A chaotic beginning for new U.S. petroleum industry.

 

Discoveries at Pithole Creek in Pennsylvania created a headline-making boom town for America’s new oil exploration industry, which began with Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 well drilled at a creek near Titusville. As others drilled deeper into geological formations, an 1865 well at Pithole brought America’s earliest gushers, adding to the “black gold” fever sweeping the country.

The Drake well at Oil Creek led to a rush of exploration at other local streams in the remote Allegheny River Valley. In 1864, businessman Ian Frazier found oil at Cherry Creek. After making a quick $250,000, he looked for another opportunity in the hills and valleys providing oil to new Pittsburgh refineries making kerosene for lamps.

Rare photo of Pithole creek giant wooden oil storage tanks.

The new petroleum industry’s infrastructure struggled and transportation technology evolved and oil tanks crowded Pithole, Pennsylvania. In 1865, Samuel Van Syckel constructed the first oil pipeline, a two-inch iron line linking an oil well to a railroad station about five miles away. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Frazier hired a diviner to search along Pithole Creek, which smelled like “sulfur and brimstone,” according to historian Douglas Wayne Houck. “He went to the creek and followed the diviner around until the forked twig dipped, pointing to a specific spot on the ground,” Houck noted in 2014.

With the science of petroleum geology still in the future, the young U.S. oil industry already had begun drilling its first “dry holes.”

Pennsylvania Oil Geysers

Although Frazier’s United States Oil Company’s steam powered, cable-tool derrick first drilled a dry hole,  a second well erupted spectacularly on January 7, 1865, producing 650 barrels of oil a day. The Frazier well, proclaimed by historian Houck as the first U.S. oil gusher, brought a flood of drillers and speculators to Pithole Creek.

Two more wells erupted black geysers on January 17 and January 19, each flowing at about 800 barrels of oil a day (invention of a practical blowout preventer was still half a century away).

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The Titusville Herald proclaimed Pithole as having “probably the most productive wells in the oil region of Pennsylvania, Houck writes in his 2014 book, Energy & Light in Nineteenth-Century Western New York. Frazier’s United State Oil Company subdivided its property and began selling lots for $3,000 for a half-acre plot. 

Fortunes were being made and lost in the oil region — see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.”

As the news spread through Venango County, “everyone came to the Pithole area to try their luck,” noted one reporter. Many were Confederate and Union war veterans. And as more successful wells came in, about 3,000 teamsters rushed to Pithole to haul out the growing number of oil barrels. It was hard to keep up.

pithole creek diorama of hotels and businesses and muddy streets

Managed by the Drake Well Museum, the Pithole Visitors Center includes a diorama of the vanished boom town. Photo by Bruce Wells.

There were many reasons behind the Pithole oil boom, including a flood of paper money at the end of the Civil War. Many returning Union veterans of had currency and were eager to invest — especially after reading newspaper articles about oil gushers and oil boom towns.  Thousands of veterans also wanted jobs after long months on army pay .

By May 1865, the town was home to 57 hotels, many shops, and its own daily newspaper. It had the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania — handling 5,500 pieces of mail a day.

Lady Macbeth

In December 1965, Shakespearean tragedienne Miss Eloise Bridges appeared as Lady Macbeth in America’s first famously notorious oil boom town.

Actress Eloise Bridges in 1865.

Shakespearean tragedienne Eloise Bridges in 1865.

Bridges appeared at Murphy’s Theater, the biggest building in a town of more than 30,000 teamsters, coopers, lease-traders, roughnecks, and merchants. Three-stories high, the building had 1,100 seats, a 40-foot stage, an orchestra, and chandelier lighting by Tiffany.

Bridges was the acclaimed darling of the Pithole stage. Eight months after she departed for new engagements in Ohio, the oilfield at Pithole ran out; the most famous U.S. boom town collapsed into empty streets and abandoned buildings. Today, visitors can walk the grass streets of the historic ghost town.

First Oil Pipeline

As Pithole’s oil tanks overflowed (and dangerous tank fires increased), oil buyer and shipper Samuel Van Syckel conceived a solution now considered an engineering milestone. In 1865, his newly formed Oil Transportation Association put into service a two-inch iron line linking the Frazier well to the Miller Farm Oil Creek Railroad Station – about five miles away.

“The day that the Van Syckel pipe-line began to run oil a revolution began in the business. After the Drake well it is the most important event in the history of the Oil Regions,” Ida Tarbell noted about the technology in her History of the Standard Oil Company.

A park and oilfield boiler center at Pithole Creek, PA.

Today, visitors can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets and see vintage equipment, including antique steam boilers. Volunteers “mow the streets.” Photo by Bruce Wells.

With 15-foot welded joints and three 10-horsepower Reed and Cogswell steam pumps, the pipeline transported 80 barrels of oil per hour – the equivalent of 300 teamster wagons working for ten hours. With their livelihoods threatened, teamsters attempted to sabotage the pipeline, until armed guards intervened.

Unfortunately for Syckel, Pithole oil storage tanks continued to catch fire even as the Frazier well production began to decline. Other wells were beginning to run dry when in 1866 fires spread out of control and burned 30 buildings, 30 oil wells and 20,000 barrels of oil. “Pithole’s days were numbered,” concludes historian Houck. “Buildings were taken down and carted off. A few people hung around until 1867.”

Samuel Van Syckel plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum

The American Petroleum Institute in 1959 dedicated a plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum as part of the U.S. oil centennial.

From beginning to end, America’s famous oil boom town had lasted about 500 days. Pithole was  added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 20, 1973.

Today, a visitors’ center added in 1975 is maintained by the Drake Well Museum. The center contains exhibits, including a scale model of the city at its peak and a small theater.

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Volunteers “mow the streets” on the hillside so that tourists can stroll where the petroleum boom town once flourished. Among the oil region’s early — and most infamous — investors was John Wilkes Booth (learn more this failed oilman in the Dramatic Oil Company).

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Recommended Reading: Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania, Images of America (2000); The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny (2007); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Boom at Pithole Creek.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/pithole-creek/. Last Updated: November 27, 2021. Original Published Date: March 15, 2014.

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