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Oil and Gas in Allegany County History

From the Alfred Sun, March 7, 1940.
Transcribed by Karen Meisenheimer.


From the Series of Articles: PEAKS OF ALLEGANY
By Hubert D. Bliss

Oil and gas provide Allegany County with both a “Peak” and a “Dip” rating. No section has had Allegany’s equal in sub-strata exploration. Its buckled terrain has been the Empire State’s pincushion deluxe when it comes to getting down into the bowels of the earth. Thousands of times the drill has been sent down in quest of liquid gold or combustible gas. The proved fields account for the vast majority of the wells, but all parts of the county have been punctured.

This underground quest went on for more than a half century at the 500 to 2,000 foot depth, with only an occasional venture for deeper secrets. Then in 1927 was opened the era of deep well tests, which dwarfed all previous ideas of drilling depths. The mile deep well for Allegany County became a reality—and more. The Cady well in the town of Wirt holds the record at 6,500 feet, without paying gas. This well had an elevation of 1,917 feet, so that made a below sea level “dip” of nearly 4,600 feet. The second deepest well ever drilled in the county was the Gilbert well, town of Wirt, at 6,225 feet.

Allegany indeed knows its “ups-and-downs” as no other county in the state.

Oil and gas have written Allegany County’s name big in natural resource annals of the Empire State. These mighty assets add up as the third major field of human activity rating as Allegany peaks. Preceding chapters in this category have presented the facts related to higher education – through its two colleges. Alfred and Houghton – and high plateau farming, as the two other fields in which Allegany folks have made other most distinct contributions to State and National records.

Nature favored Allegany County back many million years ago, when geologists say the vast reserve of petroleum was first laid down as organic matter. There is kept locked the secret through the ages, reserving for Allegany to supply the first historical American link with this gigantic modern industry. The Story of the Seneca Indian Oil Spring near Cuba has become a part of history that need not be told in detail here.

Briefly, though, mention belongs in any article dealing with Allegany oil peaks to this first discovery of petroleum in America by the Indians several centuries ago, and the first recorded reference to it by European writers in the 17th century.

In 1627 Father De LaRoche D’Allion mentioned oil as occurring in the Neuter Nation. This territory, embracing Cuba, soon afterwards fell into the hands of the Senecas. Father D’Allion did not state that he visited the spring personally.

While no commercial value developed from the spring region in the oil operations in the county following the drilling of the Drake well in Pennsylvania in 1859, the historical place of the Seneca Oil Spring has been permanently secured by the New York State Oil Producers’ Association in marking its location and turning it over to Allegany County as a public historical spot.

Shifting to the actual commercial oil age, Allegany County has been the Empire State petroleum capital for nearly three-quarters of a century. The first test well in the county—and possibly the state—is credited by Lewis H. Thornton, Wellsville producer, in his extensive article in “The History of the Genesee Country” as having been drilled at Whitesville in 1866. Some oil was found, but not enough to warrant operation, and yet the well takes its historical place as the landmark from which Allegany County eventually was to date its productive supremacy in the state.

It was O. P. Taylor’s Triangle No 1 at Petrolia that became in 1879 the discovery well for Allegany County after several previous tests in border towns. Then opened up the 60-year period of boom and production that have set the Allegany star high in Empire State natural resource circles.

The Richburg gusher of 1881 gave the county its biggest boom, and definitely shifted the oil production center to that place and soon afterwards to Bolivar, where it has remained. The intervening years have seen the quest for oil pushed to every part of the county, and today about a dozen towns contribute some toward the annual production. Wirt, Bolivar, Alma, Genesee, Clarksville and Scio make up the big production block. But Wellsville, Willing, Independence, Andover, Amity and Ward add their bits from smaller pools.

A conservative figure of New York State oil production since Triangle No. 1 is around 125,000,000 barrels. The New York State Museum Bulletin No. 319 places the total to the end of 1936 at 108,836,157 barrels. The production for 1937 was 5,478,000 barrels; for 1938, 5,045,000 barrels, and for 1939 5,100,000 barrels (with December included unofficially), according to figures supplied by C. A. Hartnagel, Assistant State Geologist.

Allegany and Steuben represent about five-sevenths of the total state production at present, according to Mr. Hartnagel. The Steuben share is very small. Cattaraugus accounts for the other two-sevenths. While data is not available to show the exact division since the discovery of oil, Allegany County has been the dominant production and operating factor for the state for 60 years.

Varying prices and annual outputs leave the total value of the state’s oil production somewhat uncertain. At such a seemingly conservative average as $2.00 a barrel, however, it would run around $250,000,000. This is for crude petroleum alone. The last 20-year period has accounted for close to half this total, under the impetus of lease “flooding” that has brought the most constant high output for Allegany County since the waning of the ‘80’s boom. This rehabilitation period also has skyrocketed operating costs.

These figures justify the belief that petroleum is New York’s most valuable mineral. Gypsum and salt have a high place in state minerals from mined resources over many years, but official data does not list either as equal to petroleum on a valuation basis.

This paves the way then for a major Allegany “peak”—namely, but today Allegany County is the Empire state capital in mineral production.
This position has been achieved since around 1927 and 1928, when “flooding” sent the state oil production past the 2,000,000 barrel mark for the first time since pioneer days.

“And since that time Allegany County has been without much doubt that leading mineral producer of the state,” writes Mr. Hartnagel. He cautions, however, that due regard must be given to just what proportion of the state production belongs to Allegany County.

Whether the spread over the 60-year period of oil operations would gain for Allegany such a long-time “peak” is a point largely of conjecture. The State does not have exact details for all years, and one of the difficulties cited is the fact that it is almost impossible to segregate the oil production of Allegany from Cattaraugus and Steuben. Other counties have had high mineral outputs that vary from year to year. Genesee County is one such cited by Mr. Hartnagel, with its $11,000,000 gypsum production alone putting it in the lead as a mineral producer for a number years around 1925.

But Allegany highlands can rest content with its commanding “peak” provided by petroleum as the state’s leading mineral producer today.

The oil fields have been a mighty stake, both in the lease and refinery divisions. They have put Old Allegany at the top among rural counties in gainful employment, capital outlay and industrial leadership.

Natural gas has been the parallel resource that has teamed up with value, oil to command a second “peak” position. Gas has been a more variable resource than oil, and it has been much more widely diffused in the state. In early oil field days, gas had only an incidental recovery value, such as accounted for the burning of surplus in huge outdoor lights at many farm homes even in my boyhood.

Now gas has a more highly prized standing in mineral economy of the state. There has been a better appreciation of its home and industrial use, though one must recognize certain fallacies in the latter widespread expansion during the recent years of vastly increased production, in the retrospect of the sharp decline of the deep gas fields in the last year.

Right now the status of gas production is too uncertain to warrant much comparative discussion. Still Allegany County has emerged from the situation as the most reliable source of supply. The Beech Hill and Willing fields have held up the best of the deep gas territory. Augmenting this is the supply from the old shallow wells in a dozen or more towns, which have now an enhanced margin for operating over recent years. But as from other states has been necessary to meet even the curtailed service in New York State during the current winter.

Oil and gas provide a colorful and fruitful chapter in Allegany County’s history. It is a chapter withal, of the infusion of the oil country people quite in the county tradition of individual achievement, tempered by a fine spirit of social responsibility. These natural resource “peaks” play an incalculable role in the county’s economic life today. Still they have not ruthlessly disturbed the population pattern of the old farming and lumbering days.

Indeed, Allegany County can be credited with taking its natural resource “peaks” in the stride be-fitting a people who pioneered the highest inhabited region of the Empire State, nearly a century and a half ago.

 

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