Here to return to
THE LAND OF OIL
THE existence of mineral oil in the valley of Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania was known to the Indians from time immemorial. The Senecas, who inhabited the region in the pioneer days of the white men, resorted thither at stated seasons to gather the oil for medical purposes; and in connection with procuring it there were certain ceremonies ending with setting fire to the oil that gathered on the surface of the pools, and a dance around the flames.
The early settlers adopted the Indian practice of using the oil as a medicine, and they had a good deal of confidence in its efficacy as a cure for rheumatism. It was even put on the market and attained a large sale in the drugstores under the name of “Seneca Oil.”
At length some New York men conceived the idea that the oil had value as an illuminant, and that it might be obtained in larger quantities. They bought a seventy-five acre tract of land near Titusville, for which they paid five thousand dollars. It was practically worthless except for its oil possibilities. The new owners hired a man to trench the land and to pump the surface oil into vats by means of apparatus attached to that of an adjacent sawmill, but they gave most of their attention to selling stock. Several years passed, and the stockholders became dissatisfied. Some of them arranged to have one of their number, Col. E. L. Drake, at that time a conductor on the New Haven railroad, go to Titusville and take charge of operations on their land. He attempted to find oil by boring, and after prolonged and discouraging labor he tapped an underground reservoir of the oil, in August, 1859, and thus started a vast industry which made the valley of Oil Creek the scene of one of the wildest bonanza excitements of modern times.
Everyone who owned land near the Drake well either sunk wells or leased the right to others. The uncertainties of the enterprise were, however, very great. By far the larger portion of the wells obtained no oil at all, or in unrenumerative quantities, but there were a considerable number of the early wells that pumped from five to twenty barrels a day. In June, 1861, a flowing well was discovered on the property of a man named Funk, and to the astonishment of everyone the oil came forth at the daily rate of two hundred and fifty barrels. Many spoke of the Funk well as an Oil Creek humbug, and they looked day after day to see the stream stop, yet the flow continued with little variation for fifteen months. Such a prodigal supply of grease upset all calculations. The public were suspicious of the new illuminant and thought it dangerous; so the demand for it was as yet small, and this Funk well and other flowing wells that were soon discovered glutted the market. For a time the pumping wells were nearly all abandoned. The price of oil fell as low as ten cents a barrel, and great quantities ran to waste for want of any adequate way of storing it.
In summer most of the oil was shipped down the creek on flatboats, and at the mouth of the creek, eighteen miles from Titusville, the oil barrels were transferred to larger boats and went on down the Alleghany. When there were not enough boats the oil barrels were lashed together in rafts for the creek trip, and might even continue in that way to Pittsburg. The creek boats were towed back upstream by horses.
Not far below Titusville was a dam that furnished power for a lumber mill. In dry weather the creek was too shallow for navigation, and the water held back by the dam was utilized for creating “pond-freshets.” Once or twice a week several hundred boats, some of them square-ended scows, and others pointed and slim, were loaded with oil, below the dam, and then the sudden release of the water through floodgates created a sufficient flow to carry the fleet along down to the Alleghany. Often a boat that cast loose too hastily would ground in the shallows, and the following boats, hurried on by the rush of the current, would batter the stranded boat into kindling wood, and there might result a general jam with much damage to vessels and a considerable loss of oil.
The nearest railroad shipping points were twenty-five miles away, and great quantities of oil were carted thither, especially in winter when the creek was not available. It was not an uncommon sight to see a solid line of teams a mile or more in length on the highways leading to the railroads. Rubber boots and flannel shirts were recognized necessities in the attire of the teamsters, who were as rough and ready in their manners as in their clothing. They were big-hearted, honest, hard-working fellows, skilled in profanity and the vigorous use of the whip. Some earned ten dollars or more daily. Yet however much they earned they were apt to spend it all in revelry on Saturday night, heedless of anything but present pleasure.
One afternoon, in May, 1863, a spouting well was struck that proved the most fabulous money-maker the region produced. A column of water and oil rose into the air a hundred feet enveloping the derrick and near trees. The gas roared and the ground quaked, and the amount of oil ejected at first amounted to three thousand barrels a day.
The effect of this and the previous excitements was to throng the entire valley with a restless, ambitious population, and naturally among those who came were hundreds of loafers and numerous gamblers and other persons of evil intent. Within the next few years land anywhere near the producing territory soared to fabulous prices, and the region swarmed with a hungry horde of Eastern capitalists. A new town named Pithole grew in four month’s time to a place of ten thousand people. During this period any kind of a shelter was a luxury, and a stranger on his first night there was lucky to be allowed to sleep in the shavings under a carpenter’s workbench. At the hastily improvised restaurants long lines of men waited their turn to pay twenty-five cents for a thin sandwich and a small plate of beans, and men of wealth elbowed greasy drillers and grimy teamsters at the lunch boards. A one course dinner without tea or coffee cost one dollar. Water to supply the hotels and boarding-sheds had to be hauled, and this water often commanded a better price per barrel than the oil. The place reached the summit of its glory in 1866. Then the oil pool, which was about one mile broad by two long, showed signs of exhaustion, and the decline of the magic city was rapid. In a single year it had grown from a quiet nook of five farms to a place of twenty thousand people. A half dozen years later there were as few inhabitants as at the beginning, and now, the once populous streets are plowed fields or the browsing ground for cattle.
The history of the deserted valley of Pithole Creek is similar to that of various other places in the region. Among these I might mention Red Hot, which for a time was like its name, but soon cooled off and died a natural death and left no trace behind; and there was Shamburg, which actually is a sham burg now, but was by no means such in the boom days.
My own acquaintance with the oilfield wells that are still producing began on the southern outskirts of Titusville. One of them had been pumping for more than forty years. They were in irregular groups, each group with its pumping station, and all connected by pipes which delivered the oil to a refinery. Four-posted derricks with much crisscrossing of braces are over the older wells, but the increasing expense of lumber has led to making three long poles, set up to form a tripod, serve instead. Often these poles are transferred from well to well as new borings are made, and at the completed wells there perhaps will be only an inconspicuous pump and a small storage tank. From each power house there radiate to the scattered wells slender lines of rods suspended by ropes from posts four or five feet high. These sway steadily back and forth and keep the pumps working. The power houses are rude shanties with a gas engine inside. Usually a single man takes care of the engine, and often he is not at the building much of the time, and the shanty is left locked with the engine still going. In that case the steam exhaust is likely to be equipped with a whistle that keeps up an intermittent tooting. The cessation of the toots is a prompt warning that something is wrong. These vocal engines are known as “barkers.”
Gas drawn from the same source as the oil furnishes the fuel for the engines, and if there is more than is needed it is allowed to escape through a pipe and burn. You see these torches flaring unceasingly both day and night. When darkness shrouds the landscape their flickering glare in the lonely fields and on the wooded slopes is quite mysterious.
An old-time well that is still pumped
Were it not that the fuel is costless, this pioneer oilfield would perhaps be wholly abandoned, for the average yield per well is decidely less than a barrel a day. “We think they’re dandy wells if they yield two or three barrels,” one of the engine attendants said, “and we pump for an eighth of a barrel. Some of the wells are pumped only every other day, and maybe then for no more than an hour or two. We get to know about how long it takes to pump up what has gathered, and then we turn off the power to let more oil drain into the sand down below. Water seeps in with the oil — sometimes a great deal of it. I’ve pumped over two hundred barrels of water to get one of oil from a well.”
I visited the spot where the original Drake well was sunk. It is a short walk aside from the highway amid the weeds and brush, and you find there only a water-hole into which some one has thrust endways a large piece of iron pipe. Roundabout are swampy farmlands, and at a little remove, on either hand, rise rugged heights whose sides are thinly covered with forest. Near by I observed what seemed to be an abandoned railroad track, but a man whom I met informed me that it was still in use. “The Pennsylvania Railroad has a line on the other side of the crick,” he said, “and it does n’t propose to let any rival build on this side. It’s got a ninety-nine year lease of the right of way here, but the lease has in it some provision compelling the running of trains. So in order to technically keep within the law a single train is run over the track each year. They have to cross the crick just above, and as a permanent bridge would be expensive they put up a slight affair that they take away after the train has made its journey, for if they did not remove the bridge it would be destroyed by the ice freshets. All there is to the train is a little dinkey engine and one car. They could n’t use a big engine. It would flatten the tracks right out. Even as things are, the weight makes the water squush out of the rotten ties as the train goes along. Oh! they have an awful time, and usually land in the ditch. They run out here about six miles. It’s a free picnic, and they always manage to have a few passengers on board. One of our legislators tried to pass a law annulling such fake leases; but the Pennsylvania Railroad owns the state, and he got notice to keep his hands off, and his efforts amounted to nothing.”
I went on southward following a winding way up and down interminable hills. It was a rather lonely farming country. The houses were small, the outbuildings shabby, and there was much litter about them. Sometimes an oil well or two would be right in the dooryard, and I was rarely out of sight of the derricks, or beyond the sound of the pumping operations, and nearly always there was the odor of oil in the air. But it was a beautiful day with drifting clouds overhead that now gloomed the landscape with their shadows, and then allowed a burst of sunshine to play over the green, new-seeded grainfields, and the browner grass and cornlands, and the patches of woodland with their half bare branches still adorned in part by clinging leaves of many varied hues.
At noon I visited a little while with two men who were sitting on a bank eating their lunch in a roadside nook among the ruddy-foliaged oaks. Near by were two stout spans of horses munching a feed of oats that had been poured down on the mossy turf, and beside the highway were two loaded wagons. The men were drillers on their way to a neighboring village where they were to put down a well. They mentioned that the last well they drilled was somewhat over a thousand feet deep, and it took them eight days to sink it. Drilling was their business, and they kept at it, if they had jobs, all the year through except in winter. They explained that there were four different streaks of oil-bearing sand down below, but none of them yielded very generously now. “We don’t get half what we did ten years ago,” they said, “and the wells are getting lighter all the time.”
At length I came to the village of Petroleum Center. It occupies a turn of the Oil Creek valley where the abrupt environing hills recede somewhat and leave a fairly level stretch of lowland. Once a mushroom city had grown here almost in a night. Now only the ghost of it was left. The stream flows on as of yore, and the unchanging hills continue to look down on the scene through winter snows and summer heats. Only man and his works seem puny and ephemeral. One of my chance acquaintances in the place called my attention to the fact that even the hills and the stream have not always presented the same appearance. Out of the low ground at the bend of the creek rises a round, steep hill. “We call that the Hogback,” the man said. “It looks curious, don’t it, right in the middle of the valley. I used to think that God made the world just as we see it but water has had a good deal to do with shaping things, and that accounts for the Hogback. Once the stream must have run in behind that hill as well as on this side of it and worn the land down.”
Among the few scattered village structures that have survived the boom period the only substantial one was a brick store that was originally a bank. Even that had a dejected air, many of its windows were broken, and there was no display of goods behind the dusty, fly-specked panes at the front of the store. The interior was equally unattractive. It was crowded and dingy. In one corner were mail boxes, and the contents of the boxes looked faded and musty as if the mail never was called for.
Most of the adjacent buildings were deserted and ruinous, and the whole aspect of the place conveyed a sense of dilapidation and hopelessness. I wanted to talk with someone who knew personally the city that had been, and my quest led me to a little house at the upper end of the village. I was ushered into a tidy sitting room where I was somewhat abashed to find myself in the midst of what seemed to be a ladies’ sewing-circle. But when I hinted that I was intruding on a public occasion they said they were simply old friends who had got together to while away the afternoon visiting. There were half a dozen of them, mostly elderly, and all long-time residents of the region who plainly enjoyed recalling the exciting past; but my chief informant was the spectacled, white-haired lady of the house.
Oil Creek at Petroleum Center
“Everybody in the country seemed to be migrating to Oil Creek when I come,” she said. “At first my husband and I lived in a boarding-house at Funkville just above here. It was a pretty good-sized building — two and a half stories — but very hastily and rudely built, without lath or plaster, and yet they charged eight dollars a week for board. Our chamber was the only one in the house that had wallpaper. It was better than the others, too, because there was a boughten bedroom set in it. A party that had occupied it before we did brought the set with ‘em, but got hard up, and the set went toward paying the board bill. The walls of the dining-room were papered with newspapers. The big dining-table, around which twenty-five or thirty persons could gather comfortably, was so roughly made it looked as if it had been whittled out, pretty near. Often the boys would have in the girls of a night and dance in the dining-room. Then the big table would have to be taken out. Up in the attic were nine homemade, corded, wooden beds with low bedposts and little small headboards. They had straw mattresses on ‘em, and every day the servant girl would stir up the straw to make ‘em level.
“The way that boarding-house was built and furnished was a fair sample of what you’d find then all through the valley. We had just shanty houses that were n’t put up for to stay. If the oil failed in one place a man could take his worldly goods, house and all, and go somewhere else. I remember one house here that was taken down in the morning and carted eight or ten miles, and then it was set up and the owner slept in it that night.
“We had ten thousand people in Petroleum Center one while. Now I doubt if there’s a hundred. It’s a lovely place, ain’t it! I think a person would have to put on his spectacles to find it as he went past on the train. When it was largest it was full of hotels, restaurants, and saloons, and was about as tough a place as was ever heard of. Derricks, buildings, and roads was all jumbled together hit or miss. We used to have three churches. They done well, and the Catholic priest and the two ministers all lived here, and crowds of people attended the services. Two of the buildings still stand, but it’s hard work to get any congregation together in either of ‘em. There’s just a handful gather every other week when the priest comes; and no regular preaching service is held in the other church, but we have Sunday-school. A few years ago some Episcopal lay-workers volunteered to try to keep things going, and quite a nice little crowd came out off and on for a while. But the workers could n’t get enough to pay expenses, and they threw up the job. Some of the people was n’t able to pay, and some would n’t. Just now two revivalists are trying to have meetings every night, but the attendance is slim. They had only three grown persons and a few children the first night. People ain’t interested, and they simply won’t go.”
My hostess paused while she went to a small stove that was in the room and adjusted a stopcock at one side. “It’s getting toward evening,” she said, “and the air is growing cooler. I thought I’d turn on a little more gas. In the early years that I was here soft coal was our fuel, and I’d have liked it very well if it had n’t burnt out our chimleys so quick and been so dirty. If you took off a stove lid to have your griddle right over the flames, the bottom of the griddle would get all coated with stringers of sut. I’d feel discouraged, too, when I hung out my washing and the clothes got covered with little smut balls. That would happen in moist weather — on days, you know, when the smoke would blow down instead of going up. Now we have gas piped to our houses to furnish all the heat and light. It costs us twenty-eight cents a thousand. Besides this little stove we have a range in the kitchen. Our gas bill last month was a dollar-twelve, and it was less than three dollars the coldest month last winter. I think it would be awful to have a coal or wood stove with all the ashes and dirt.
“Lots of gas used to be wasted. I know that near one of the refineries there was a good-sized pipe sticking up from which the gas flamed night and day all the year around, and there was a place in winter as large as a big room where the grass grew green with the snowbanks all about.”
Another person whose reminiscenses particularly interested me was a Titusville merchant who had aided in financing the first well, and without whose help the well might have been a failure. “Drake was a jovial, kind-hearted, polished gentleman,” he said. “It was his habit to wear a silk hat and a white necktie, and he was quite distinguished looking. He hired two or three men and set ‘em to digging with the hope that a good deep hole would strike a plentiful supply of oil. As they dug they put a cribbing of logs around the sides of the hole to keep the earth from caving in. Soon so much water soaked in that it put a stop to digging. Then they rigged up a pump, but the water came in as fast as they could pump it out, and presently Drake said: ‘This won’t do. We’re pumping all Oil Creek here.’
“He thought the matter over and got the idea of drilling. To drill through rock would n’t have been very difficult, but at that spot was a lot of mud and water and earth that would have filled the drill hole right up. He had a difficult task. To set a man to get at a supply of underground oil at that time was like blindfolding him and telling him to do something that had never been heard of before. But he got some four inch pipe which he rudely jointed together, and that served to carry him through the soft upper material to the rock. It was slow, discouraging work, and he worried a great deal and evidently was under a great mental strain. I’ve heard him say many times, while he was putting that well down, that he wished he’d gone to the penitentiary instead of coming here. At length he was hard up for money, and he asked me to indorse his note for five hundred dollars. I had confidence in him as a man, and I did as he requested. He did n’t have much to say about his drilling enterprise, and let it be inferred that he was after salt. The people would have thought he was a crazy fool if he’d said he was boring for oil.
“The actual labor of drilling was done by Uncle Billy Smith, assisted by his son. Uncle Billy was a mechanic accustomed to salt boring, but things went slowly. Drake had been here sixteen months and was about to go back home and apply for his old position on the railroad when they struck oil at a depth of seventy feet. That was the shallowest successful well ever drilled in this oil field. If he’d had to go any deeper he’d have abandoned the enterprise. Either fortune or Providence favored him. The oil rose within five inches of the surface. When pumped, it yielded four hundred barrels a day. Drake was a big man then. ‘I’ve got any amount of friends now,’ he said when he came into the store to pay his account.
“He might have leased land up and down the valley and got rich; but he was n’t what you’d call a good business man, looking out for the dollars. He liked his ease too well. Besides, he thought he had all the oil there was right at that one place. For a while he set down here and became a justice of the peace. His friends let him into some of the oil companies, but he never made much. A place he bought here in town proved to be his best investment. Property advanced very rapidly in price on account of the oil excitement, and he sold out at a profit of twenty thousand dollars. Then he thought he was rich, and he went to New York and lost every cent within a few months. Finally the Pennsylvania legislature was induced to grant him a pension, and his wife still draws it.
“We all begun to put down wells after Drake made his strike, and sometimes we’d have only a wet hole, and be flooded out, and sometimes a dry hole with never a smell of oil in it. But enough good wells were found to keep up the excitement. There were fellows who did first-rate gathering up territory here and taking it to New York to sell. I sold a fifty-acre tract of swamp myself there. My customers were important New York bankers. They figured out so many wells to an acre and were convinced there was a magnificent future in that piece of swamp. It could have been bought for twenty-five dollars before the boom. They paid me a hundred thousand for it, and they never got any oil at all from the property. Another deal that I helped put through was one involving a quarter of a million dollars, and I was given five thousand dollars worth of stock for my services. Unluckily, I did n’t get a chance to unload before the bubble burst, and my stock was practically worthless.”
I wish to quote one other man. His memory covered the entire period of the rise and fall of the oil industry in the region. He was a grizzled, bushy-browed man, still alert of mind and vigorous in body, but age was beginning to tell on him, and his hands were contorted with rheumatism.
“According to a record in my mother’s old Bible,” he said, “I discovered America here in Titusville in 1840. So I was nineteen when Drake struck oil. This was a lumbering hamlet then, and there were two good-sized sawmills here. The logs were run down the cricks to ‘em, and the sawed lumber was made into small rafts. After the rafts reached the Alleghany they were coupled up into river fleets and floated on down to Pittsburg. The country was heavily wooded, principally with pine. It had not been cleared to any extent, and the mills run their business till up along pretty near 1870. Then the pine timber was about exhausted. But new firms sprung up later that gathered up the remnants in our woodlands, and those remnants were worth more, at the higher prices that prevailed, than the original timber.
“The sawmills employed all the laboring men in this region when I was a boy. They paid them with orders on the companies’ stores. We saw very little money. If a man had a quarter it was got away from him in about fifteen minutes. But in the spring, after the mills sold their lumber, they distributed enough cash so their workmen could pay their taxes. Few people raised any crops except a little buckwheat and a small patch of potatoes. The families along the creek led a rough life, and two thirds of their houses were logs. In winter they’d make a few shingles, and in spring you’d find ‘em hired out rafting lumber to Pittsburg. Often they were so poor they’d return on foot.
“We probably had two hundred inhabitants here in Titusville. There were a couple of hotels that depended mostly on the men engaged in the spring lumbering operations, and there were three stores. My brother-in-law kept what was called the drugstore, and the principal drug was whiskey. Every store sold liquor them days. They did n’t have to have any licence.
“Our mail come and went twice a week. Old man Cook was the carrier. He drove an ancient sorrel horse hitched to a rattletrap buggy. When it suited him to get here with the mail on the days it was due he got here. Otherwise he did n’t, and he considered that was no one’s affair but his own. There was n’t much mail anyway, and it did n’t matter. Often he stopped for the night with an old lady who lived three miles out. Sometimes we boys would go there and steal the mail and bring it to town.
Going to town
“When Drake struck oil three of us young fellows got a little bit excited and thought we’d try our luck. So in the fall of that same year we leased five acres of land and organized “The Great American Oil Company.” The justice of the peace charged us a dollar for drawing up the lease, and as we only had sixty cents he had to trust us for the rest, and he died without getting it. We kind o’ forgot that debt, and he never asked us for the balance due him. The owner of the land was a poor — very poor farmer. We agreed to give him five dollars a month and an eighth of the oil. That looked big to him.
“For shelter we built a shanty on the property, and I did the cooking. We started work in a very modest way by digging a pit on our land near the crick. At a depth of four feet we struck bed rock, and we brought an old wooden pump from town and rigged it up to pump the water out of the hole. A little oil oozed in with the water and formed a thin skin on top. By putting half a woolen blanket down flat on the surface we could soak up the oil, and then we’d wring the blanket out into a pail. Any water that was soaked up with the oil would settle to the bottom of the pail, and we’d pour off the top into a barrel. After the oil was sopped off from our pool we pumped the water out into the crick. That was a half-hour job, and it took the pit an hour to fill again. We got about eight gallons of oil a day, and when we filled the barrel we took it to a grocer here, and he gave us thirty dollars. I thought that was a big amount of money, for I’d never had two dollars in my life before. The oil was high-grade, and was sold for lubricating and medical purposes. It was no humbug either as a medicine. I’d been having trouble with my throat, and I would put a leaf down on that crude oil and lick if off. That cured my throat entirely, and I’ve never had a sore throat since.
“We worked that blanket process for three or four months. Then we hired a couple of men to drill a well. They brought their tools on their backs from Oil City. The whole outfit did n’t weigh more’n a hundred pounds. We drilled all winter. The well was kicked down, just as most of the early wells were. A long slender pole was adjusted on a post, and the drill was suspended from the small end. To the rope that held the drill a leather loop was attached into which the driller could put his foot, and by giving a downward kick the drill would be brought into action. Then the spring of the pole raised it ready for another kick.
“After getting down I s’pose a hundred and fifty feet we struck oil, and the next morning, when I went to the well and stepped inside of the shack we’d built above the drill hole, my foot went into about eight inches of oil that had flowed during the night. It was thick, like molasses, and we scooped up half a dozen barrels full. But when we went to pumping we got mostly water, and it did n’t pay. Then we put down another well, and that was no go either. By that time I did n’t have a dollar, and I was ready to give away my third interest in the Great American Oil Company. While I was in that frame of mind a man come lookin’ around our property, and after some talk he asked me what I’d take for my third. At first I was going to say two hundred dollars, but on second thought I said to myself, ‘I’ll just paralize the old gent;’ and I told him my price was four thousand dollars.
“I expected he’d kick me into the crick, but he closed the bargain. He was from Jamestown, New York, and two other men there were interested in the deal. They paid me a thousand dollars in gold and gave me a note for the balance.
“It seemed to me I was rich enough to be satisfied for a while, and I went down to Pittsburg and attended school for a year. At the end of that time I started for home. On the way I stopped one evening at a tavern where the local school board was having a meeting. A teacher had recently had a row with his pupils and they had thrown him out and would n’t let him come back. So he left, and the authorities were looking for a new teacher. I told ‘em I’d take the job if I did n’t have to board round. The president of the committee said I could make my home with him, and I accepted his proposal. He was a great talker and wanted me for company.
“The schoolhouse was a clapboarded frame building, but the clapboards were off in a good many places, and it was delapidated and pretty near ready to tumble down. In the schoolroom there was a continuous bench against the wall around three sides, with a desk in front. On the remaining side was my desk on a platform. The children got the fuel we burned from a soft coal bank back of the building. I taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and it was a part of my work to set the copies for the children in their writing-books, and sharpen their goose-quill pens. It’s quite an art to sharpen a goose-quill, but I had that art all right. Books were n’t very plentiful. However, most of the pupils had a spelling-book.
“I did n’t like teaching. I’d rather do anything else than teach school. The committee hired me for three months, and I was glad it was n’t for a longer period. I guess the pupils were gladder than I was. One little fellow, when I began to teach, knew all his letters but four, and by the time I was through he’d forgotten all but four.
“Meanwhile I had n’t got my money on that three thousand dollar note. The property had proved to be valueless, and the whole thing had been shut down and abandoned. So the Jamestown men did n’t want to pay me, and I had to hire a lawyer to make ‘em see things in the right light. Then I was obliged to go to Jamestown to get my money. I put up over night there at a hotel, and in the morning went to a bank, which turned over the cash to me. It was in bills of small denomination, mostly ones and twos, and they made a great big package that I could just crowd into my inside overcoat pocket. I went back to the hotel, and after sitting a while in the office it occurred to me that I would go out for a walk and see the town. The day was warm and I took off my overcoat and left it hanging in the hotel office. By and by I thought of my money and rushed back to the hotel in a great sweat. It had n’t been stolen, and I was much relieved. Then I put the overcoat on with a determination to wear it the rest of the time. I even wore it while I ate my dinner.
“In the early afternoon I took a train for home. The train did n’t go clear through and I had to change and wait at a junction. Rather than loaf around the station there I decided to go for a stroll, and to relieve myself of any anxiety I had the express agent put my money in his safe. When I came back to the station my train was just leaving, and I ran and jumped on the last car. The train was going at a good speed before I thought of my money. It was left behind.
“I came to Titusville, and gave the express agent here an order so the money could be forwarded. Generally the train ran off the track every day and of course there had to be a smashup when my money was coming. The little iron express box lay in the woods two or three days, but it got here in the end. My money was turned over to me on a Saturday, and I put in all the next day counting it. Eleven hundred dollars I spent to build a house. It was a good investment. A few years later a man come along and looked at the house and says, ‘What’ll you take for this shebang?’
“‘Six thousand dollars,’ I said, and he bought it at my figure.
“You see property in Titusville and the entire valley took a great boom. Such crowds rushed in here that they had the greatest difficulty to find lodging at night. The hotel-keepers would put a man to bed, and as soon as he was asleep would take him to the hall and hang him on a hook and give someone else the bed. To show you how rapidly population could grow let me tell you about the postmaster at Pithole. He began there on a salary of twelve dollars and a half a year. He was expected to keep track of the stamps sold, and in most such places the results would n’t warrant raising the pay more than a very little, but in less than three months he was handling such an amount of mail that the salary was raised to four thousand dollars, the same as was paid at Pittsburg.
“As for the oil business its character was wildly speculative for a long time. Many came here rich and went away poor, and very few came poor and went away rich. Numerous wildcat wells were sunk all around the region that cost good money and were perfectly worthless. If a fellow made one or two good investments and lucky sales he began to think he was a master of frenzied finance, and he’d most likely strike for Wall Street. He and his money were soon parted there.
“Loss and gain in large amounts were a commonplace here. They tell of two strangers who occupied the same room in one of our crowded hotels. One of ‘em went to bed, but he could n’t sleep because his fellow-roomer persisted in walking the floor. Finally he says, “What’s the matter with you?’
‘I’ve given a note for five thousand dollars that’s due tomorrow,’ was the reply.
“Have you got the money to pay it?’ says the first man.
“‘No,’ says the second man.
“‘Then you’d better come to bed’, says the first man, ‘and let the other fellow do the walking.’
“Most of the poor backwoods farmers in the valley sold their land at fabulous prices, or arranged leases that brought great and sudden wealth, but they could n’t stand the change. They did n’t know how to spend the money, or how to keep it intact. Their sons became drunkards, and the money vanished in dissipation, extravagance, and poor investments. I know of only one land owning family of that period in this valley that has retained the money which came to it.”
NOTE. — In the oil region, even in travelling on the train, one sees numerous oil-wells, both in operation and deserted. The great center of the Pennsylvania oil district is Oil City, and the traveller can see there all the processes of procuring, preparing, and shipping the oil and its products. In 1892 a large oil tank in the city caught fire, and the burning oil overspread the water of the creek and caused the destruction of many buildings and a considerable loss of life.
It is estimated that from the valley of Oil Creek, north of Oil City, oil to the value of $200,000,000 was taken in the ten busy early years. The present yield is insignificant. Titusville has an especial claim on the sightseer because there the oil was discovered. Interesting visits may be made to the hamlets down the creek which grew with magic rapidity into populous cities in the boom period, and almost as suddenly vanished.
There are automobile routes from Titusville north and south and east and west. The one north goes to Erie, 53 miles, by way of Cambridge Springs, and the one south to Pittsburg, 113 miles, by way of Mercer. The roads are good dirt or gravel.
For more about northwestern Pennsylvania see “Highways and Byways of the Great Lakes.”
Braddock’s battlefield, viewed from across the Monongahela