During the 1880s Oil Boom
provided by Richard Palmer
J.P. Herrick was the editor of the Bolivar Breeze. The following article was published in John S. Minard's Allegany County and its People, A Centennial Memorial History of Allegany County, New York, published in Alfred in 1896. Herrick was noted for having an excellent command of the English language. The development of the Allegany oil fields in the early 1880s turned the sleepy little village of Bolivar into a boom town practically overnight, much to the same degree as to what occurred in the Old West.
Next to Richburg, Bolivar was for a season a hot oil town, but Bolivar people showed good sense in confining oil operations to territory outside of the village limits. In 1882 Bolivar boasted of nearly 5,000 population. At this time the Police Gazette had the largest circulation in Bolivar of any New York weekly. In January 1882, Olean capitalists sent F. L. Newton, now a Buffalonian, to Bolivar with a canvas sack containing $20,000 in currency to open a bank. In four months’ time the deposits exceeded $250,000. Like Richburg, Bolivar sheltered a very tough element, and the nightly scenes witnessed on Railroad street -- Bolivar’s Bowery -- were very wicked.
Along with the oil boom came a German philosopher with a stink-pot full of chemicals and a mineral rod. He felt sure that he could pick out a location for a good well. Finally he succeeded in interesting some oil men in his theory and a well was drilled a short distance below the village. Much interest was manifested in the test. When the old German learned that the well was "dry," he packed his grip and started for the woods. And they haven’t seen him since. The rabble that drifted in on the oil tide has all left now, and Bolivar has settled down into a steady-going prosperous village; in fact it has held its own the best of any oil town in the country, unless it is Bradford. Bolivar has a state bank, good hotels, excellent schools, well-equipped fire department, fine academy, excellent stores, a race track and a newspaper.
Bolivar is the oil headquarters of the Allegany field and the local buying agencies of the National Transit Company and the Tidewater Pipe Company are located there. The wealth that poured out of the hills and valleys made a few men very rich, many comfortably well off, and many lost the savings of years in vain endeavor to “strike it rich.” One of the earliest and brainiest operators in the field was George V. Forman of Olean, now of Buffalo.
In company with H. L. Taylor and John Satterfield of Buffalo, Mr. Forman in 1881 owned 3,000 acres of “cream ”territory in the Allegany field. In May, 1882, the Cherry Grove bubble induced many of the producers of the Allegany field to offer their leases at ridiculously low prices. They were fairly crazy to get to Cherry Grove and offered oil property at almost one-fourth of the real value. Mr. Forman bought up every lease offered for sale and when the reaction took place a few months later, he sold out at profit of nearly half a million dollars. The late Asher W. Miner of Friendship is credited with clearing over half a million dollars in oil operations in the Allegany field.
The McCalmont Oil Company of Pittsburg have cleared a round million dollars out of their oil operations in the Allegany field, and the Hazelwood Oil Company have also made a fortune. Both of these companies still retain large interests in the field. Not over 10 per cent of the farmers who originally owned the land were benefited by the oil boom. The majority of them sold their farms at high prices and fooled away the money in speculating. Those who leased on a royalty are to-day comfortably well off, and assured of a steady income as long as the wells on their farms continue to produce oil. One old farmer who lives near Allentown has already received over $100,000 in royalties, and many others have received like amounts. There are a large number of producers in the field to-day who are worth from $10,000 to $25,000, who 10 years ago were employed on leases “by the month.” There are also men to be found at work on the leases “by the month” who were comfortably well off 10 years ago. Fortune was ever fickle, and one is impressed with the fact at every town in the oil regions.
The drilling of the old Richburg well opened up one of the richest oil fields of modern times. Other good wells came in rapid succession. In June, 1881, the Boyle well, another noted well, was struck. It started off at 200 barrels a day, and the lucky strike caused intense excitment. In 1881, the Allegany field produced 681,509 barrels of oil, and in 1882, the production was increased to 6,519,000, the top-notch record. Up to date the field has produced 29,000,000 barrels.
The first big reverse the Allegany field suffered was in May, 1882, when the Cherry Grove gusher came in and smashed the market to 49c. Since 1882 the production of the field has steadily declined, until it has reached 2,000 barrels per day. The largest wells ever drilled in the field are located on the Reed and Garthwait farms in the town of Bolivar.
Both of these wells started off at 400 barrels a day, and both wells are still producing oil. During the first year of the boom thousands of barrels of oil ran to waste every month. The wells came in so fast that the pipe-lines could not take care of the oil. The longevity of the wells drilled in the Allegany field is quite remarkable. The oil sand is very hard. The 30 wells drilled on the Reed farm in the town of Bolivar have already produced $1,000,000 worth of oil, and they will continue to produce oil for a dozen years to come. Records show that in the past twelve years a cluster of eight wells on a farm owned by Riley Allen at Allentown, have produced over $135,000 worth of oil, and they are still producing 2,000 barrels a year. And there are many farms in different parts of the field that show better records than the one owned by Allen. The average depth of the wells drilled in Allegany field is 1,200 feet.
The average cost of drilling a new well at present and rigging it up for pumping is about $1,500. In 1882 the same work cost $2,200. From 40 to 60 quarts of nitro-glycerine are usually used in shooting a well, but sometimes 100 quarts are used. Nitro-glycerine now sells for $1.00 a quart. In 1882 a 40-quart shot cost $140. In this field several handlers of this dangerous explosive have lost their lives and many others can relate thrilling and truthful stories of hair-breadth escapes from frightful deaths, while following their hazardous calling as oil-well shooters. Within two years, two well-known Bolivar shooters lost their lives. All that was found of the two bodies could be placed with ease in a peck measure. And yet there are half a dozen applications ready to fill every vacancy that occurs. The pioneer oil-well shooter of the Allegany field is Col. W. A. Myers of Bolivar.
The story of his experience in the nitro-glycerine business would make an interesting volume. He claims the honor of making the first pound of nitro-glycerine ever exploded in an oil well. At the time he mixed the stuff in earthen crocks. Later on he invented a machine that made 400 cans a day. In those days it was almost impossible to secure any helpers at the factory and farmers would drive three miles out of their way to avoid passing close by where the deadly explosive was made. Myers built a factory near Olean in 1879. It was afterward blown up. One of the most exciting events in his life took place at Bolivar Run, Pa., in May, 1882. A factory containing 3,200 pounds of nitro-glycerine blew up. Myers had just stepped out and was not over 50 feet distant when the explosion took place. He was hurled through the air over 100 feet, but strange to say, he was not seriously injured. When he recovered his senses he discovered that he was almost nude. One stocking was all the wearing apparel he had on.
His coat was blown off and torn to tatters. It is now highly prized as a relic. Myers built a factory near Bolivar in 1882, the capacity of which was 5,000 pounds of nitro-glycerine a day. He gave up shooting entirely and devoted his attention to supplying the explosives to other men. In 1884 he sent his son, W. R. Myers, to Egypt to build a factory and shoot some test wells near the great pyramids for an English syndicate. He retired form his hazardous calling in 1886, after an exciting experience of 17 years in the business. He is one of the few survivors of the old-time Oil Creek shooters, the majority of whom met violent deaths.
An idea of the boom town Bolivar became is gleaned from the Wellsville Daily Reporter of Jan. 31, 1881:
The Bolivar Saturday Leader presents the following compilation of the business places of that village. Remembering that most of the list are the result of only four months' building and growth, the list is a surprising one.
There are "17 hotels, 13 groceries, 3 lumber yards, 5 tank shops, 3 jewelry stores, 4 millinery establishments, 2 paint shops, 6 meat markets, 6 hardware stores, 3 oil well supplies, 2 billiard rooms, 1 public hall, 5 lawyers' offices, 3 physicians, 10 restaurants, 2 furniture stores, 5 barber shops, 5 dry goods stores, 1 tannery, 1 steam grist mill, 1 nitro glycerine manufactory, 3 feed stores, 3 drug stores, 2 bakeries, 1 national bank, 1 junk shop, 3 clothing stores, 5 liveries, 1 book store, 3 boot and shoe stores, 2 sash and blind stores, 1 fruit store, 3 machine shops, 2 bottling works, 1 harness shop, 2 warehouses, 2 wagon shops, 2 blacksmith shops, 1 newspaper office, and real estate agencies, boarding houses, etc., without end."
After reading it is not hard to accept the promises of the Leader that they are soon to be interested in an opera house, church, academy, railroad machine shops, etc.
© 2007, Richard Palmer