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Writing History

Feb 09, 2009 | Posted in Essays, People

Carolee Michener, updated 02/2009

We are always writing and re-writing history. It is done years or decades or even centuries after the fact. But it is always interesting to go back to the primary sources, sometimes documents or written records and even newspaper accounts. When the first successful oil well was drilled in Venango County in 1859 the only newspaper in the county was the weekly Venango Spectator published in Franklin. By 19th century standards it was many miles from the first oil excitement and without any instant communication it relied heavily on second hand reports and sometimes items published in distant newspapers.

By 1866 oil was the topic of the day and we found some articles in the April 27 issue which give vivid pictures of the times. Pithole City was coming into its own as this report shows:

"A prize fight for $200 a side came off near Pithole City on the 18th inst. The two human brutes who pummeled each other are named Hogan and Holliday, and area sojourners or citizens of Pithole. Another fight is said to be on the carpet between the victor, Hogan, and a brother of Holliday. The Pithole Record says—

"Our town is ordinarily well represented by the class known as 'roughs,' but yesterday it was literally swarming with the off- scourings of the entire oil regions, and tanglefoot whiskey, street rows, profanity and vulgarity rioted in magnificent disorder. If another fight is to come off we hope some other field will be chosen."

This was also a tough time for teamsters, who had found a lucrative business in hauling oil in barrels during the early days of the oil boom. Hundreds of drivers with their teams of horses and wagons were engaged in that important event until the pipeline was started. Oil could be transported faster and much cheaper when pipelines were installed from wells to the railroad terminals. Teamsters rioted as was evidenced in this report:

"Fire at Shaffer—a telegram to the Pittsburgh Commercial of the 21st says—

"The tanks of Henry Hailey & Co. at this point, which receive oil from Bennehoff Run, two miles distant, by pipes, were set on fire at three o'clock on the morning of the 18th, but through the courage and industry of the employees, all but two out of the seven tanks were saved. Four of the Oil Creek cars with two loaded tanks on each, were destroyed together with pipes, platforms, and eight hundred barrels partly filled with oil, belonging to various parties. About one thousand barrels were burned on this occasion.

"This forenoon, at eleven o'clock, an armed mob, estimated by the watchman at from two hundred to two hundred and fifty emerged from the thickets surrounding the tanks, and ordered the watchman to leave instantly. The latter hesitated. The mob rushed forward, yelling, and firing rapidly with revolvers. The watchman fled after firing a few times in return. The incendiary mob then applied the match, and stood guard until the conflagration was under full headway, defying anyone to attempt to put out the fire. The regular watch of three men was increased after the fire to seven, and were always fully armed. It was generally believed, as threats had been frequently made, that the tanks would be burned.

"The second fire destroyed all of the Company's property. The Company are (was) insured.

"The entire village of Shaffer was in imminent danger. Teamsters who are out of work are known to be the guilty parties. The property will be replaced and put in working order in two or three days. No lives were reported lost, but it is said that one or two of the mob were wounded."

There were also weekly reports of new oil wells, such as:

"Another Well—We have to report another splendid strike on the Allegheny River, eight miles below town, and opposite the Franklin, better known as Col. Rogers' well.

"As soon as struck, the oil and gas ignited, burning the rope and leaving the tools in the well. We regret to add that three men employed at the well were severely burned.

"The fire was extinguished the same day but the accident has prevented a test of the well. Good judges, however, estimate it to be as good as the Franklin, which is from 200 to 300 barrels."