First Oil Well in Warren County
Old Time Tales of Warren County


First Oil Well in Warren County

On Monday afternoon of August 30, 1859, a man came riding a roan horse across the hills and through the woods from Titusville to Tidioute. He had wonderful news for the little town on the Allegheny, news that was to ultimately make tremendous history in the whole region. William H. Henderson of Titusville had ridden over to Tidioute to tell his friends that Drake had struck oil in his well the day before, and all the countryside was already flocking to the spot to see the world's first oil well.

Tidioute had not yet been made a borough in that eventful year of 1859, and would not be till three years had passed. It was a quiet little river town without a railroad or a bridge. An accumulation of rafts and a number of broad bottomed keel boats were tied up in the river, awaiting higher water. No one paid any particular attention to the man on the roan horse as he rode into Tidioute that bright afternoon in late August, his horse kicking up soft clots of dust as it lifted its feet. There was, of course, no especial reason why anyone should take particular note of the traveler, men on horse back riding out of the woods were common enough in those days.

The first man hailed by the rider as he came down the street was Justice of the Peace R. H. Morrison who stood in his shirtsleeves on the plank sidewalk in front of a small store talking with Joseph and Perry McGee - Henderson knew the justice of the peace and saluted him with a wave of the hand, remarking first of all on the dry August weather. Then in a few minutes Tidioute had the news of the Drake Well, scarce fifteen miles away. The news ran through the village quickly. That evening there was much excited talk around Tidioute supper tables,-an oil well had been struck at Titusville; if there was oil at Titusville, why not at Tidioute, Titusville was just over the hill. Were there not several oil springs in the vicinity of the town?

But talking about oil and drilling for it are two different things, especially when no tools for drilling are available, nor a man anywhere who had ever drilled an oil well. So there was no mad rush by the entire town to put down oil wells.
There was, however, a young man in Tidioute whose splendid lineage traced across the sea to an island on the south coast of France, who took an exceeding great interest in the oil news from Titusville. J. L. Grandin, employed in his father's store had seen Henderson ride into town, been one of the first to hear the news he carried, and had done some thinking.

Young Grandin saw possibilities in the hills which had been robbed of their rich wealth of timber, the high, towering hills that lift their huge shoulders against the sky above Tidioute as if to shelter it from the west winds. He knew of an oil spring on the Campbell farm. He bought the farm. It was on Gordon Run.

Next morning Grandin called on H. H. Dennis in his workshop on the main street of the village. Dennis was a man of great skill as a mechanic and mill-wright. Grandin sat down on a sawhorse and talked with Dennis about drilling a well "right in the middle of the spring." He asked him if he could make the tools and drill the well, a man's size job, certainly. Dennis, leaning on his hammer and looking out the window said he guessed he could do it if anybody could. Thus the contract was made for the first well at Tidioute, the second in the oil regions.

Work was commenced immediately and a twenty-foot derrick erected by placing four scantlings upright. A spring pole was procured and set in place. The oil spring was dug down to the rock, and everything necessary for the drilling of Warren County's first oil well that could be obtained was placed at the disposal of Dennis. With the old style "Churn drill" used for blasting as a model, the mill-wright set about the difficult problem of making an apparatus that would sink a drill a hundred or more feet through solid rock.

The resourceful Dennis secured a bar of inchand-a-quarter iron, three feet in length, and from this fashioned a drilling tool on his anvil. One end of the bar was flattened to form a cutting bitt, two and a half inches in breadth, the diameter of the hole to be drilled. In the upper end of the iron bar he made a socket which held a tempered piece of round iron, keyed securely in place. This part of the drill had to be lengthened as the depth required. Two or three times a day, as the drilling progressed, the bar had to be removed from the hole, the key cut off and the bar readjusted. The motive power for this primitive well was furnished by the men who drew down the hickory spring pole, and released it. The well in the spring in Gordon Hollow was "kicked down", in the vernacular of the day.

Before the first rush of sight seers at the Drake Well had subsided; the bitt in the Grandin well at Tidioute was biting the rock, nibbling, one might say, for it was slow business drilling solid Warren County rock with a bobbing spring pole. By the first of October Dennis had got his drill down to a depth of 134 feet. The Drake well had found petroleum at a depth of only seventy feet; Grandin and his able mechanic Dennis began to wonder why they did not encounter oil. As Jimmy Flannigan, the keel boat pusher remarked, "Sure, if it's spring water they're after, couldn't they fist have poiped it down?"
It was finally decided to procure a pump and see what could be done to draw the oil to the surface. Copper tubing to fit the hole was ordered from Pittsburgh. In a few days the promoters learned their well hole was too small by nearly one-half! If they were going to pump it the diameter must be four inches.

Grandin may have been discouraged, but he was not disheartened. Obstacles are only stimulants to men made of the right stuff. He decided to visit the Drake Well at Titusville and take Dennis with him. He wanted to learn something about drilling oil wells. So the two men set out early next morning on horseback. On arriving at the spot Drake had made famous they found the earth trampled by multitudes, the well closely boarded up and surrounded by guards. The information bureau had not yet been installed. The Tidioute men rode home across the hills, no less determined to drill a successful oil well.

Drilling in the spring in Gordon Hollow was suspended for a time, but Dennis just naturally couldn't keep away from that hole. While coming from a walk up that way he found "just what he wanted." It was a discarded tram car axle. It was six feet in length, two inches in diameter, made of fine old-fashioned wrought iron. The thing would weigh nearly one hundred pounds.

Dennis demonstrated his genius by transforming the old axle into a first class reamer. He attached an inchand-an-eighth cable to one end and began the work of enlarging the hole. For a sand pump in his first drilling operation he used a three-foot piece of two-inch copper pipe, cut from a water boiler flue that had been obtained at a neighboring sawmill. At the bottom of the tube he fastened a leather valve, thus inventing a primitive bailer. It would certainly seem that H. H. Dennis should have been a famous inventor.

During all this time the well-in-the-spring at Tidioute had excited only mild interest. A few residents of the little town in the bend of the river made frequent pilgrimages up to Gordon Run "to see how Dennis was making it." Tidioute was interested, but not excited. The village pessimists decided the Drake Well was the only one that would ever be struck in the country, and this foolishness of drilling for oil would soon subside. Even the most interested ones didn't suspicion they were living over a volcano which was soon to erupt and spatter all the hillsides with the black stains of petroleum.
Through the fall and winter of that momentous year of 1859 and 1860 Dennis toiled on at Gordon Run, some days reaming out six inches and other times as much as two feet in a day. Warren was getting its first railroad that fall, the Sunbury and Erie having completed its line from Erie to the county seat. Cautious parents in Youngsville, Pittsfield and Garlandwere warning their children to keep away from the cars. Old Mrs. Hockenberry who lived up Mathews Run in a one-story log house and still spun wool for yarn and home-spun, said she hoped to goodness they'd take her straight off to the insane asylum if she ever was crazy enough to ride on the thing.

In December Warren had a great celebration in honor of the new railroad with a parade through the streets and much feasting and drinking. There was a ball at the Carver House and the barroom stayed open all night. When the cold December dawn glimmered on the river, late guests were still departing from the Carver, full of the spirit of the thing.

During the fall L. F. Watson and Archibald Tanner had visited Tidioute and Gordon Run, talked with Dennis as he worked at the Grandin well, visited with Grandin and discussed the future of oil. Boon Mead had come down the river from Warren too, and D. M. Williams. These intelligent men were interested in what Grandin was doing, didn't know but they might be drilling a few oil wells themselves some day. Over across the hills in the Brokenstraw Valley, at Pittsfield a bright eleven-year-old boy was asking his father questions about oil at the supper table. His father was one of the prominent residents of the region, a man of attainments and intellect, an owner of many acres in Warren County. But James McKinney didn't particularly like oil, he said it smelled bad and didn't encourage his boy to take any further interest in petroleum than simply to be well informed. But little Johnny McKinney dreamed prophetically of oil wells with tall derricks and all the world using oil. In the long winter nights of that year of 1859 when snow storms swirled down the Brokenstraw Creek and the wind sang in his father's stone chimney Johnny McKinney may have dreamed of a man who was to be a great figure in the world of oil, a man who was to bear the name of John L. McKinney through long and honorable years.

It snowed over at Tidioute too, that winter of-5960. Deep drifts sifted into Gordon Run Hollow. But still Dennis worked at the Grandin well. While the blue wood smoke was spiraling up from the clustered chimneys of the village, among roofs deep covered with snow, the chimney at Dennis' shop sent up puffs of black coal smoke, smoke from fine Pittsburgh coal brought up the Allegheny on a keel boat for the blacksmith forge. The leather bellows were blowing a blue-green flame, Dennis was hammering on his anvil, the soft clink of his hammer the only sound in snow-muffled little Tidioute save the chilly murmur of the river as it sparkled out from beneath its snow-bed on the riffles. Dennis was making a set of drilling jars from inch-an-a-quarter iron. They were made in two links, two feet in length and were attached between the car axle and the cable.

As soon as the new equipment was finished it was taken up to Gordon Run. And the work of enlarging the well hole went on. Some mornings it was a job to shovel out a path to the well, there were heavy snows that winter, they came swirling down over Babylon Hill burying everything. In January the river had disappeared except for a few air holes at the riffles, its surface was just a smooth, snow-covered boulevard on which men and horses could travel, and did travel in numbers. In fact a well marked highway ran up the river and down, on the ice.

There were deer tracks on the river aplenty, too, and once some Tidioute hunters followed the track of a bull elk that had come out on the ice at Hickory Creek and traveled clear up to Dunn's Eddy before leaving the river and losing himself in the hemlock and laurel of York Hill. Up at Warren they were racing trotting horses on the ice, horses shod with sharp calks at Hertzel's blacksmith shop to keep them from slipping when they came flying down the river below the Carver House at a 2.30 clip.

But Dennis wasn't thinking about the deep snow on the hills or the heavy ice on the river, he was thinking about that oil well on Gordon Run, wondering how long it was going to take him to enlarge the hole all the way down. He had told Grandin, "I guess I can do it if anyone can," and Dennis was accustomed to doing what he set out to do. The job stretched out into months but finally the larger bore was finished. The reamer was let down to make sure the job was finished. The reamer stuck fast.

Every effort was made to recover the tools from the hole and finally Dennis brought his inexaustible ingenuity into play once more; he made a torpedo from a piece of iron pipe, filled it with blasting powder and attempted to blow his drill bar from the hole. It was the first use of explosives in the oil business, but the brave attempt was a failure. Warren County's first oil well, drilled in a spring on the Campbell farm in the exciting year of 1859 by J. L. Grandin, with the ingenious help of H. H. Dennis; never produced any oil. It had been drilled one hundred and thirty-four feet through rock and shale, almost twice the depth of Drake's well.

For many years the tract along Gordon Run was looked upon as a barren spot in the fertile field of Tidioute. The valley and hillside were drilled over again and again till prospectors became quite as discouraged as Dennis when he lost his homemade reamer and jars in the spring hole. The tract came into the possession of the Tidioute and Warren Oil Co., and finally was taken over by Captain Taggart. He put down several holes but always struck strict prohibition territory.

In recent years the much-drilled tract was leased to Kies and Crittenten. They put down a well to the usual depth and in accordance with the old calculations of the field, but they found neither oil nor oil sand. Kies and Crittenten, however, were not content to let well enough alone, perhaps they thought they hadn't quite well enough; the drill was sent down several feet more and Gordon Run at last made good its promise. Oil in abundance rewarded their efforts and one of the richest little pools of the Tidioute section was opened up.

First Paying Well

In July, 1860, King and Ferris, two prospectors from Titusville, drilled the second well at Tidioute and obtained the first oil in paying quantities. They located their well close to the river, below the mouth of Gordon Run. The tools and apparatus they used were most primitive, but far in advance of the handmade outfit with which the Grandin well had been put down the year before. Already men were learning how to drill for oil. The King and Ferris well produced only ten barrels of oil a day but that was enough to give a great impetus to drilling at Tidioute. During the latter part of the same month sixty wells were being drilled at the mouth of Gordon Run.

On the thirteenth of August, 1860, Tidioute began to hit its pace in the matter of oil production when the Hequembourg well, drilled to a depth of 124 feet came in with a flow of 200 barrels per day.

Tidioute Island, opposite the lower end of the town was perhaps three times as large in 1860 as it is today. In September a well was struck on the island which flowed steadily for twenty hours.

With so many drilling in the region, wells were struck rapidly from then on and the name of Tidioute went east and west. The idea that petroleum was to be found only along the streams was still so strong the islands and river bank grew a forest of derricks. Some prospectors proposed to get into the swim by anchoring rafts in the river and drilling from the rafts. It was a novel idea, that of a floating oil well, but it didn't please the owners of leases along the shore. A hot feud sprang up between the raftsmen and the landsmen and it is said that at this time some of the most expressive cuss words ever uttered along the river were invented and put into everyday, commercial use. If you will glance down the long reaches of the Allegheny on any afternoon to this day you will notice the air is still blue along the river.

The war between the raftsmen and the landsmen finally resulted in the landsmen cutting the anchor ropes of the floating derricks and they went down stream with the current. The burst of profanity hurled back by the vanishing raftsmen when they found they had thus been cut off without a gallon of oil is said to have stopped the flow on several of the best wells on the river bank. It was either this ruined them, or stones dropped in the wells later on by the raftsmen.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 17-26: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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