Ascending The Allegheny
( Originally Published 1900 )
From Pittsburg, through bold and pleasing scenery, we ascend the Allegheny River, the broad channel flowing grandly around stately bends enclosed between high hills. Thirty miles above Pittsburg the Kiskiminetas comes in, - and in a region of coal mines and furnaces is found the town of Kittanning, which retains the name of the Indian village standing there in Colonial days. This original Indian village was attacked by Colonel Armstrong and three hundred troops at dawn on August 8, 1757, and the Indians, who sided with the French, refusing to sur-render, they were pretty much all killed and their village burnt. Armstrong's name is preserved in the county. Beyond is Brady's Bend, a great curve of the river, and here are seen the derricks of many deserted oil wells, as the farther journey above for miles also discloses. This was the Modoc oil district. The Morrison well was struck in 1872, yielding five hundred barrels daily, and immediately a town was laid out, not inappropriately called Greece City, and it soon had a large population. This was a prolific oil region at one time, and back from the river were the well-known oleaginous towns of Modoc City, Karns City and Petrolia. The Allegheny River gradually leads us up to Venango County, which was the chief oil region. Franklin, the capital of the county, has about five thousand inhabitants, and is built at the mouth of French Creek, the site of the old French Fort Venango, which Indian word meant "a guiding mark on a tree." It stood on a commanding ridge, and was one of the chain of posts the French built from the lakes across to the Ohio, to hold their possessions, dating from 1753. The French had a large garrison there, but after Canada was captured the English got possession, and in 1763 it was the scene of a terrible massacre, the Indians taking it, murdering the entire garrison, and slowly roasting the commandant to death.
Five miles above, Oil Creek flows into the Allegheny, and here is Oil City, the petroleum head-quarters. It has had a varying history, being once almost destroyed by flood and twice by fire, but maintains its supremacy and is a complete oil town —the air filled with petroleum odors, and the lower streets saturated with the fluid. On the Allegheny, nine miles from Oil City, is Oleopolis, and a short distance inland is Pithole City, which was one of the famous oil towns whose rise and decline were so phenomenal. A few farmers here tried to get a scanty subsistence from the rocky and almost barren soil, where, on a hill, there was a fissure two to four feet wide, called the " pithole," from which came out at intervals hot air and bad smells. This was on the Holmden farm, which had been nominally valued at five dollars an acre. Somebody thought he detected the smell of oil among the odors coming up, and a well was bored. It struck oil in the winter of 1864-65, and was the greatest strike made down to that time—the United States Well yielding seven thou-sand barrels daily. Multitudes flocked thither, and in six months Pithole City arose in the wilderness with fifteen thousand inhabitants, two theatres, an opera house, a daily newspaper, and seventy-two hotels of various degrees. Numerous wells were sunk, and the oil sold at $5 to $8 per barrel, being readily sent to the seaboard. The Holmden farm was soon sold for $4,000,000. There were some amazing speculative trades made. The story is told of a well striking oil and a speculative bystander at once buying a three-fourths interest in it for $18,000, agreeing to pay the money next day. Turning away from the seller, he met a man seeking such an invest-ment, and promptly resold his interest for $75,000, receiving immediate payment. The yield of this region was so prolific that railroads and pipe lines were soon constructed to carry the oil away. Pithole had its great boom in the autumn of 1866, wells being bored in every direction, and real estate fetching enormous prices. One old fellow who had a few acres of arid land in the centre of the excitement sold his farm and hovel for $800,000, paid him on the spot in $1000 notes ; and then he sorrowfully bemoaned, as he took a last look at the hovel he had occupied all his life, " Now I haint got any home." The rise of this wonderful town was rapid, and its downfall came all too soon. The oil supply became exhausted, the speculators left, the inhabitants dwindled in number, and by 1870 Pithole had reverted almost to its original condition. The chief hotel, which had cost $31,000 to build, was afterwards sold for $100, and the population had declined in 1873 to nine families.
The valley of Oil Creek is filled with derricks and oil tanks, having a few pumping engines at work, but most of the derricks are over abandoned wells. Eighteen miles up Oil Creek is Titusville, and when the oil yield was at its height, about 1865, this valley had a population of seventy-five thousand people. Titusville is pleasantly built in the broadened inter-vale, surrounded by hills, the streets being wide and straight, and the residences comfortable, each in its garden enclosure. There are oil refineries, and iron works which make engines, tubing and other sup-plies; and the town, which has eight thousand people, is a headquarters for the Standard Oil Company. Twenty-seven miles farther northward is Corry, a prominent railroad centre, at the northern entrance to the Pennsylvania "Oil Dorado," as the region has been popularly called. Its name of Corry was that of the farmer who originally cultivated the soil when the place became a railway station in 1861, and the location of oil refineries then began its prosperity. There are now about six thousand inhabitants. It is within a short distance of the New York State boundary, and marks the northern limit of the Pennsylvania oil region. This whole district, once the prominent petroleum field of Pennsylvania, has been eclipsed, however, by other and more prolific oil basins. Fortunes were made here, but most of the wealth passed away ; and the history of the Pennsylvania petroleum trade and its vicissitudes, with the absorption of everything of value by the Standard Oil Company, has emphasized the truth so pointedly told by Robert Burns, that " The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley." Its wonderful tide of prosperity and its subsequent ebb recall Shelley's lines " To Men of England ":
"The seed ye sow another reaps ; The wealth ye find another keeps; The robes ye weave another wears; The arms ye forge another bears."