Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Thurs., April 8, 1897
Rise and Fall of Richburg
Visions of Wealth and Dreams
Story of An Oil Boom
From a Sleepy Village it Became as Lively and Wicked as Mining Camp When Oil Was Struck Sixteen Years Ago.
Bolivar (N.Y.) Letter to New York Sun
A mile up the valley from Bolivar, in a hollow of the hills of Allegany county, is the nearest approach to a deserted city to be found in the Empire state. There are large business blocks with windows boarded up, long rows of vacant buildings that are tumbling from shaky foundations, a great brick church slowly crumbling, a brick bank building that cost several thousand dollars now used as a dwelling house, streets that are as silent as a churchyard, and over the whole hangs an air desolation and decay.
Once 8,000 people thronged the streets, and it was as lively and wicked as any mining camp that ever flourished in the Rockies. All there is to show of its former greatness are 300 people and the village charter. Three years ago it was proposed to throw up the charter and a special election was held. There were not many votes cast, but the majority was on the right side, and the incorporation papers were not surrendered. It is the one badge of honor that poor, old, deserted Richburg retains.
Petroleum was responsible for its rise and decay. On April 1, 1881, Richburg was a country hamlet that did not even boast of a telegraph office. There were perhaps 25 houses clustered along the shady road that led over the hills to Friendship, on the Erie Railroad, 11 miles away. The event of each weekday was the arrival of the stage that carried the mail and an occasional passenger. On Sunday the villagers went to church and after that discussed the prospect of an advance in cheese if it was summer, or the price of hay and pine logs on the skids if it was winter. All unmindful of the fact that billions of feet of natural gas was imprisoned beneath their farms they hauled beech and birch logs to their dooryards and sawed them into stove wood every fall, and occasionally one of them grew tired of trying to get a living from a side hill farm and went West, although the underside of the farm was lined with a rich oil-bearing sand.
The Pennsylvania oil operators who had followed the line of developments from Oil Creek to Bradford began to cast their eyes across the state line toward Allegany county, which was on the "forty-five" degree line. In due time several test wells were drilled in the county, but none of them gave much promise of wealth, though several of them produced oil in small quantities. On the morning of April 27, 1881, a well was completed on the hill above Richburg that started off at 400 barrels a day. It was known as the Boyle well, and was the key to a rich field.
Oil scouts who had been watching developments closely rode with all haste to the railroad towns over the hills and the wires carried the news of the big strike to the newspaper offices. The next day people in all parts of the country knew that a new oil field had been opened. Then began a wild scramble for leases, and oil operators from the Pennsylvania regions flocked across the state line in droves, anxious to secure a slice of the new Eldorado.
Four stage lines were established in less than a week between Eldred, on the line of the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad, midway between Richburg and Bradford, and the scene of the excitement. The big, old-fashioned stagecoaches drawn by four horses were loaded with passengers at $3 apiece. A few days after the strike a building boom struck Richburg. Houses, stores, saloons and dance halls were built in a night. There was a wild rush for hotel accommodations. Men willingly paid $1 a night for the privilege of sleeping on a billiard table, and the regular charge for sleeping in a bar-room chair was 50 cents. So great was the rush that the hastily built hotels simply could not accommodate the great crowds that flocked in. It was nothing strange to see 20 men crawling out of hay mow in the morning, and many nights during the summer months as many as 200 men slept under the big maple trees in the little park that surrounded the school house. A building lot of 20 feet front rented for $50 a month, and choice locations were scarce at that price.
The men and women who rushed to the new oil field to make their fortunes came from all points of the compass. Pittsburg, Bradford, Oil City, Buffalo, Rochester, and many other cities helped to swell the crowd. The new town was a paradise for crooks of high and low degree. Gambling houses were run wide open, and games of every description flourished. The town boasted of more than 100 saloons, and no attention was paid to securing a license. The people were too busy getting rich to bother about so small a matter. And it was the same way with the gambling houses. One saloon keeper's stock arrived before his building was completed. he had no time to lose, so he put two whisky barrels on end, utilized a plank for a bar, and began business at the side of the street. The first day his receipts were $72. Money flowed like water.
Richburg at that time had two solid banks, a water system, two hose companies, a fine high school building, a brick church that cost $10,000, a prospective street railroad, machine shops, oil well supply factories, a nitro-glycerine factory, and two daily newspapers. The Oil Echo, edited by P.C. Doyle, now owner of the Oil City Derrick and Bradford Era, was printed on a three-revolution Hoe press, possessed a news franchise, and was as lively as the town. About the time the boom burst the Echo office was destroyed by fire, and Boyle informed the writer that he walked out of town because he did not have money to buy a ticket. But he is rich now.
As soon as the oil boom was fairly underway, a narrow gauge railroad, the Allegany Central, was built to Richburg from Friendship and was then continued down the valley to Olean. The first month a freight car served as a station and records show the freight receipts amounted to more than $12,000. In a short time the Bradford, Eldred & Cuba railroad was built over the hills from Bradford to Bolivar, and thence across a new extension of the oil field to Wellsville on the Erie railroad. A spur was built from Bolivar to Richburg and a train ran every half hour. It was called the dinky line. The engine was a cross between a cook stove and a fanning mill, but it had a whistle that could wake all the dormant echoes within ten miles. Some days this dinky train carried as many as 700 passengers.
The principal part of the criminal business of the county courts came from Richburg and the outlying oil field. Hold-ups were a nightly occurrence, and the farmer who came into town with a load of produce had to bring a hired man with him to guard his load if he expected to realize anything from it. The most unprovoked murder that ever occurred in the county was committed on the main street of Richburg in November, 1881, when John O. McCarthy, a desperado, who had drifted in with the oil boom, stabbed Patrick Markey, a tool dresser, in front of a saloon. Quick-witted officers saved McCarthy from being lynched. Horace Bemis, one of the leading criminal lawyers in the state at that time, defended McCarthy. Judge Charles Daniels presided at the trial, McCarthy was hanged at Angelica in the following March. His nerve was good. On the scaffold he asserted his innocence "in the sight of God," although many of the spectators had seen him commit the crime.
In Richburg everybody was oil crazy. Wells were drilled in the center of the town on garden lots, and the little village cemetery was surrounded by oil derricks. Even the church people caught the fever, and the trustees decided to invest no more church funds in that kind of gamble. A preacher speculated on the oil market during the week and pointed out the straight and narrow path on Sunday, and no one chided him in the least.
No boom lasts long. In May, 1882, the news of the big gushers down in Pennsylvania, caused a great slump in the oil market, and Richburg's floating population flocked to the new and more promising field. There is nothing more fickle than the floating population of a boom town in the oil country. This was the beginning of the end of Richburg's greatness. Bolivar, a hamlet a mile down the valley, began to boom in the spring of 1882, and soon the Standard Oil Company moved its buying office to Bolivar, and Richburg began to go to seed.
Fires wiped out some of the finest buildings, and others were torn down and moved to adjacent villages. Buildings that cost thousands of dollars went for a mere song. The fine opera house was converted into a cheese factory. The railroads were long ago torn up and a stage line again connects Richburg with the outside world. The 300 people who live there today are very loyal to the deserted city and to the village charter. Even the oldest resident dates everything from the oil excitement. He does not remember much what happened before that because there was little to remember.