History of Warren County, Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII

PETROLEUM

The "Fontaine de Bitume" - The Earliest French Missionaries Aware of its Existence - Also the English - Early References to the Same - Washington and Jefferson Speak of "Bituminous Oil" in Virginia - Evidences that the French Gathered the Oil at Titusville - It is Known to Early Inhabitants as "Seneca Oil" - An Account of the First Producer and Refiner of Petroleum in Pennsylvania - He Terms it "Carbon Oil" - Colonel Drake’s Discovery - Descriptions by Correspondents - Great Excitement at Titusville - Warren Men as Pioneer Operators - Subsequent Developments of Oil Producing Territory - Handsome Profits - Tidioute Field Opened - Squatters - Early Manner of Shipments - Annual Production of Pennsylvania and New York Fields Since 1859.

 

BUT little more than a quarter of a century has passed since petroleum was first discovered in large quantities by boring deep into the earth, yet from the earliest occupation of this country by the French it was known to exist. As early as July 18, 1627, a French missionary, Joseph de la Roque Daillon, of the order of Recollets, described it in a letter published in 1632, in Segard’s "L’Histoire du Canada," and this description is confirmed by the journal of Charlevoix, 1721. Fathers Dollier and Galinee, missionaries of the order of St. Sulpice, made an early map of this section of the country, which they sent to Jean Talon, intendent of Canada, November 10, 1670, on which was marked at about the point where is now the town of Cuba, New York, "Fontaine de Bitume." On the 3d of November, 1700, the Earl of Belmont, governor of New York, instructed his chief engineer and surveyor, Wolfgang W. Romer, during his visit to the country of the Six Nations, "to go and view a well, or spring, which is eight miles beyond the Seneks’ farthest castle, which they have told me blazes up in a flame, when a lighted coale or firebrand is put into it; you will do well to taste the said water, and give me your opinion thereof, and bring with you some of it." Thomas Chabert de Joncaire, who died in September, 1740, is also mentioned in the journal of Charlevoix of 1721 as authority for the existence of oil at the place mentioned above, and at points further south, probably on Oil Creek.

The following account of an event occurring during the occupancy of this part of the State by the French is given as an example of the religious uses made of the oil by the Indians, as these fire dances are understood to have been annually celebrated: "While descending the Allegheny, fifteen leagues below the mouth of the Connewango, and three above Fort Venango, we were invited by the chief of the Senecas to attend a religious ceremony of his tribe. We landed and drew up our canoes on a point where a small stream entered the river. The tribe appeared unusually solemn. We marched up the stream about half a league, where the company, a large band it appeared, had arrived some days before us. Gigantic hills begirt us on every side. The scene was really sublime. The great chief then recited the conquests and heroisms of their ancestors. The surface of the stream was covered with a thick scum, which burst into a complete conflagration. The oil had been gathered and lighted with a torch. At sight of the flames, the Indians gave forth a triumphant shout, and made the hills and valleys re-echo again."

In nearly all geographies and notes of travel published during the early period of settlement, this oil is referred to, and on several old maps, French as well as English, the word "petroleum" appears opposite the mouth of Oil Creek. It was also known many years ago that a similar product existed in West Virginia, since General Washington, in his will, in speaking of his lands on the Great Kanawha, says: "The tract, of which the 125 acres is a moiety, was taken up by General Andrew Lewis and myself, for and on account of a bituminous spring which it contains, of so inflammable a nature as to burn as freely as spirits, and is nearly as difficult to extinguish." Thomas Jefferson, in his "Notes on Virginia," also describes a burning spring on the lower grounds of the Great Kanawha. Thus, this oil not only seems to have been known, but to have been systematically gathered in very early times. Upon the bottom lands a mile or so below Titusville were many acres of cradle-holes dug out and lined with split logs, evidently constructed for the purpose of gathering it. The fact that the earliest English-speaking inhabitants could never discover any stumps from which these logs were cut, and the further fact that trees of great size were found growing in the midst of these cradles, are evidences that they must have been operated long ago, but by whom, is a question as yet unsolved. Some have suggested that it was the work of the mound-builders; but the writer indulges in no such belief. It is more reasonable to suppose that the French, who knew of its location, utilized this greasy product to a considerable extent for medicinal and other purposes, and arranged these holes, or pits, as a means of gathering it. They were in possession of this region for more than a hundred years before it was personally known to the English-speaking whites, and during that great period there was ample time for the stumps of trees taken to line these pits to crumble to dust, as well as for small trees to attain great proportions.

General Irvine, during his exploring expedition through this country in the summer of 1785, visited Oil Creek, and in his report says: "Oil Creek has taken its name from an oil, or bituminous matter, found floating on the surface. Many cures are attributed to this oil by the natives, and lately by some whites, particularly Rheumatic pains and old Ulcers."

For many years the usual means of gathering this product of nature, which finally became known as "Seneca Oil," was by throwing a woolen cloth, or blanket, upon the water, collected in a trough, or pit, and upon which the oil floated, and then wringing the cloth over a tub. The clean wool absorbed the oil and rejected the water, and in this way a considerable quantity was obtained. The oil was then bottled in small vials and sold by tramping peddlers in many parts of the country, as a sure cure for rheumatism, sore throat, ulcers, and various aches and pains.

Coming down to recent years, within the memory of men yet young and active, the name of Colonel E.L. Drake looms up prominently as the pioneer in the oil business in Western Pennsylvania; yet there was another producer and operator in petroleum, who ante-dated Drake by nearly twenty years, and deserves mention.

In 1840 Samuel M. Kier, and his father, Thomas Kier, of Pittsburgh, owned a salt well on the Allegheny River, about one mile above Tarrentum. The well had been worked some months, when oil made its appearance, and mixed in considerable quantities with the salt water. About the same time Lewis Peterson, jr., discovered oil in a well on his farm adjoining the Messrs. Kiers’. The accumulation on Mr. Peterson’s premises was so considerable that it became troublesome, and had to be removed by means of surface drains. But Mr. S.M. Kier, with that practical sagacity with which he was distinguished, could not believe that this (then mysterious) production of nature had been made in vain. He was convinced that there must be a want somewhere which it was intended to supply. As an experiment, the oil was bottled and introduced as a medicine. Chemistry has frequently shown that petroleum possesses several valuable medical properties, but in Mr. Kier’s early essays the science of advertising was not understood, or at least but little resorted to, and his "patent medicine" speculation failed.

Still, fully impressed with the conviction that the oil had its important uses, Mr. Kier submitted samples to Professor J.C. Booth, of Philadelphia, who, after a careful analysis of it, recommended him to offer it to a New York gutta-percha company, who were seeking a proper solvent for this gum. The gutta-percha company’s experiments with it were not satisfactory. Mature reflection convinced Professor Booth that, by distillation, an excellent burning oil could be obtained from the crude. He furnished Mr. Kier with drawings for a suitable still. Mr. Kier returned to Pittsburgh, constructed a still, and put it in active operation. The product he named "Carbon Oil," by which designation it was for a long time generally known.

Mr. Kier soon had invented a suitable lamp for its use. He subsequently became largely interested in the manufacture and sale of these oil lamps, and, locally speaking the oil came into general use. The consumption, however, began to exceed the supply of crude, and the want of the raw material seriously interfered with the sales of carbon, or "refined," which had grown to be comparatively a profitable and important business. Strenuous efforts were made to increase the supply of raw material with indifferent success. Agents were sent out exploring in various directions, and among the localities which contributed an additional supply was the "Land Diggings," on Hughes’s River, West Virginia.

Five years had now elapsed since Mr. Kier started his sixty gallon still "refinery," when oil was discovered on the Allegheny near his premises. A well which had been dug for and pumped as a salt well for twenty years, had been placed under the severe drain of a new and more powerful pump. The head of salt water became exhausted, and lo! petroleum appeared and pumped freely. Thus, in the year 1845, was established the first "pumping well" known to the oil world, but years were yet to elapse before human knowledge should attain to a full comprehension of this singular discovery, destined to effect the greatest trade revolution known to modern commerce. The fortunate owners of this well, while on their way to Pittsburgh with a stock of their crude oil, sold it to certain druggists, who established a small refinery. But now the stock of petroleum was in excess of the market. After considerable negotiation a Mr. Ferris of New York city contracted for the greater portion of the well’s production.

About this time the coal oil excitement commenced. Mineral oil as an illuminant came into general use. Cheapness, brilliancy, and safety combined to recommend it. Parties who had purchased a quantity of land just below Titusville, observed oil floating on the surface of its streams. A number of wells were dug in pursuit of oil in quantities, in vain. The owners learned through Mr. Ferris, above mentioned, that oil might probably be obtained by boring. A well was started, and at a moderate depth the drill struck oil. This was no other than the famous "DRAKE WELL," the first one bored for oil exclusively.

From the facts above given it is clear and indisputable that Mr. Kier was the pioneer and founder of the oil business in Pennsylvania, and that to his sagacity, ingenuity, perseverance, and skill, the whole world is largely indebted for the knowledge and introduction of one of the most important discoveries, conveniences and social blessings of modern times.*

In 1855 Prof. B. Silliman, Jr., tested the rock or petroleum oil obtained in Venango county and found it equal in illuminating power to most fluids and gases in use, and superior to many of them.

We now turn to the doings of E.L. Drake, and note what the newspapers had to say in relation to the first developments, etc. Some years after Drake’s discovery, at a time when he was sick and penniless, and a handsome purse had been raised for him in Titusville, a newspaper writer spoke of him as follows: "Colonel E.L. Drake was the pioneer in the oil business in this region. At one time he had a considerable fortune, but during the latter years of his life he was poor and out of health. His derrick, the first one ever erected for oil, stood for many years about a mile below Titusville. He made his first appearance in Titusville in 1857. Prior to that time he had been a conductor on a railroad in Connecticut. He came to Oil Creek on business for another person. Calling casually at the office of Brewer & Watson, in Titusville, he there found a bottle of crude oil, and his curiosity being excited concerning it, he learned from Dr. Brewer all facts of interest connected with its production, viz., that it flowed from natural springs on the Watson flats; and had been known to the Seneca Indians before the white settlements began, and had been sold by them as a liniment or medicine, to white persons, and also to the druggists; and latterly had been gathered by Brewer & Watson and used for lighting the saw-mills of the firm and for lubricating purposes. Drake visited the oil springs, and conceived the idea of boring to the sources of the oil. He returned east, obtained the co-operation of some moneyed friends, and the following year came back as the agent of an oil firm located at New Haven, Conn."

On the 8th of September, 1859, a newspaper correspondent, writing from Titusville, said: "Perhaps you will recollect that in 1854 there was organized in the city of New York a company, under the name of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, which, for some good reasons, passed into the hands of New Haven capitalists, and the office and headquarters was by them removed to New Haven. In 1858 the directors leased the grounds and springs to Mr. E.L. Drake, well-known on the New Haven Railroad. He came out here, and in May last commenced to bore for salt, or to find the source of the oil, which is so common along Oil Creek. Last week, at the depth of seventy-one feet, he struck a fissure in the rock through which he was boring, when, to the surprise and joy of every one, he found he had tapped a vein of water and oil, yielding four hundred gallons of pure oil every twenty-four hours.

"The pump now in use throws only five gallons per minute of water and oil into a large vat, where the oil rises to the top and the water runs out from the bottom. In a few days they will have a pump of three times the capacity of the one now in use and then from ten to twelve hundred gallons of oil will be the daily yield.

"The springs along the stream, I understand, have been mostly taken up or secured by Brewer & Watson, the parties who formerly owned the one now in operation. The excitement attendant upon the discovery of this vast source of oil was fully equal to what I ever saw in California, when a large lump of gold was accidentally turned out."

Another newspaper man, Editor Chase, of the Potter Journal, in October, 1859, informed his readers of what he knew about petroleum and the excitement at Titusville, then a town of about three hundred inhabitants, in the following lucid manner: "After a brief rest we visited the famous Seneca Oil Spring which has recently created so great an excitement and wonder in the outside world. The sensation of seeing and smelling the oil was nothing new to us - we were born and bred there. The oil has been gathered from surface springs and used in that section of country ever since its settlement; the Indians and the French having opened and worked a large number of springs near the present site of Titusville, many years before any English settlers found their way there. The oil never had an outside market until now, though the ‘Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company’ have, we believe, marketed a quantity of the surface spring product in New Haven, where the office of the company now is. In 1858, as stated in the Journal two weeks since, the company leased the spring (for which they paid Brewer, Williams & Co. $5,000) to E.L. Drake, who was to gather the oil at his own expense and pay them 12-1/2 cents a gallon for it. His lease was for fifteen years, with full privilege of working at his option.

"In May last Mr. Drake commenced boring for salt, and after sinking a shaft seventy-one feet, the first of last month struck a fissure in the rock through which he was boring, and the discovery of this subterranean spring of oil was the result. The yield of oil with the pump first used was 400 gallons per day, but when we were there a pump of three times the capacity of that was in operation, and a yield of 1,600 gallons per twenty-four hours, of pure oil, had been obtained.

"Other parties along the stream have also bored for oil, and have found it at various depths; the least of which was six feet, on the farm of Mr. John Watson, in Titusville Borough, three-fourths of a mile from the village. After one foot of soil had been removed, a stratum of three and one-half feet of Potter’s clay was bored through - that also being a new discovery. Another spring was tapped about twenty-eight feet from the surface, on the farm of J. Parker, about one-fourth of a mile from the village center, and opening through one of the old springs worked by the French and Indians, of which there are a large number at that particular point.

"As a result consequent upon this discovery real estate and leases, with privilege of boring till oil was found, were each, held at great prices. We heard of an instance in which $20,000 was offered and refused for a half interest in a lease of fifteen years on one hundred acres! and we know of several fourth interests in leases at a distance of two or three miles from the working spring being sold for $2,500 and $3,000. The tract of land on which the large spring has been opened by Mr. Drake was once purchased by the father of the writer of this article for a cow, and previous to that had been sold at treasurer’s sale for taxes. Now, we believe, $100,000 would not buy one acre of it. Men until now barely able to get a poor living off poor land are made rich beyond their wildest dreaming.

"The properties of this oil (a bottle of which we brought with us and may be seen at this office) are medicinal, for internal as well as external application; illuminant, giving a strong light, and is one of the best oils for lubricating machinery ever used, as it never gums."

On the 8th of October, 1859, Editor Cowan, of the Warren Mail, in speaking of the recent discovery of petroleum in larger quantities said: "Quite a little excitement exists in town in regard to the late discovery of considerable quantities of Seneca Oil, on Oil Creek, near Titusville, near the southern boundary of our county. Two or three companies have been formed in which some of our citizens are interested, with a view of boring for the oil. Mr. Boon Mead, we hear, is one of a company who have made some progress in sinking a shaft. Messrs. A. Tanner, L.F. Watson and D.M. Williams, are also engaged in boring for a mine of oily wealth, Mr. Williams having left on Wednesday last with experienced workmen to prosecute the work. The calculation is that oil can be reached at about fifty feet below the surface."

Thus began the excitement, and the prosecution of this then wonderful industry by Warren county men. Their field of operations gradually widened and extended, until, only a few years later, the greasy fluid was seen exuding from great depths at their very doors. Such names as Tidioute, Enterprise, Fagundus, Clarendon, Kinzua, Glade, Cherry Grove, Sheffield, Grand Valley, etc., etc., which, without the development of their oil products would scarcely have merited a scant notice in a local newspaper, sprang into prominence as oil producing centers, and have been repeated in thousands of households throughout the land.

As will be noticed, the ideas and appliances of the early borers for oil were almost as crude as the product they so industriously sought. At first all expected to obtain oil by boring but a few feet, and, in consequence, looked closely for surface indications before beginning at all. Three hundred feet was looked upon as the extreme limit of depth. Several flowing wells were developed on Oil Creek, and near Titusville early in the summer of 1860, at comparatively shallow depths, and among the lucky Warren men were L.F. Watson, D.M. Williams, Archibald Tanner, Boon Mead, H.R. Rouse & Co., and Dennis & Grandin. The well owned by Barnsdall, Mead, Rouse & Co., was then considered a wonderful affair, and from a description of it as published in the Titusville Gazette in July, 1860, we extract the following:

"Depth of well, 116 feet. Pipe driven to the rock, 47 feet. The whole cost of the well, pump, engine, vats, buildings, boarding-house, and other incidentals, $3,000. Five dollars will cover the daily expenses of keeping the works in operation. Average yield per day is six hundred gallons, worth thirty cents per gallon. Commenced pumping on the 1st of February, and has sold up to June 1st, 56,000 gallons, which, if our arithmetic serves us right, figures up the small sum of $16,800; deducting therefrom all expenses and there remains the comfortable income of $13,200, in four months."

The "Williams well," owned by Williams, Watson & Tanner, as before mentioned, was also looked upon as a wonder in its day, yet its daily product, at a depth of one hundred and forty-three feet, was only twelve barrels. Subsequently it was drilled two feet deeper, when it flowed at the rate of four hundred and eighty barrels per day.

Early in 1860 the Tidioute field was opened, and in July of that year more than sixty wells were being bored at the same time. A majority of these wells when completed were shallow in depth, and small producers, their productiveness being rated by gallons, but with oil worth thirty cents per gallon, their owners were eminently well pleased with results. Immediately this rugged, lonely spot was invaded by crowds from all sections of the country, and for a time it seemed to be the chief objective point of the multitude seeking wealth without work. On the river and adjoining hills hundreds of wells were sunk with more or less success, with fewer dry holes and better permanence in production than were incident to many other developed localities. But as is true of all other fields, the production gradually diminished, and the bright anticipations of many were blasted. In the excitement Tidioute grew from a hamlet to a large and prosperous borough. Hotels, banks, newspaper offices, saloons, churches, and various mercantile houses appeared upon its streets with magical rapidity, money floated in every breeze like leaves in autumn. But with the diminished supply and low price of oil following the panic of 1873, came a terrible revulsion in its prosperity. The suddenly rich became as suddenly poor, and the inflated prices of property depreciated to the lowest standard of value.

In describing scenes and doings at Tidioute in the fall of 1860, a local correspondent said: "The latest excitement is that caused by the squatters. For a week or more we have had repeated rumors of a collision; but so far the fights have ended in gas. Since Tidioute Island developed so richly numerous parties have tried to get claims on the bar, and in the bed of the river around it. Several weeks ago a company commenced on the bar directly above and near the Island. They were complained of and bound over to court, so the question as to whether they have a right there is to be legally decided soon. Meanwhile, from twenty to thirty have squatted where there is no bar. The water being shallow, they anchor a raft of logs or a float on a spot, put up their derricks and commence driving pipe. The islanders and shore lessees show fight, claiming that they have no right there. Now and then a raft is cut loose, and the ‘claim’ floats off, consequently most of them have to be watched night and day. The flood this week swept them nearly all away, so they are getting along swimmingly. How this kind of Squatter Sovereignty will end of course no one knows and but few care, except the parties interested."

During the same year oil was found at Kinzua; lands for oil purposes were leased all along the river from Tidioute to Warren, and two wells were projected at the last mentioned point - one upon the "Island," and the other on the bank of the Conewango just above the bridge.

In 1861 it cost $7.45 to ship a barrel of oil from the oil regions to New York city. In seeking ways of cheaper transit a company was incorporated the same year to pipe crude oil from Titusville, Oil City, etc., to some point on the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad. Of this company several prominent Warren men were members. The usual mode of shipment at that time was by water to Pittsburgh, thence by rail to eastern points. Fifteen steamers and tow boats were employed in the oil trade on the Allegheny in 1861. Water tight boxes were also utilized to a considerable extent. These were about sixteen feet square and twenty inches deep. When nearly filled with oil, five or six of them were fastened together and run down the creek to the river, where some twenty of them lashed together would compose a fleet ready to be towed or floated to Pittsburgh. Barrels were mainly relied upon, however, as receptacles for the shipment of oil, and a thriving industry sprang up in their manufacture at Warren and at other points along the river. These, too, were floated to the oil-producing centers as rafts. Subsequently teams were kept busy from the first dawn of day until far in the night hauling the crude oil in barrels to points on the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad. As soon as practicable, lines of railway were constructed from nearly all the trunk lines to the oil fields. Finally barrels gave place to immense iron tanks riveted upon cars, provided for the escape of the gases, and later great pipe lines were extended from the wells to the seaboard and to the great lakes, through which the fluid is forced by steam power to its distant destinations.

In 1866 Roberts’s torpedoes first began to be used to increase the production of small or declining wells, and in most instances with gratifying results. In that year W.B. and E.A.L. Roberts commenced the manufacture of nitroglycerine near Titusville, having secured patents in relation to its preparation for blasting purposes. To that time little was made in this country except samples prepared in drug stores. At present from five hundred to six hundred tons are annually consumed in oil wells alone, and though the patents of Messrs. Roberts have recently expired, the firm still manufacture a large proportion of this well-known and dangerous compound.

Oil has been found in paying quantities in Warren, McKean, Forest, Venango, Crawford, Clarion, Butler, Armstrong, and Washington counties, Pennsylvania. In Cattaraugus and Allegheny counties, New York. Also in West Virginia, Ohio, California, Canada, South America, Russia, and Northern Africa. But that produced in Pennsylvania is vastly superior in quality to any yet discovered, and commands the highest price in market, whether in a refined or crude state. Its principal uses are for illumination and lubricating, though many of its products are employed in the mechanic arts, notably for dyeing, mixing of paints, and in the practice of medicine. Its production has grown to enormous proportions, and as yet seems to show but little sign of diminution. The following table, compiled from the Derrick’s Hand-book, exhibits the annual production of the Pennsylvania oil fields since the opening of Drake’s well in 1859:

 

Year. Barrels. Year. Barrels.
1859 82,000 1873 9,849,508
1860 500,000 1874 11,102,114
1861 2,113,000 1875 8,948,749
1862 3,056,606 1876 9,142,940
1863 2,611,399 1877 13,052,713
1864 2,116,182 1878 15,011,425
1865 3,497,712 1879 20,085,716
1866 3,597,512 1880 24,788,950
1867 3,347,306 1881 29,674,458
1868 3,715,741 1882** 31,789,190
1869 4,186,475 1883 24,385,966
1870 5,308,046 1884 23,500,000
1871 5,278,076 1885 20,900,000
1872 6,505,774 1886 Not reported

* What is here said of Mr. Kier has been condensed from an article published in the Pittsburgh Oil News, in March, 1865.

** These reports include the New York or Allegany district, which, in 1882, produced 6,450,000 barrels.

SOURCE: Page(s) 285-294, History of Warren County, J.S. Schenck & W.S. Rann, Syracuse, New York: D. Mason, 1887