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Siverly and Oilwell Supply

Jun 26, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Places

Text of a program presented to the Oil City Heritage Society meeting, April 10, 2007,
by Judith Etzel

Siverly- one of Oil city’s most unique neighborhoods and the last to give up its independence, as a borough, when it finally merged with the city in 1910.

There are several unique things about the riverfront community- it once boasted the largest inland oil refinery in the world; it claimed a factory that was the largest manufacturing plant in the world for oil and gas field equipment, many of its homeowners held jobs that helped revolutionize an industry; and it had its own brand of residents from internationally known mathematician to one of the most talented football players to ever come out of the Oil Valley.

Growing up in Oil City, you had to have a specific occasion to go to Siverly because the main street was a dead end road at the last Oilwell building. Those “occasions” ranged from going to work at the sprawling Oilwell property, enjoying leisure time at the Siverly boat house, or dining at Falco’s or the Willows.

One of the most Siverly- created public spectacles was evident at the Oil city High School., with the immense traffic jams as school let out at the same time Oilwells’s dismissal whistle was sounding. – the intersection of Colbert and Spring street was a sea of cars, busses, and pedestrians every weekday shortly after 3 pm.

Siverly always typified strength – the strength of making big heavy things in big cavernous plants and the strength of family and character in a close- knit and safe neighborhood.

The Beginning-

The earliest survey of land that included what would become Siverly village was made in 1802 by Samuel Dale who two years earlier had been directed by county officials to establish the county’s borders. One of his surveys involved two plots claimed by Noah and Jesse Sage, brothers, along the Allegheny River just north of the Cornplanter Reservation. The Sage brothers then settled their families along the river and planted two orchards amidst huge stands of chestnut.

The Sage brothers and their families eventually moved on, perhaps across the river (Sage run?) and their properties left vacant.

Meanwhile, a man was moseying down from New England and he would put Siverly on the map.

Abraham George Siverly (A.G.) Siverly was born in New York City, to German immigrant parents, on July 26, 1769. He was going to be a doctor, but instead opted for a sea life. Siverly became a sailor for seven years “with varying fortunes” and the left that job to move to Vermont where he learned the cabinet trade. He also fell in love, marrying Susanna Thayer in 1793. They moved to Olean, N.Y., and found their way to Pinegrove Township in 1819.

The Siverlys built and house behind a residence owned by Samuel Powell, a war of 1812 veteran who was lured to this area by advertisements published by the Holland Land Company, then intent on selling land in NW Pennsylvania. Powell had reached here by boat and the by a team of horses.

So in the early 1820’s, the Siverly family was happily living in Pinegrove Township.

Then a wrinkle developed – nearby landowners challenged Siverly’s title to his property in Pingrove in 1825. That prompted him to move his family, taking them to an open hillside tract just north of a growing community that called itself Oil City.

Abraham turned his attention to his new homestead by enlisting help from his two sons, Philip and Milton, who surveyed the land and laid out a few plots for homes. The brothers then built their father a log home on the bank of the Allegheny river.

A handful of other families soon moved into the riverside community.

Tiny Siverly was impacted by the early timber industry- the 1855 “Allegheny Pilot”, an instruction book for rafters traveling down the Allegheny river, mentions “Siverly” on its maps. The tiny village was immediately south of Alcorn Island and rafters were advised “to keep to north side of the river in passing Alcorn”, a direction that prompted many of them to pull off for overnight rest at Siverly.

The village grew quickly enough that the elder Siverly was elected by his peers to serve as Justice of the Peace. A few years later, in 1839, he accepted the job as postmaster at the Cornplanter Post Office. Which served Oil City and the surrounding region.

A Postmaster, Oil City’s first, Siverly was in charge of delivering mail brought north by a carrier on horseback from Franklin once a week.

Siverly served only one term as postmaster before deciding to move- for some reason, he chose Iowa where he died at the age of 70.

Of Siverly 14 children, two sons- Phillip and Walter- stayed put and took it upon themselves to open up the village of Siverly. In 1862 they laid out streets, drew up rules and regulations.

First Big Thing-

It was in this lackadaisical period that the small Siverly settlement drew a major business- Imperial oil refinery.

In 1872, entrepreneur Jacob Vandergrift and his partners built a refinery in the northern end of the Siverly village right along the river. A year later, it was in full production at 1000 barrels a day. It also had a gasoline and wax works and a barrel factory. Because employees at the refinery typically chose to live in the community where they worked, a small housing boom ensued in Siverly. The village's major street (now Colbert) was named Imperial Street to reflect the corporation’s impact.

Things got formal in August, 1874 with Siverly incorporated as a borough – the first burgess (or no. 1 council member) was Walter Siverly, old Abraham’s son.

One generation after Abraham set up house keeping in a spot that bears his name, Siverly was sizzling. By 1880, Siverly boasted a population of 667 people. The village had become a major stop on the Western New York and Pa. RR, boasted a large school, claimed a massive refinery, built a Methodist Episcopal Church and more.

One of its triumphs, according to early histories, was “its practical prohibition of the liquor traffic” – it was a legacy, noted the 1890 county history, “that had been a feature of the place throughout its history.” That attitude was undoubtedly helped by the formation in January, 1884 of the Siverly Women Christian Temperance Union, and, four years later, the organization of the Siverly Sons of Temperance.

Siverly Grows

All of this was happening in the small riverfront borough as its larger counterpart to the south, Oil City, was booming. Oil city (what was originally just what is now the North Side business district) had swallowed up neighboring communities – Albion and Downington and Laytonia and Lee Town and Venango City. They all combined in 1871 to form the city of Oil City.

Not Siverly, though – it would not merge with Oil City until the spring of 1910.

A key ingredient in Siverly’s prosperity was the railroad – the Warren and Franklin RR pegged the borough as a major engine switching site – the RR would later become the Western NY and PA RR. That prompted an inordinate number of RR employees to live in Siverly and claimed the informal title of “railroader's village.”

Enjoying its independent heyday, Siverly was represented in the oil excitement by one of its namesakes – Walter Siverly, the grandson of founder Abraham Siverly. Early histories described the affable Siverly as “an enterprising and successful petroleum broker”, he had a very unusual talent: at the age of 58 in 1890, Walter was described as “one of the most proficient mathematicians in the state - his contributions to scientific papers published in both America and Europe on problems and solutions in higher mathematics have attracted the attention of the learned and won for him honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1888 from the North Carolina College of the Evangelical Church.”

Meanwhile, there were developments at the Imperial Oil refinery in Siverly. In 1884, a dozen years after it opened, the refinery got a new president - Benjamin F. Brundred of Oil City. He had been the builder and operator of the Union Refinery and barrel works on Union street (where the Saltzman Brewery would later locate) but lost the job when Standard Oil bought him out. Standard Oil, though, appointed Brundred treasurer of the Eclipse Refinery in Franklin in 1883 and then, a year later, transferred him to the Siverly plant.

A first - at one time, the Imperial Refinery was the largest inland refinery in the U.S. and even though the refinery was located in Siverly Borough, Oil City claimed it as its own – the 1887 Beers Atlas lists “two refineries operating within the city limits – The Imperial and the Union Gasoline Works”, although six others were headquartered in Oil City.

The boom times at Imperial were not to last, though. In 1894, Standard Oil shuttered the refinery and the property was abandoned. That closing, though, would pave the way for a much greater economic turn of events – Oilwell Supply.

Oilwell

No history of Siverly can be told without the story of Oilwell being added to the mix.

It offers a major claim to fame for the small neighborhood, both in a local and an international sense.

In 1862, John Eaton, a self style pig iron peddler who sold brass and iron stream engine parts in the oil region, thought about becoming an oil prospector but decided against it, instead opting to become a supplier. His change of mind from prospector to supplier had profound implications for the industry and for Siverly.

That same year, Eaton opened up a small supply shop, like an oil country store, on Oil City’s Elm Street. His one man operation was brokerage- type of deal – he would trade one oil industry tool for another or have a blacksmith make one or fix a tool, then sell the items from his storefront. His shop was the first ever to produce equipment SPECIFICALLY and EXCLUSIVEY for the oil industry. The inventory ranged from riveted sheet iron to drill bits to temper screws. Eaton became known as the “oil well supply man”, the first in the world.

As Eaton’s business grew, it attracted partners and new names – Eaton and Cole in 1869 and Eaton, Cole and Burnham in 1875. Growing at such a fast clip, Eaton and his partners finally decided on a more descriptive name for the company – Oil Well Supply – in 1878. By that time, the company was headquartered in Oil City but had branches in Petrolia, Ebensburg, Scrubgrass, Branford, Karns City and Oil City.

Oilwell Supply had an international reputation at that time – “Oilwell was so highly regarded at A. B. Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, came to Oilwell for machinery, men and technical advice for development of the Russian oil fields” (Ken Kelly, 1980 program on Oilwell) – that marked Oilwell’s entry into the international market.

Part of Oilwell’s universal appeal was its practice of instilling uniformity in the oil industry – Eaton launched specifications such as threaded tubing for pipe – before that, workers simply shoved pipe down a well hole like it was stove pipe.

And Oilwell adapted – the Bradford oil field came in a such a prolific rate in 1867 that Eaton invented threaded wrought iron pipe to handle the volume of oil; and, when the West Virginia oil fields were first tapped in 1889, Oilwell began manufacturing heavier equipment to handle the deeper drilling.

The business mantra was always – “If a tool to do a job was not available, Oilwell made one.”

In 1900, Oilwell Supply was the leader in oil field equipment worldwide. It had seven manufacturing plants (3-PA, 1-Ohio, 1- W.Va., 1-N.Y.) and 60 some stores in nine states and the Indian Territory. (In effect that made Oilwell an early operator of ‘chain stores’)

International business was brisk. – Oilwell sent a complete drilling outfit and crew to Paris for a demonstration in 1900.

Business was growing so fast that the Oilwell owners began looking around for an expansion site. They found it in Siverly.
Prosperous Partnership

Oilwell Supply directed Kenton Chickering, vice president of the company, to scout out a 50 acre tract in Siverly that had once boasted the Imperial Refinery.

A key drawing point was the tract’s proximity to additional property that Oilwell already owned and that boasted natural gas wells - that fuel would be used as the prime energy source for the plant, a move that was far ahead of its time.

Oilwell bought the old refinery property and began constructing a huge factory along the river. Under Chickering’s direction, the plant was completed in 1902 and was renamed the Imperial Works. It claimed the distinction as the largest manufacturing plant in the world for oil and gas equipment.

The new plant that stretched blocks along the river brought enormous changes to the small Siverly Borough, also known a Siverlyville.

For example, until the factory was built, Siverly residents depended on wells and outhouses. The Oilwell project meant sewer lines and water lines laid throughout the community. A volunteer fire department was organized and firefighting equipment purchased. The jail and borough hall on Plum Street were refurbished.

By 1910, Siverly listed 1,616 residents, nearly three times the number only 30 years earlier.

Siverly residents

Siverly flourished in the early 1900s as it claimed Oilwell Supply and the railroads as major employers. People chose to live in the small community for many reason – they could walk to work, they had easy access to the river and all its recreational opportunities. They could walk, too, to downtown Oil city to shop.

In Siverly, Imperial Street was the avenue of commerce (now Colbert).

In 1906 Oil City directory carries a separate listing for the Borough of Siverly.

The list of businesses was lengthy – a driller, three oil producers, a druggist, two drygoods stores (Gardiner’s at 242 Imperial and Krug Brothers at 158 Imperial), two general stores, five grocers (all on Imperial), the St. Charles Hotel at (202 Imperial) a junk dealer, Florence Trax’s meat market, a hardware store, a band (Imperial Band), a barber, four boarding houses, a boot/ shoemaker, three carpenters, two churches (Bethel Methodist, Episcopal and Free Methodist), a cigar store, George Schaible stone contractors, four dressmakers, three milk dealers, one milliner, Effa Sweetwood the music teacher, three nurses, three teamsters, Edwards Woolen Mills and of course, Oilwell Supply.

The list of professions reflects a sturdy, hands on workforce- Siverly was clearly a neighborhood that “made things”. The Pennsylvania Railroad employed more that 60 Siverly residents as flagmen, engineers, brakemen, switchmen, track walkers and more. National Transit Pump and Machine Co. across Oil Creek on Main Street listed numerous Siverly residents, too, on their employee roster.

But it was Oilwell that offered jobs of choice for Siverly residents. The litany of jobs included galvanizers, tinners, pipefitters, metal polishers, tooldressers, clerks, machinists, pattern makers, draftsmen, coremakers, carpenters, moulders and more.

While Oilwell was inventing as it went, adapting and changing oil and gas field equipment and tools as needs arose, the Siverly plant devised one product that would prove to be a boon. In 1898, Oilwell invented a one piece steel sucker rod to replace earlier ones that were wood poles fitted with wrought iron coupling – they are still in use today.

Incidentally, at the same time Oilwell was building its plant, several Siverly residents were building something else – a boat house. The 1900 project resulted in a large boat house, complete with dance hall, kitchen and dining room, at the foot of Willow Street. That same summer, though, a storm knocked it loose from its mooring and the building was destroyed. Undeterred, a group salvaged much of the wood, purchased a lot a 12 Wabash Street and built another one, this time on dry ground.

It was also at that time that shoemaker and Siverly resident George Thomas, who served as a drillmaster in the Union Army’s Zouaves unit during the Civil War, organized a drill team, open to men and boys of Siverly. The drill team performed with the Cottage Hill Fife and Drum Corp and their joint appearances drew large crowds.

The Siverly neighborhood also took an international flavor, even more than that represented by its ethnically diverse population.

Oilwell was supplying equipment worldwide and so attached representatives from numerous foreign countries who were interested in oil and gas production – in 1905, is designed sectional oil well equipment to fit on burros’ backs in Bolivia; in 1907 Oilwell invented the first steel derricks for countries (like Egypt) where climate made wood impractical; in 1910, it opened an office in London and Tampico, Mexico; in 1925 it expanded to include a store and plant I Roumania.

1910 merger with Oil City

Oil city, which had claimed Oilwell Supply’s manufacturing plant, pushed hard for annexation – obviously eyeing the Oilwell Supply tax base – and was successful in 1910. The merger created changes in Siverly, then added to the City’s largest ward – the 10th Ward.

Siverly’s high school was consolidated into the Oil City system and the building was changed to an elementary school. The volunteer fire department was dissolved. Sewage and waters services were switched to the city.

The most visible changes involved Siverly’s street. Many of the names were changed because of identical streets elsewhere in the City of City. Imperial Street became Colbert (named after a doctor and druggist with offices downtown); Second Street became Wabash and 3rd Street was switched to Willow. Fourth Street was renamed Wayne and Liberty became Glenview.

The 1920 and 1930’s

In the two decades following its annexation to Oil city, Siverly grew and prospered.

It was a residential place of choice for hundreds of employees at Oilwell Supply and the Pennsylvania Railroad. A housing boom had created good, solid homes laid out in an orderly fashion along quiet streets. The community also boasted an immediate recreation spot, the river, and a railroad juncture that allowed passengers to embark for a ride up along the Allegheny.

Sitting squarely off to one side of the Siverly community was Oilwell Supply that extended for several blocks, starting at 671 Colbert Ave., and hugging the shoreline up along the river.. Across from the plant was row after row of factory houses, built by the company and sold to employees.

There were lots of businesses, too, nearly all were stretched along Colbert Avenue: Wade Gulick’s Grocery, Ross Uter’s grocery, Joseph Tamburino’s Grocery and shoe repair store, the Great A and P Tea Co. store, Perey Ashton’s shoe shop, barber Charles Wrhen, Hiram Bean’s meat market, Joseph Falco’s billiards parlor, Cosimo Venturella’s grocery, Florence Trax’s grocery, the Siverly Restaurant.

Oilwell’s employee roster continued to grow, changing each time the company embarked on a new project or designed a new piece of machinery. For example, when Spindletop came in Texas, Oilwell revamped one line to make rotary drilling rigs. The Seminole field in Oklahoma required more drilling speed so Oilwell accommodated by manufacturing larger pumps that could handle higher steam pressure. Another Oklahoma field needed more power so Oilwell bulked up the engines it made and made them heavier.

At each step, the bulk of those newly hired workers either came from Siverly or moved there shortly after starting work.

In 1937, Siverly became the center of attention when the international Oilwell Corporation celebrated the Diamond Jubilee. To mark the 75th anniversary of the company's founding in Oil City, the local plant published a special newspaper edition that called attention to the Siverly facility.

That year, Oilwell had 37 buildings in Siverly where 1,300 employees worked. Its influence was substantial, , noted the company, in Oil City 6 percent of the population worked at Oilwell – that meant about 20 percent of the city’s population depended on Oilwell operations.

In celebrating its jubilee, Oilwell reported it had sent “several thousand men abroad as drillers, tool dressers, blacksmiths, machinist, rig builders, refinery operators, pipeline men” to help establish drilling and production projects – many of those representatives called Siverly home.

The company took great pride in ensuring that “we took responsibility for their families” when Oilwell employees were working overseas.

That same year, Oilwell boasted of its overwhelming influence in the community - Siverly – where its largest plant was located. Its annual picnics, held in Monarch Park or Hasson Park, regularly drew more than 4000 people, making it “the largest of its type in Oil City.” It held annual Shop Nights for fathers and sons that featured entertainment like speakers, movies, orchestras and Oilwell Hillbillies.”

Numerous classes, including industrial economics, petroleum engineering and first aid, were offered at the Oilwell plant. The company supported a community baseball team that played against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds on the company diamond at the corner of Colbert and Willow, typically with a crowd exceeding 4000 spectators- and a mush ball team (it won the N W Pa championship in 1936) and a bowling league that listed more than 100 bowlers.

Oilwell built and maintained a Siverly community playground on Wayne Street, complete with a supervisor.

While Siverly was bustling in the 1930s, the real heyday would come in the following decade.

1940s and World War II

Oilwell and subsequently Siverly - because of the huge contingent of residents who worked at the local plant – played a pivotal roles in World War II because of its manufacturing capabilities.

The first big push came in December 1940 when England ordered 50 diesel driven pumping units, 1550 miles of pipe and accessories for water supplies. The stipulation was that it all must be manufactured and aboard ship for transport within 6 weeks. Oilwell employees managed to design the special units, write the instructions for their use and manufacture the entire order on schedule. The order requires transport on 38 railroad cars. Meanwhile, the company, now with an employee list of 1,600, began manufacturing hundreds of engine driven pumping units for fuel lines and water supplies in preparation for America entering World War II. In all, the company manufactured 3,000 different items for the war effort, including oil and water drilling equipment plus pumps and lines and compressors for both land and sea use. It was the armaments, though, that consumed Siverly’s Oilwell plant. The first war orders started in Feb, 1941. The manufacturing facility was the first in the nation to produce 8-inch explosive shells for the U.S. Army to use against the German defenses. It was a pilot plant for the manufacturing of breech and firing mechanism for the 155mm guns. And, the plant perfected a method of heat treating the bars from which Tommy gun barrels were made.

In addition, Oilwell handled contracts for the production of 37mm shells for the Army and 40 mm anti- aircraft shells for the Navy. The Siverly company also handled massive orders for Russia – it supplied several hundred pumps and engines to the embattled nation to help replace power from the Dneprostroy Dam wrecked when the Germans invaded.

Honored on a regular basis by the Secretary of War for making its production quotas, Oilwell was cited for “its long tradition of leadership” and lauded for “using its expertise and experience for Uncle Sam”.

Oilwell, and thus Siverly, did more than just make equipment for the war effort – both sent their sons to war. As of December 31, 1944, there were 607 Oilwell employees who had joined the armed forces to serve in World War II. As veterans returned, they were immediately put back to work on the manufacturing floors. Siverly was booming with businesses during the war years - Marshall’s Service Station (owned by James C. Marshall, Venango County Sheriff, who lived in Siverly) Vengold Dairy Products, Wrhen and Spence Barbers, Otto Whaley Grocery, Falco’s Restaurant (owned by Joe and Mary), the Willows Restaurant and of course- Oilwell.

Post World War II

In 1950, a change in the oil field manufacturing field would eventually have a dramatic influence on Oilwell and community in which it was located.

U.S. Steel, which had purchased Oilwell Supply, opened a plant in Garland, Texas. By the 1960’s it had become the main plant for the manufacture of oilfield drilling and production equipment. Meanwhile, U.S. Steel moved to diversify the manufacturing load at Oilwell in Siverly. The diversification included the production of continuous casting machinery, molds and gears. Employment dipped to the 900 mark at Oilwell in Siverly.

Still, Siverly was doing well and had gained fame on a number of fronts – Falco’s Restaurant and the Willows Restaurant were pulling in patrons from throughout the city; Joe Venturella’s Siverly Golden dawn Market was well known for fresh meats; Caruso’s Dairy Mart was a popular ice cream stop.

There was one business, too, that was well known not particularly for what service it provided but for one of the family members – it was Shaughnessy Rug Cleaning in the former Red & White Store on Colbert. Jimmy Shaughnessy of Oiler football fame bought new recognition to the city’s small and distinct neighborhood to the north.

In 1970, U.S. Steel installed the largest electron beam welder ever used in the U.S. at Oilwell’s Siverly plant. The machinery would allow the plant to weld materials formerly considered non- weldable - it would ensure the employee roster stayed high at the Siverly plant. That, in turn would keep the neighborhood intact.

A decade later, times were good at Oilwell. In 1980, a U.S. Steel president announced that Oilwell had achieved “record sales and operating income.”

In November, 1982 Oilwell announce plans for expansion at the Siverly Plant. The project, said the company, would add 40 employees to the 900 already on the job there. One year later, the bottom had fallen out as U.S. Steel shifted its focus again, moving some operations to the Garland works and eliminating others altogether at Siverly.

By mid- 1982, Oilwell was down to 132 employees. And even though there were sporadic callbacks for employees, the plant never fully resumed operations. The shutdown came even as unionized steelworkers, in the midst of contract negotiations agreed to sizable concessions, including 24 percent pay cuts. In 1988, The city of Oil City bought a 36 acre parcel – once the Oilwell tract – from U.S. steel to use as an industrial park. An Oil remnant, known as Imperial Mold, stayed there with 54 employees.

Today

The Siverly neighborhood is far different today - there is the overwhelming influence of out of town landlords and many properties have deteriorated; it appears to have lost that robust blue collar work. Incidentally, there are at least two other “Siverly” towns out there, both tied directly to Abraham Siverly’s descendants - on is Iowa and the other is in Ohio.