Lucky life of John Steele and America’s earliest petroleum riches.
The good fortune on John Washington Steele began on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant. The McClintocks brought him — and his adopted sister Permelia — home to their farm along Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.
Fifteen years later, the U.S. petroleum industry began with an 69.5-foot-deep oil discovery at nearby Titusville, the first oil well drilled commercially for distilling into kerosene (also called coal oil). The Pennsylvania oil regions that had been revealed at Oil Creek made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties.
When she died in a kitchen fire in 1864, Mrs. McClintock left her oil wealth to her only surviving child Johnny, who inherited $24,500 at age 20.
Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day. “Coal Oil Johnny” Steele would earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported.
“In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”
Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:
I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.
Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.
In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story. It describes the country’s fascination with the earliest economic booms brought by “black gold” discoveries in Pennsylvania.
“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 18 feature story. “Johnny owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors.
“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age — and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”
For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted the magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.
“It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”
“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” he added.
“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded. “Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”
John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.
On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing McClintock No. 1 oil well. “This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”
Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was published in 1902.
Recommended Reading: The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny (2007); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania, Images of America (2000); Western Pennsylvania’s Oil Heritage (2008). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/legend-of-coal-oil-johnny. Last Updated: December 4, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.