J. T. Jones - Early Oil Region Producer
Overlooking the harbor at Gulfport, Mississippi, a bronze statue of a stocky elderly man dressed in a business suit stands on a broad, sculpted stone pedestal. On the front side of the pedestal facing the sea, the inscription reads. â€śCaptain Joseph T. Jones â€“ Founder of the Port of Gulfportâ€ť. The backside of the pedestal informs the passing public this pioneering oil producer from Pennsylvania and West Virginia built the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and the city and harbor of Gulfport.
Jones was born in Philadelphia in 1842. When destiny called, he enlisted in Company â€śHâ€ť, Ninety-first Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. His regiment fought its first major battle at Fredricksburg on December 13, 1862. The Ninety-first charged the infamous Stone Wall at five in the afternoon. Jones lived through that suicidal attack on a day and at a place when the Union Army lost 12,650 men. For nothing. Not one Union soldier reached the wall. Jones was given a commission and subsequently fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg where his regiment became legendary at Little Round Top. The Ninety-first fought in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 where Jones was appointed â€śActing Captainâ€ť. On June 2, 1864, Captain Jones was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He was sent home to Philadelphia to recuperate and later be honorably discharged September 1864.
Captain Jonesâ€™ wounds were to his feet. After months in a bed at his motherâ€™s home in Philadelphia, he finally was able to move around on crutches. The Philadelphia papers were full of sensational reports of the oil riches being produced in Venango County in Western Pennsylvania. Unable to resist the lure of the oil fields, Jones made his way by railroad, wagon and crutches to Oil City at the mouth of Oil Creek. Jones in 1865 and â€™66 persevered through twelve dry holes drilled in the Cherry Run district just above Rouseville. He became known for his admirable tenacity - and his bad luck.
His war-time savings exhausted, in debt to Rouseville banks for $6,000, ready to throw in the towel, Jones finally succeeded in 1867 with his thirteenth well, one drilled on the Shaw Farm high on the hill overlooking Cherry Run and Oil Creek below. Storing his crude until the winter, Jones was then able to sell his accumulated crude for $90,000. He paid his debts, purchased additional leases and drilled a good number of successful wells on the Shaw Farm, the Buchanan Farm hills above Rouseville and on the elevations of the Woods Farm up Oil Creek near Petroleum Centre.
While continuing to operate his Oil Creek leases, Jones bought leases in November 1872 in Salem and Perry Township nearby in Clarion County. Captain Jones built a pipeline, the Atlantic, to transport his Clarion crude to railheads in the Region. Agreeing in 1877 to a merger with Standard Oilâ€™s United Pipe Lines, the Captain in later years grudgingly admitted his Clarion County pipeline investment paid far greater dividends than his Clarion County oil wells.
In a partnership with a good friend and fellow producer, Wesley Chambers of Oil City, and two other investors, Jones established the Bradford Oil Co. on April 20, 1876. By 1879, the firm owned or leased 10,000 acres in the Bradford Field and had drilled over 300 wells. The overwhelming flood of Bradford oil, the lack of storage tanks, the waste and the sharp decline in the price of crude tested the resolve of the best of men. Jonesâ€™ partners reconsidered the wisdom of their investment. Jones did not share their pessimism and bought them out in 1879. By 1883, Captain Jones had 584 wells in production in the Bradford Field and was known as the largest individual producer of crude oil in the country.
Jones became heavily invested and a major producer in the Sistersville, West Virginia district in the early 1890â€™s. These West Virginia investments added greatly to his wealth. However, Bradford was where the Captain was introduced to the timber venture in Mississippi, which ultimately lead to the Gulfport project. In the summer of 1895, an engineer from Olean, New York by the name of S. S. Bullis visited the President of the First National Bank of Bradford to tell him of an attractive investment opportunity down in the pine country of Mississippi. Captain Jones was one of three bank depositors invited to hear Bullisâ€™ proposal. Bullis informed the small gathering of potential investors an unfinished railroad from Jackson to the Gulf Coast was in bankruptcy. The assets of the railroad included 63,000 acres of prime timberland. Close by were a total of 400,000 acres of pine waiting to be harvested. The four investors, including Jones and Bullis, formed a partnership, The Bradford Construction Company, to buy the bankrupt railroad and pursue this Mississippi opportunity.
The capital required to finish this project was immense. Jones quickly emerged as the majority partner. His great oil production in the Bradford and Sistersville Fields could barely keep up with the financial demands of the railroad and new harbor projects. The ambitious development continued for years. The Gulf and Ship Island Railroad was completed. A channel to deep water was dredged. A harbor, the Port of Gulfport, was created. The new City of Gulfport was constructed, and it became the county seat. Keeping to his preference for total independence, going it alone, Jones bought out his partners in this venture in March of 1901. The Bradford Construction Co. was reorganized as the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad Company.
Captain Jones, whose winter home by then was in Buffalo, built the Great Southern Hotel at Gulfport to serve as his residence in the South. Nearby, the new office building of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad Company was built. In the first decade of the twentieth century several massive hurricanes inflicted extensive damage on Gulfport. Captain Jones always rebuilt â€“ with his own money. The financial panic of 1907 caused by the failure of a New York investment bank, one Jones had just deposited $150,000 in to cover his railroad bond interest payments, forced Jones to sell his Sistersville, West Virginia and some Buffalo properties to cover this loss and other obligations. The Captain kept his Mississippi properties.
The economic importance of Gulfport grew rapidly. Over a billion feet of timber was shipped from Gulfport between 1903 and 1907. The first shipment of cotton was sent on the steamship Conway December 1908. Imports included phosphates, iron pyrite, creosote oil, naval stores and mahogany. From 1910 through 1913, the Port of Gulfport shipped and exported more timber than any other port in not just the country, but the world.
With age and ill health Captain Jones did his best to spend as much time in Gulfport as he did at the family home in Buffalo. He was mentally quick and alert but physically subdued when he passed away December1916.
by Neil McElwee
Captain Jones, Melodia Rowe, Hamilton, Ohio, 1942
The Derrickâ€™s Hand-Book of Petroleum, Vol. I, P. C. Boyle, Oil City, 1898
The Derrickâ€™s Hand-Book of Petroleum, Vol. II, P. C. Boyle, Oil City, 1900
Venango County Charter Book CB-4
_Sketches in Crude Oi_l, John J. McLaurin, Harrisburg, 1898