown had nothing but his strong arms as capital when he went to work in the field. Within a short time he was taking drilling contracts, and when he died several years after the decline of the industry he left a fortune of $10,000,000.

Stephen Duncan (Dunc) Karns was a noted character of those days. He returned from the war and leased an acre of oil land from Fullerton Parker. On this he drilled a well, borrowing the money to pay for supplies. This well produced only one barrel a day at first. This did not discourage him, but he kept on leasing and sinking wells. His first well later yielded 25 barrels a day. By 1872 his income from his leases was $5,000 a day.

He made good use of this money. He promoted the Parker & Karns City railroad, built the town of Karns City, the Fredericksburg & Orange railroad, started the Exchange Bank and erected the bridge across the Allegheny at Parker. He built a mansion at Glen Cairn and kept a string of racehorses. He had many peculiarities, which the sudden accession of riches only accentuated. In 1874 the dropping of the price of crude oil to 40 cents and unwise speculations caused his failure. He went West, ran a ranch and later returned to Pittsburgh, where he practiced law and published a Populist paper. In 1898 he returned to the West and in California made a second success in the oil business.

Many other fortunes were made and lost in this oil strike. The price of crude oil ran up and down and many speculators lost all in a single hour. In 1864 oil sold at $4.00 a barrel and in 1862 it had been 10 cents. Prices in later years have been: 52 cents in 1891, $1.72 in 1909, $2.50 in 1913. The supply is slowly diminishing and the price is raising at a corresponding pace.



Part of the oil history is the story of the pipe lines. At first the methods of transportation were by flatboats and wagons, until the building of the railroads. Then the first pipe line was proposed from Oil City to Kittanning in 1862. The project was defeated in the Legislature by the teamsters, 4,000 of whom would be thrown out of work by the construction of the line.

A monopoly at first prevented the building of competing lines, and the Legislature finally, in 1868, passed a free pipe line bill. The first private line was laid across the Allegheny at Parker, by "Dunc" Karns. There were six lines to Parker in 1872. In that year the restrictions were entirely removed from the construction of pipe lines, and this caused the building of "wild cat" lines. These promoters issued certificates for the oil they pumped, and the practice finally resulted in the failure of many operators who trusted the promoters. From the consolidation of these many lines gradually evolved the famous Standard Oil Company. They paid cash for the oil and thus saved the industry.



Col. E. A. L. Roberts, in 1864, obtained a patent for the process of "shooting" the wells to increase their production. His exorbitant charges caused many "wild cat" shooters to make a business of torpedoing the wells under cover of darkness. Many fights between the licensees and the "wild catters" occurred, and thousands of lawsuits arose over the illegal shooting of wells. In these suits, owing to his influence and wealth, Roberts always won.

At first gunpowder was used to torpedo the wells, thus loosening the paraffine that accumulated in the pipes, five pounds making a charge. Later nitroglycerine was introduced in 1867, thus adding greater hazard to the work. Many accidents occurred. One "wild-catter" concealed a can of the deadly fluid in the bushes near a well. The wife of the driller found it and thinking it was lard oil, filled her husband's oil can with it. He oiled the engine with it, with the result that his body was gathered up in fragments.

After the Roberts patents expired in 1883 the business of oil production settled down into a systematic profession. Many of the operators of small producers were rewarded by holding on through the years. For forty years the old Graham well opposite Parker has produced day after day, yielding eight barrels, and this product has averaged at least a dollar a barrel through the period of its existence. Many other small wells are yielding their owners a lifetime income, which though small, is as eternal as the flow of the Allegheny.



The Pine Creek Oil Company owned and financed by the Lamberton interests of Franklin, Pa., have in 1913 leased over 2,000 acres of land in Boggs and Pine townships, and will begin work at once in putting down a number of test wells on land in that district. The first wells will be drilled near Goheenville and each given thorough tests. In a determined effort to find oil every sand will be drilled through, as gas will be a minor consideration unless it is developed in large volumes. It is the general opinion throughout these townships that oil may be found there some day in large quantities and no efforts or expense will be spared to prove these opinions by veteran oil men.



While engaged in tearing down an old mill on Canodonay creek, near Fredonia, N. Y., some workmen noticed bubbles in the bed of the creek and lighting the gas found it to burn without smoke and with a hot flame. They drilled into the spot and put in an inch and a half pipe, from which they supplied the town of 100 houses with light and ran the new mill for several years. This discovery was in 1824, and in 1831 a cone-shaped tower was built at Erie over a gas spring, thereby supplying the lighthouse on the lake.

These were the beginnings of the gas industry in the United States. The introduction of gas into the industries of Armstrong county occurred in 1869, when a well was drilled at Leechburg by Jos. G. Beale and others, who were seeking oil. For several years the oil and salt well drillers had found gas, but dreaded it, and generally shut it off. This time it was tried as an illuminant with success, and later used under the boilers and furnaces of the Siberian Iron Works. This was the first instance of the use of gas for metallurgical work in the United States.

At Bakou, on the Caspian sea, in Persia, natural gas had been used by the Parsees in their temples to perpetuate the sacred fire, and at a very early date in the world's history it was used by them in the forging of iron. However, this was never developed further than in a crude way.

The natural gas boom was subsequent to the oil boom, and was a sort of "back-fire" to the latter industry. At first the drillers only used the gas to light their works and seldom allowed it to be lit around the wells, from the apprehension of fire. Later on, when the oil wells began to fail, gas was turned to as a last resource, but it has proved of equal value. Many industries would never have come to this county had they not been able to avail themselves of this clean, cheap and simple fuel. To it we owe the great glass works, the many brick kilns, the finer grades of iron and steel and the efficient and economical lighting and heating of our homes. It has completely driven artificial gas out of the field.

For a time the gas industry languished, when the pressure of the wells ran low, but it was brought back quickly with the introduction of the gas pump. By this means the flow of the wells is equalized, the pumps being connected with several wells of varying pressure.



The Carnegie Gas Company have been among the energetic operators in this gas field with others and have put down twelve wells with more or less success, though they have not looked upon it as an especially desirable field and they have perhaps given it a better test than any other company. They estimate that it has cost thirteen cents a thousand to produce gas in the field, which is considered high. This is on account of the number of failures and light wells. We doubt whether other companies have a record of the cost, or, at least, we do not have their estimates.

The companies operating in Armstrong county are: American Natural Gas Co., Philadelphia Gas Co., Apollo Gas Co., Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., T. W. Phillips Gas & Oil Co., Peoples' Gas Co. and the Carnegie Gas Co. Some of these are private concerns, but all of them have pipe lines and pumping stations in the county. It is impossible to give a list of the hundreds of wells in operation, as new ones are coming in every week and exhausted ones being closed down. The T. W. Phillips company has between five and six hundred wells in seven counties of the State.

The present price of gas averages 25 cents per thousand cubic feet for domestic purposes, and 15 cents for manufacturing use.

The pressure, which at first was enormous, has held up fairly well, but is slowly decreasing and may be exhausted in a few years. Some of the old wells are holding out better than the new ones. All of the companies find it necessary to operate pumping stations at convenient points, from which the gas is forced into pipe lines from groups of wells of varying pressures.

The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company has a pumping station at the site of the old Tunnelton Mill, in Kittanning township, which has rehabilitated this little settlement. The men in charge work in two shifts, night and day. They are: H. J. Mansfield, J. M. Hawkins, J. P. Anthony and T. G. Miller.



The effort to obtain the necessaries of life in the most economic way led to the manufacture of whiskey in this county in early days of settlement. It was practically impossible for the farmers to pack enough wheat or rye over the mountains to pay for all the iron implements, cloth and salt they needed; but it was comparatively easy to distill their grain into whiskey and ship it in that portable form. A five-gallon keg of whiskey slung upon either side of a pack-horse, made an easy load, and its purchasing power was great enough to insure a big load for the return trip. In this way whiskey became their current money for eastern exchange. Soon the little stills were to be found in every settlement and along most of the streams.


When the Federal government, for purposes of revenue, in 1791, laid a heavy tax on all distilled liquors, it took away a large part of the purchasing power of the western whiskey, and the whole country rose up in rebellion against it. This was the so-called "Whiskey Insurrection" of 1794, in which Armstrong county had little part. It was not caused by an inordinate love of liquor on the part of the settlers, but by the fact that the excise tax had robbed them of a convenient means of procuring the necessaries of life. In the army that marched to Pittsburgh to quell this insurrection there were many citizens of this county, whose law-abiding inclinations overcame their resentment against the taxation of their chief source of revenue.

The great number of these old distilleries precludes an extended mention here, but they will be described in the sketches of the different townships. A few statistics of a later period are shown below.

The number of distilleries in the county in 1840 was 25, and they produced 20,633 gallons, a gallon to each man, woman and child living in this territory. In 1876 there was only one distillery, producing annually 50,000 gallons, or a little less than the proportion of the former year. At present there are in operation in the county three distilleries, but their output is not available. It is probably many times greater than the proportions above, as one of the distilleries is the largest in this country and supplies most of the eastern end of the United States with rye whiskey.



In [missing] there were 5,052 farmers in Armstrong, [missing] miners, 95 persons engaged in commerce, 711 in manufactures and trades; 36 in navigating the canals and lakes and 64 in the learned professions.

The wealth of the county in 1840 was: Iron furnaces, 3, producing 1,340 tons; employing 141 hands; capital, including mining operations, $48,000. Coal mines produced 705,490 bushels; employing 61 hands; capital, $9,347. Salt works produced 322,030 bushels; employed 68 men; capital, $57,034. Live stock - 14,434 horses and mules; 26,110 cattle; 54,815 sheep; 39,621 swine; poultry valued at $1,878. Wheat, 289,789 bushels; barley, 337 bushels; oats, 508,998 bushels; rye, 138,120 bushels; buckwheat, 85,040 bushels; corn, 171,089 bushels; wool, 80,416 pounds; hops, 1,528 pounds; beeswax, 1,602 pounds; potatoes, 107,046 bushels; hay, 17,341 tons; sugar, 21,605 pounds; dairy products, $46,854; fruits, $9,O17; home products, $51,152. There were 79 stores of all kinds with a total capitalization of $186,200. Manufactures-Buildings, 159; value of machinery, $19,660; capital invested, $255,825. Woolen Mills, 2; value of goods, $7,200; capital, $13,650. Tanneries, 25; tanned 2,569 sides sole leather, 4,276 sides of upper leather; capital, $17,750; value leather manufactures, $2,850. Distilleries, 25; Produced 20,633 gallons; capital, $11,290. Gristmills, 68. Sawmills, 91.

The total taxable property in 1845 was $1,618,800, of which $1,398,535 was real estate.

In 1850 there were in Armstrong county 21 gristmills, 13 sawmills, 12 saltworks, 5 carpenter shops, 5 brick yards, 3 tin shops, 3 woolen mills, 1 nail factory, 2 rolling mills, 6 iron furnaces, 2 foundries and 8 tanneries.

From the county commissioners' report for 1913 we learn that the number of acres of land in Armstrong county was 393,579; their valuation was $6,168,603. The houses and lots assessed in the county were valued at $6,176,143. Number of horses, 7,709; value, $312,829. Number of cows, 7,597; valued at 112,406. The occupational assessment was $840,597. Value of coal lands, $1,089,344. Total assessment for county purposes was $16,049,782. Total assessment for State purposes, $2,427,393. The valuation of personal property in the county was $3,207,461, an increase over 1890 of 87 per cent.

In 1913 Armstrong county had three rolling mills, eleven brick manufacturing plants, three distilleries, two plate glass works, six foundries, ten sawmills, two potteries, four quarries, and so many coal mines that it would be necessary to issue monthly bulletins to keep up with their establishment.

The report of the State Secretary of Internal Affairs for 1913, among other statistics has this regarding the industries peculiar to the county of Armstrong: In the steel mills the average earnings of the employees was $663.80 per year, and the value of their individual production was $3,661. That is, the cost of their labor was 18% of the receipts for the product. In the tin plate works the average salary was $722, and the value of the production was $2,127, or 23% of the receipts. Operatives in the woolen mills received an average Of $363 per year, which, their production amounting to $2,825 each, was only 13% of the whole cost of manufacture.



The population in 1810, when the territory was more extensive than in the present year, was 6,143; in 1820, 10,324; in 1830, 17,625; in 1840, 28,365; in 1850, after the formation of Clarion county, it was 29,500; in 1860, 35,797; in 1870, 43,382; in 1880, 54,477; in 1890, 46,747; in 1900, 52,551; in 1910, 68,880. The excess population of the 1880 census shows the effect of the oil boom.

Of the people in the county 67,372 are white. There are 495 negroes, of which 289 are black and 206 mulatto. There are also 10 Chinese and 3 Indians in the county.

Of the white residents 49,958 are of native parentage and birth and 9,510 are foreign born. Of the foreign born 4,633 are aliens, without the rights of citizenship, almost half of them residing in Ford City.

The nationalities of these foreigners are: Italy, 2,502; Austria, 1,990; Hungary, 1,816; Germany, 927; Russia, 484; other nations, to the number of sixteen, divide the remainder of the foreign population.



Since Smith's history of Armstrong county was published in 1883 the wonders of invention have so rapidly come into use that the public mind accepts them now as a matter of course. Railroads have grown to enormous proportions, telegraph lines cover the land with a network only equaled by the telephone lines; the phonograph is a household decoration, a daily amusement and a business necessity; the typewriter is the chief instrument of writing, some business men only signing their names to letters; the automobile is supplanting the horse; the impossibility of flying has become a daily possibility; and the great Panama canal, not then even dreamed of, is now a completed wonder of American engineering capacity.



The steam railroads are now threatened by the electric roads, and in self-defense are preparing to electrify their own lines. This year the Pennsylvania, having witnessed the electrification of the New York Central Lines into New York City, is preparing to do the same to its own road in that part of the country. This will also soon be done in Pittsburgh and the section near there, in which Armstrong county may share.

The field of electric research and invention may almost be said to be contemporaneous with the present generation. Men not yet old can remember when the first arc lamps appeared, and what a wonder they were; and the incandescent light was of later invention. One thing has followed another so rapidly, indeed, that the real marvel of electric development has hardly been realized by the generation that has witnessed it. In the public lighting stations of the United States upward of fifty thousand persons are employed, at wages amounting to forty million dollars; and it is estimated that more than one hundred thousand private plants employ thirty-five thousand more at wages that total at more than seventeen million dollars. Even this, however, represents but one department of the field of electrical industry as it is today. The lighting stations are dependent upon factories where thousands of other persons are employed. The manufacture of poles, both iron and wood, the making of porcelain, wire, glass, rubber, mica, insulators and many other things is enormously stimulated by this industry. The telephone, and the transmission of power for all sorts of purposes from distant waterfalls, are among the marvels of the present electrical age; and wireless telegraphy is so recent that it has not yet ceased to attract the curiosity always bestowed upon the latest scientific wonder. In all this work the United States has been a leader. Not only are the most important electrical inventions to be credited to this country, but our volume of electrical manufacture and export is greater than that of any other nation.



The greatest of the inventions of the last ten years is the aeroplane. In 1904 the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine was made at Kitty Hawk Hill, S. C., by Orville Wright, of Dayton, Ohio. Since that date the strides taken by this new method of transportation have been greater than those of any other invention in the world. Today the speed of the aeroplane is 124.8 miles an hour; machines have been run over 1,000 miles in 14 hours; seven passengers have been carried upon one machine: aeroplanes have been continued in flight for twenty hours without a stop; and the highest altitude reached by one aviator has been 19,600 feet above sea level.

Source: Page(s) 50-55, Armstrong County, Pa., Her People, Past and Present, J. H. Beers & Co., 19114.
Transcribed September 199 by Sara Stewart for the Armstrong County Smith Project.
Contributed by Sara Stewart for use by the Armstrong County Genealogy Project (

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