Oil Boom at Pithole Creek
Discoveries at Pithole Creek created a famous but short lived Pennsylvania boom town for the U.S. petroleum industry, which began with Edwin Drake’s 1859 well drilled in nearby Titusville. Some claim an 1865 well at Pithole Creek was America’s first oil gusher.
In 1864, Ian Frazier already was a successful businessman after finding oil at Cherry Creek, Pennsylvania. After earning $250,000, he looked for another opportunity in the hills and valleys becoming known for providing oil to Pittsburgh kerosene refineries.
Frazier hired a diviner to search along Pithole Creek, which smelled like “sulfur and brimstone,” according to one historian. “He went to the creek and followed the diviner around until the forked twig dipped, pointing to a specific spot on the ground,” notes Douglas Wayne Houck.
America’s First Gusher
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, which Houck calls the first U.S. oil gusher, brought a flood of drillers and speculators to Pithole Creek. Two more wells blew in on January 17 and 19, each flowing at about 800 barrels a day.
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.
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.
By May of 1865, the town is home to 15,000 people, 57 hotels, many homes, shops, and its own daily newspaper. It has the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania – handling 5,500 pieces of mail a day.
“Many factors fueled the Pithole oil boom,” explains an article at Scripophily, a company marketing to collectors who buy and sell historic stock certificates.
“The end of the Civil War found the country flooded with paper currency whose holders were anxious to invest and make more money. Thousands of soldiers had been discharged from the army,” notes the article.
Many veterans wanted jobs, others wanted to make a fortune quickly after having spent long months on army pay. “The speculative bubble of 1864 and 1865 was at its peak,” the article reports.
First Oil Pipeline
As Pithole’s oil tanks overflowed and fires increased, Samuel Van Syckel conceived a solution many today consider an engineering marvel.
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,” noted Ida Tarbell in her History of the Standard Oil Company.
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.”
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.
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 in the Dramatic Oil Company.
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