If you want to start an argument among petroleum historians, ask a group of them when and where the oil industry was really born. This debate is similar to others throughout the history of science and technology, such as who first developed the theory of infinitesimal calculus, Isaac Newton or Gottfried Leibniz; or the theory of natural selection of species, which was almost simultaneously described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; or Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, who independently, and on the same day, filed patents for the invention of the telephone.
There are moments in the history of science and technology during which major breakthroughs occur simultaneously and independently, among different scientists with no direct contact with each other. This phenomenon is known as “multiple discovery” and it has been related to the cultural and scientific concerns of a certain time, shared knowledge, the development of scientific instruments and the technological progress achieved by those periods of history.
The oil industry is no stranger to this controversy, as it was almost simultaneously born on two different continents. The most commonly cited location as the launching of the modern oil business is Oil Creek, so named because of the numerous oil seeps, and where the famous Drake Well was drilled a half mile south of Titusville, Penn. in August 1859. It struck oil at a depth of 69 feet, 6 inches. However, in 1846, more than a decade before the Drake Well, an exploration well at Bibi-Heybat, in Baku, Azerbaijan, tested oil, and it lays a valid claim to being the first oil well in the world. (See Historical Highlights in the August 2021 EXPLORER.)
This is not the only claimant, as there are other locations around the globe that also profess to hosting the first well ever drilled for the purpose of finding oil or natural gas.
Not wishing to split hairs over which is the world’s first oil well, the majority of oil historians recognize the drilling of the Drake Well as the birth of the modern petroleum industry. The history of this well is widely known and is considered so significant because it attracted a large number of oil explorers to the area, which created the start of the oil boom. What is not so well known is that some seven miles southeast of the Drake Well, along Pithole Creek, lie the remains of a city that came out of nowhere as a new town, enjoyed great splendor, then disappeared in a few years. It is the legendary Pithole City in Venango County of northwestern Pennsylvania.
After the successful drilling of the Drake Well, numerous amateur petroleum seekers, speculators and businessmen invaded the area of Oil Creek, anxious to find and produce oil and to make a fortune in this new industry. Hundreds of oil wells were drilled along Oil Creek’s banks. However, the low oil prices and the American Civil War slowed the pace of drilling until it was revived in mid-1864 when the oil price peaked to $14 a barrel and exploration accelerated.
It All Started with a Dowsing Rod
In 1864, Isaiah N. Frazier and James Faulkner, employees of the Humboldt Oil Refinery at Plumer and founders of the United States Petroleum Company, leased the Holmden Farm in the sparsely inhabited and dense forest of Pithole Creek, five miles east of Oil Creek, where a stream ran southwestward as a tributary to the Allegheny River. Frazier and Faulkner hired a diviner to walk around their lease to pick a spot and drill where the dowsing rod pointed.
In the summer of 1864, they began to drill a wildcat where the diviner had indicated. On Jan. 7, 1865, the well began flowing oil under high pressure at 485 feet. The well was popularly known as the United States Well, soon later renamed the Frazier Well, in honor of Frazier, who suddenly died before spudding the well. Oil came from the Venango Third Sand, as it was called by the drillers. It initially flowed 250 barrels per day of good quality oil, becoming the first commercial oil well in Pithole Creek. The oil venture seemed very promising; production steadily increased in May to 800 barrels a day and by June it reached 1,200 barrels.
The Beginning of the End of Creekology
The completion of the Frazier Well attracted to Pithole Creek a flood of drillers, land speculators, bankers, lawyers, laborers and fortune-seekers. Every purchasable farm around immediately brought a fabulous price, averaging $3,000 per half-acre plot, which encouraged widespread drilling operations, resulting in numerous oil discoveries along Pithole Creek and its hillsides. By the summer of 1865, the Frazier Well had been followed by some other great oil-producing wells, such as Homestead, Grant or the Twin Wells, which challenged the prospectors’ hypothesis that the Pennsylvania oil fields were to be found only along surficial water drainage paths.
A premise that became known as “Creekology” relied upon a supposed relationship between the flow of a river or stream and the presence of oil in the subsurface. Prospectors remained so blindly attached to this idea that for a long time they rarely drilled at the higher elevations that looked down into the valleys where water flowed. Although it was decades before the concept of Creekology was finally discarded, the concept began to be turned upside-down when oil wells were completed on the hillsides of Pithole Creek at a considerable elevation above the running water, showing prospectors that hillsides could be as productive as creek valleys.
Today, it is widely recognized that the oil accumulations in Pithole Creek are primarily due to stratigraphic trapping in the Venango Third Sand, a package of multiple, long and narrow sandstone bars embedded in shales. Roughly trending northeast, they were deposited in a shallow marine, near-shore environment during the Upper Devonian.
Pithole Creek began quickly to be overwhelmed with oil derricks veiled by the smoke from hundreds of steam drilling engines. Small interests in single wells brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pithole. The end of the American Civil War in April 1865 favored the rush into Pithole, since there were thousands of war veterans – Confederates as well as Unionists – who were eager to invest their military pay savings in the oil business, attracted by the high oil prices, or just to get a job in a booming industry.
In May 1865, two oil-country men, A.P. Duncan and George C. Prater, bought the Holmden Farm, where a piece of land on the northern slope of Pithole Creek was cleared and chopped up into 500 lots, laying out a grid of unpaved streets and blocks. The grid was four primary east-west streets: First, Second, Third and Fourth. Duncan, Mason, Prather, Brown and Holmden streets traversed from north to south. Each street was 60-feet wide, except for Duncan at 80 feet. Duncan and Prater quickly started leasing lots where numerous buildings were rapidly erected. Most buildings were simple wooden huts with no foundations, nary a brick or stone, all constructed in a matter of days or weeks.
By July 1865, the population of Pithole was estimated at 2,000; two months later it rose to 15,000 and to 20,000 by Christmas. Most of the population was transient workers, almost all men. In a few weeks Pithole City already had several hotels, from simple to luxury, saloons, houses of ill repute, shops, homes, bars, two banks, a post office, a telegraph office, a foundry, a machine shop, drug stores and two churches (Methodist Episcopal and Catholic), providing all kind of services for thousands of people, all aiming to profit from the wealth created by the oil wells. It was said that for many months the post office transacted a volume of business that ranked it third in the state, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh alone surpassing it. The largest structure in town was Murphy’s Theater, three-stories high, elegantly decorated and with seating for one thousand persons. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was performed there in December 1865. In the brief space of just three months, a dense forest quickly disappeared to be transformed into a lively city.
Pithole City came to have its own daily newspaper, the Pithole Daily Record, in which local news and events in the city were reported from September 1865 to July 1868. It left a good record for stories that could lead to entire books about the early days of the petroleum industry, as well as movies or television series describing the work conditions, and the social and cultural life of the city. In his 1972 book, “Pithole: The Vanished City: A Story of the Early Days of the Petroleum Industry,” a fully documented work which offers a wide collection of stories and anecdotes, William C. Darrah wrote, “Pithole attracted to its environs the ambitious, the adventurous, the greedy and the wicked.”
World’s First Oil Pipeline
In October 1865, Pithole Creek produced nearly two-thirds of all the petroleum output in North America. Huge wooden storage tanks were built just beside the producing wells. Some wells produced more oil than could be managed on site. Oil transport from Pithole was difficult because of the rough terrain with no access to navigable waterways. The barrels of oil were transported with teams of horses hauling wagons along the awful tracks of this remote spot to the nearest tank farms and railroad depots. The average load of oil for each team was from five to seven barrels. Teamsters charged around $4 per barrel for long hauls and more than a dollar per barrel for some relatively short hauls. This gave the teamsters more profit per barrel than the operator got for drilling, producing and selling the oil!
Pithole’s oil storage tanks reached their maximum capacity due to recurring issues with the teamsters over their “exorbitant” charges and the high oil production rates, estimated at some 6,000 barrels a day. This was an enormous amount of oil then.
In the fall of 1865, Samuel Van Syckel came up with an original and innovational solution. He was an oil buyer and shipper frustrated with the teamsters and their elevated charges. His solution was simply to lay a two-inch welded iron pipeline in the ground and install three steam pumps to force the oil flow from a dump box near the Frazier Well straight to the railroad terminal at Miller Farm in Oil Creek, about five miles northwest, which was the shipping center for the oil at the time. It is thought to be the world’s first oil pipeline. A fourth pump brought the pipeline’s maximum capacity to 2,500 barrels a day – something that revolutionized oil transportation.
Additional pipelines were laid soon, resulting in a large network to carry oil at one dollar per barrel – much cheaper and faster than teamsters, leaving them out of the picture and unemployed. Seeing their livelihood threatened by this new technology, teamsters became frequent saboteurs of pipelines with armed attacks, but the revolutionary pipeline was destined to become an essential part of the oil industry. By the end of 1865, more than 1,500 teamsters had left Pithole.
The city was overwhelmed by a concentration of some 900 wooden buildings along narrow streets, with a forest of wooden oil derricks and houses along the creek. Intermingled with a mess of wooden oil tanks without any safety measures, the urban development experienced frequent blazes that destroyed buildings and petroleum facilities, not to mention an uncertain number of injuries and deaths. There were fires almost every day. Signs were posted throughout the city and well locations warned that smokers would be lynched.
Oil and mud were everywhere in the city, and the oily mud made some streets impassable. Drinking water was scarce from the birth of the city, and whiskey was cheaper and a lot safer to drink until a rudimentary network of pipes was laid in November 1865 to provide water from a higher reservoir. No sanitation or garbage disposal existed in Pithole.
“The whole place smells like a camp of soldiers with diarrhea,” observed the correspondent for the Titusville Morning Herald.
In November 1865, the Frazier Well went dry, only 10 months after the first oil flow. The well that had been the most productive in Pithole suddenly stopped producing, but it was not the only one. By late 1865 many of the Pithole’s wells began to decline and had to be pumped. By January 1866, more wells had run dry, proving that the oil reserves were relatively small. Reservoir pressure declined quickly in many producing wells, closely spaced in a chaotic pattern and poorly cased, all of which had been produced at maximum capacity.
By Dec. 18, 1865, a railway of 10-miles length was opened along Pithole Creek, from Pithole City downstream to Oleopolis, a city on the banks of the Allegheny River, but it was already too late. The city declined almost as rapidly as it rose. A clear sign of Pithole’s deterioration was the fact that there was no longer any effort made to clean up the debris caused by the numerous and destructive fires. The worst of these fires occurred on Aug. 2, 1866, burning down several city blocks, destroying 27 wells and burning 13,000 barrels of oil. Burned and ruined buildings were simply abandoned. By 1866, the sharp drop in oil production, together with the low per-barrel price of $1.35, forced many entrepreneurs and oil producers out of business and led to people massively abandoning the city.
In December 1866, fewer than 2,000 people lived in Pithole City and the production was down to fewer than 1,000 barrels of oil per day. By the end of 1867, most wells were essentially abandoned, and the boom was over. Thousands of acres leased by oil companies, dozens of engines and a vast amount of machinery were sold off to pay debts and taxes. In 1870, only a handful of people remained in town. Many buildings had been carried away to be used in nearby cities and some were even sold for firewood. By the end of the 19th century, the only visible signs of earlier activity were barely noticeable excavations that had served as cellars for the buildings, scattered wooden planks, some ramshackle buildings among the empty streets and the Methodist Episcopal Church – the last building to be torn down in the early 20th century.
An Iconic Oil Boomtown
Pithole became an icon of an oil boomtown – a town that starts from scratch and undergoes a sudden and rapid population and economic growth. However, unlike others that continued to progress, eventually becoming large and prosperous cities, Pithole rapidly vanished, becoming a ghost town in only a couple of years.
The Holmden Farm, where Pithole City was built, which had been sold by Duncan and Prather for $2 million in September 1865, was acquired in 1878 by the Venango County commissioners for only $4.37. After years of abandonment and indifference, the site was purchased in 1957 for $6,000 by James B. Stevenson, the publisher of the Titusville Morning Herald, who cleared the brush from the site. He collected some objects he found in the ground and donated it all to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1961.
Now, almost 160 years after it was established, there is not much left in Pithole City, which at one moment had been one of the largest cities in Pennsylvania. There are a few depressions in the ground where buildings once stood and a grass-covered but recognizable street grid on a sloping hillside. Marks at street crossings and explanatory guideposts indicate the sites of important buildings. A Visitors Center, built in 1972 and run by the Drake Well Museum, includes exhibits, a scale model of the city at its peak, and photographs from the once rich, boisterous, cheerful, legendary and short-lived oil boomtown of Pithole City.