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From “Early History of Town of Wirt and Village of Richburg”   compiled by Beth Canfield Thompson 1963 and amended by Donald L. Cady July of 2009.   (His additions are in brackets.)

 Discovery of Oil

 

For years this little hamlet had slept, never dreaming of the wealth that lay beneath its fields.  The arrival of the stage with an occasional passenger was the big event of the day.

Then on April 27, 1881 Richburg began a most incredible year, a year that saw this quiet settlement transformed into a bustling boom town.  The cause of this transformation was the completion of a flowing oil well on that day, on the Jerry Reading farm, a mile to the east along the Richburg Hill road.  A large crowd, including the entire population of Richburg, then about one hundred and fifty persons, was present at dawn to watch the shooting.  About forty quarts of glycerin was brought from Bradford to shoot the well.  Drilling crews were paid a flat sum for their work.  Martin Moran and Alonzo McQueen, the drillers, received $50 each, while Omar McQueen and Albert Brands, the tool dressers, $25 each.  All received board at the Richburg House.  Working with equipment primitively crude as compared with that used today, the four men managed to complete the well in six weeks, then an unusually short time for the completion of a “wildcat well”.

The first well was drilled by the Richburg Drilling Co., consisting of E. S. Bliss, Riley Allen,  O. P. Taylor, A. B. Cottrell, and Crandall Lester.  Mr. Lester kept a record of the progress of this well.  “Cased at 262 feet, top of first sand 645 feet, bottom of first sand 710 feet, second sand and gas 896 feet.  Top of 3rd sand (Richburg) 1204 feet.  Well finished at 1231 feet.”

(Lester had tunneled his way from Andersonville Prison as a Sergeant of the 160th. NY Volunteer Regiment in 1864 and was retired as disabled, living to 1924.   O. P. Taylor was badly wounded at Bull Run as a Va. Cavalryman in 1861.

A partnership of old adversaries.  Lester surmised the site and planned the drilling while Taylor brought his experience to the project.  Others did the financing.)

The well started flowing at eighty barrels a day then after several months settled to twenty barrel a day production.

Before the first dozen barrels of the golden oil had been released from their depths, bluff and genial Riley Allen had dickered and bought the ninety acre Jeffy Reading farm for $100 per acre.  Selling out his birthright for a  mess of pottage in comparison to the wealth that was made from it in a few weeks and later, old Jerry Reading, always a plain spoken old cuss, said as he sold it,  “Well By Gawd, that’s all it’s worth”.

When the second well was brought in two months later and started flowing heavily, the boom became an actuality.  This second well, known as the Boyle well, was located about a mile north of Richburg off the East Notch Road.  (On  the edge of our present family farm)  It flowed two hundred and fifty barrels the first twenty four hours then settled down to fifty barrels a day.  (It must be remembered that the flow was only by pressure as pumping was not yet done)

Boyle later drilled other wells, but none to equal the discovery well.

Samuel Boyle was one of the really picturesque oil men attracted to the Richburg district from the oil fields of Pennsylvania, where he was reputed to have cleared $20,000 in an oil strike.  He was of medium height, wiry and active and wore a long Prince Albert coat, flowing tie, a broad brimmed black beaver hat and striped trousers tucked in high, shiny leather boots.  A heavy gold watch chain adorned his fancy vest, He rode a handsome dappled gray saddle horse and one of his favorite stunts was to ride under a flaming open street gas flare in Richburg, reach up, light his cigar with a dollar bill and gallop away.  Like many other unique oil region characters of that day, Boyle’s days in Richburg were short.

By fall the valley was a forest of derricks.  Everyone was gripped with a ma hysteria for oil, golden oil that was so easily transformed into solid gold.  Within nine months Richburg had a population of eight thousand people.  The transformation was incredible with two banks, two narrow-gauge railroads, a morning, an evening and two Sunday papers, telegraph and telephone service, 56 hotels and boarding houses, 24 saloons and restaurants, two bottling works, seventeen wholesale and retail grocers,  eleven oil well supply stores, eight laundries, nine livery stables, four nitroglycerine dealers,  five drug stores, five clothing sores, two iron and tool works, two hose companies,  twelve lawyers, nine doctors, four jewelers, four milliners, five policemen, three justices of the peace, two opera houses, seven billiard parlors, a skating rink and more than twenty brothels, including one for colored clientele.

When the oil boom came Richburg was greatly handicapped by the lack of transportation.  Soon however, the narrow gauge railroad was built over the West Notch hill to Friendship.  This type of railroad was noted for its ability to climb hills, the rails being only three feet apart.  Not always were they always on time, but the passengers seemed to overlook this little drawback and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the narrow-gauge.

The first month’s freight receipts amounted to $12,000.  A boxcar served as a depot.   So  great was the demand for transportation that the Bradford Eldred and Cuba railroad built a spur up the valley from Bolivar and ran trains both ways every half hour, bringing into Richburg about 700 passengers daily.

A Dinkie railroad was constructed between Bolivar and Richburg at this time also, to carry workmen between the towns.  These Dinkies had wood burning locomotives and could do fifteen miles an hour at top speed.

There was no housing for the thousands determined to come and share in the flood of new oil wealth.  The first lumber to start the building was hauled by long strings of teams and wagons from a mill at Ceres, nine miles down the valley.  Building lots were in demand and frontage

on Main Street skyrocketed in price.  A saloon keeper, whose stock of liquors arrived before his building was completed put together a makeshift bar with two barrels and a plank and began dispensing his “redeye” to thirsty customers.

 

More than 200 carpenters, masons, bricklayers and paperhangers were busy at work when trains began running from Friendship and other points.  Dwellings, stores, hotels, saloons, and business blocks were built by crews of men working “round the clock”.

It was not uncommon to see twenty men crawling out of a haymow in the morning, to pay the farmer a quarter each for the fragrant but prickly accommodations.  On many a night in summer two hundred transients slept on the grass under the maple trees in the school park; others paid a half dollar to snore the night away in a barroom chair.

The owner of a billiard parlor rented his tables for sleeping quarters after midnight, two men to a table, at a dollar each.  A tent city prospered until winter snows descended.  Hotels in surrounding towns were crowded with guests waiting for accommodations in Richburg.

A telephone office was opened on Main Street in July 1881, just five years after the first sentence had been transmitted over an iron telephone wire by Alexander Graham Bell at Boston.

Western Union established an office with two regular and two part time operators.  

 

The saloons, gambling houses and brothels, crowded with restless and usually inebriated throngs, provided a perfect setting for the many acts of violence that were part and parcel of such a community.   It ran the Gamut from drunken fist fights to cold blooded murder.  There were several shooting and stabbing incidents,  some of them fatal.  John C.  McCarthy was hanged in Angelica for the stabbing death of Patrick Markey,  a driller, in the Allen House.  

 

Richburg was incorporated as a village so as to hire a policeman.

A sudden news flash of an oil strike in Cherry Grove Township, Warren County, Pa., started an exodus of men and money that culminated in Richburg’s abrupt decline.  Drillers, producers and businessmen rushed to the new source of oil, resulting in the calling of bank loans, foreclosures of mortgages and a general scramble to salvage something from the battered wreckage of what was then an almost deserted village.  “Petroleum Age” estimated that the Cherry Grove strike caused a shrinkage of $30,000,000 in market value of properties in Allegany, Cattaraugus and McKean Counties.

Mr. James K. Johnston, one of the early pioneers of the Allegany oil field said, “When oil was struck at Cherry Grove, men packed up their families and belongings and left, selling their comfortable homes for a song.  In most cases they received from $100 to $150 for both house and lot”.

(Mr. Johnston was this writer’s g-grandfather; DLC)

(Oil production continues to the present, with many of the original buildings of the area torn down and recycled to existing barns and homes.) 

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