Derricks of Triumph Hill
Post-Civil War oil discoveries create Allegheny River boom towns.
Soon after the Civil War, one of America’s earliest oil booms arrived at a small hill west of Tidioute, Pennsylvania. Wooden derricks replaced trees on Triumph Hill.
Formerly quiet Pennsylvania hillsides of hemlock woods vanished in the fall of 1866 when oil fever came to Triumph Hill. The oil industry was barely seven years old. Just 15 miles east of the 1859 first American oil well along Oil Creek well at Titusville, an 1866 oil discovery at Triumph Hill sparked a rush of uncontrolled development. They would not last long, but truly notorious boom towns sprang up at Gordon Run and Daniels Run west of Tidioute on Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River. Like the earlier discoveries at Titusville, Rouseville, and Pithole Creek, wooden derricks replaced hillside trees.
Tidioute (pronounced tiddy-oot) was joined by the roughneck-filled towns of Triumph and Babylon with “sports, strumpets and plug-uglies, who stole, gambled, caroused and did their best to break all the commandments at once.”
Fresh from the oilfields at boom town Pithole 25 miles southwest, the infamous Ben Hogan, self proclaimed “Wickedest Man in the World,” operated a bawdy house on the Triumph hillside.
Despite growing recognition that crowded drilling reduced reservoir pressures and production, the exploration and production bonanza, which began with the first well on October 4, 1866, prompted a frenzy of drilling as investors tried to cash in before the oil ran out.
By the summer of 1867, Triumph Hill was producing 2,000 barrels of oil a day. The flood of oil bought lower prices – an early example of the petroleum industry’s boom and bust cycles.
Photographer Frank Robbins of Oil City published stereographic images of Triumph Hill, declaring it to be “the most magnificent oil belt (as oil men call a strip of producing land) ever yet discovered. On this belt which is but two miles long, and less than one mile wide – were over 180 producing wells, nearly every one of which was in operation at once.”
Robbins, who moved his studio to Bradford 1879 when that region was on its way to becoming “America’s first billion dollar oilfield,” also printed postcards for sale to tourists.
“Triumph Hill turned out as much money to the acre as any spot in Oildom,” noted James McLaurin in his 1896 book “Sketches in Crude-Oil; some accidents and incidents of the petroleum development in all parts of the globe.”
Many of the hill’s wells averaged 25 barrels of oil a day, McLaurin reported, adding that “the sand was the thickest – often ninety to one hundred and ten feet – and the purest the oil region afforded.”
Eventually the tempo of oil exploration around Tidioute and boom town debauchery slowed as the region’s daily production fell.
Although drilling discipline and well spacing, reservoir engineering and other oilfield management skills would evolve, Triumph Hill’s glory dissipated within five years as overproduction drained the field.
Today, Triumph Hill remains as one of the many quietly beautiful and forest-covered sites along the Allegheny River Valley that has earned a special place in America’s petroleum history. Tidioute also is among the earliest panoramic maps of America’s earliest petroleum communities by Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler. Read more about his work in Oil Town “Aero Views.”
Frank Robbins – Oil Patch Photographer
Pioneer oil industry photographers like “Oil Creek Artist” John A. Mather documented Northwestern Pennsylvania boom towns. He and other photographers like Frank Robbins captured many views of North American oil booms, according to geologist and oil patch historian Jeff Spencer. “Common scenes included oil gushers, oilfield fires, teamsters, and boom towns.”
“Frank Robbins documented the emerging Pennsylvania petroleum industry of the 1860s through 1880s,” Spencer noted in a 2011 article in the journal Oil-Industry History. “He was one of the most prolific producers of stereoscopic views of oilfields in the Oil City and Bradford, Pennsylvania and Olean, New York area. His many oilfield views include scenes of Triumph Hill, Tidioute, Petrolia, and Pithole. Many of his photographs also were used in early twentieth century postcards.”
Spencer in 2003 published a book featuring historic Texas postcards (see Postcards from the Texas Oil Patch). For more resources of oilfield imagery, visit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s Petroleum Photography Websites.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.