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Spring-Summer 2007

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Ups and Downs of Oildom

The Romantic Story of the Allegany Field

The Rise and Fall of Richburg

Nitro-Glycerine Myers

Other Famous Men of the Field


John P. Herrick

provided by Richard Palmer

Buffalo Illustrated News, June 30, 1895

The richest oil field in the Empire State, and in fact, with one exception, the only one in the State, is located in the southwestern corner of Allegany County. During the past 14 years this prolific pool has poured out over $28 million worth of oil and is still producing over $1 million worth every 19 months. The pool underlies portions of Bolivar, Genesee, Wirt, Alma and Clarksville townships, and in form very much resembles a dumb-bell, with a lump on the handle.

The pool extends northeast to southwest a distance of ten miles. It varies in width from three to five miles. In all, about 5,000 wells have been drilled, and there are 3,500 wells producing oil at present. Gas exists in plenty all over the Allegany field, and is piped to many villages on the border of the oil belt. At present there is more activity on the leases than at any other time in the past eight years.

The recent rise in oil has started the drill again and during the next six months several hundred new wells will be drilled. The field is so well defined that no large wells are looked for, but the majority of the wells drilled will pay the owners a handsome profit on the investment. Before the oil derricks dotted the hills and valleys, this section of Allegany County was a fine farming country. Richburg and Bolivar were isolated Sleepy Hollows, and quiet and contentment reigned supreme. The story of their early oil operations is interesting.

The "Col. Drake" of the Allegany oil field was O.P. Taylor, of Wellsville. To him belongs, as has been fairly admitted, the credit of the development of this fruitful field. Taylor was a Virginian who received his education at the Genesee County Seminary, graduating in 1858. The same year Richmond (Va.) railway contractors sent him to Brazil to build the first railroad in the Brazillian empire, known as the Dom Pedro Railway. On the outward-bound passage the vessel was wrecked, and for 22 days Taylor, with a few others, clung to the water-logged hull, and was cast ashore more dead than alive on the island of St. Thomas.

During his stay in Brazil he contracted the yellow fever, and narrowly escaped death. Returning to his native country, he was married in January, 1861 to Miss Cornelia Clark at Canaseraga, N.Y., and a few weeks later he went to his Virginia home, joined the forces of the Southern Confederacy, and followed them loyally to the end. After the War was over he came north again, and in 1870 engaged in business in Wellsville. In 1875 Cattaraugus County came to realize that she had some oil and began to develop her pastures and hillsides.

The oil fever traveled east, and the prospects of oil in Allegany began to be discerned. In 1878 a stock company was formed, of which Taylor was a member, and a well was drilled on lot 26, Alma. This was the first venture in Allegany County since 1865, and the first intelligent test altogether.

The well was a failure; both sand and oil were found, but not enough of the latter to make the undertaking remunerative. A stuffed wildcat was mounted on top of the derrick and the well was always known as the "wildcat" venture. This was Taylor's first step in the new industry and he went into the work with a will. Previous to this he had suffered severe reverses in business and possessed but little means. The result of the test disheartened all of the stockholders except Taylor; to him it proved the existence of a rock capable of the storage of oil, and he decided that oil in paying quantities could be found close by.

A few months later Taylor succeeded in getting another well down on lot 118, Alma, about three miles north of the failure of 26. At 1,200 feet a good depth of sand was found and some oil. The well was good for five barrels a day. Taylor offered the well and would furnish the machinery to pump it, but they said that the well was purposely spoiled in the interest of Bradford parties, and would have nothing to do with it. And many believe it to this day.

In desperation Taylor sent a crew of men to remove the casing for the purpose of drilling another well somewhere in the neighborhood. The farmers would not allow the well to be touched and drove the men away. The men then returned with an officer armed with power to protect them. When the casing was started the water rushed into the well, displacing what little oil there was and causing it to boil over the casing-head.

The farmers fairly went crazy at the sight. They mistook the water for oil and the report that the well was flowing 500 barrels a day spread like wildfire, and people flocked to the well from miles around.

Taylor was roundly cursed for trying to spoil the well. One farmer charged Taylor with putting beans in the well, and beans, the wise man said, with a great show of contempt, would spoil any well. Drag teeth and old plow points dropped into the well between the casing and well to prevent the removal of the casing, remain there today.

When the farmers realized the true situation they were madder than ever. In November Taylor began his third well. It was on the Wykoff farm, lot 26, two and one half miles north by east of the failure on lot 118. The well was finished after a long and tedious struggle. Sixty feet of gas and sand was found, but only three feet of oil sand. The well was torpedoed, but the farmers swore that it was shot in the wrong place. Then Taylor agreed to drill the well 400 feet deeper if the farmers would board the men free of charge, which they agreed to do, and the drillers lived high.

Upon one occasion a driller was heard to express a preference for baked beans. The next day six farmers walked into the derrick and deposited six pans of baked beans and nothing else! That day the boys enjoyed a regular Boston dinner. The well was a failure, as Taylor anticipated. The rig was moved to lot 4, Scio, in the spring of 1880. The people were greatly prejudiced against Taylor, and but little land could be secured. He was called fool, lunatic,and advised to return to Virginia. The drill was finally started, and after untold privations, No. 1 Triangle was born. This was the first flowing well in Allegany County. It produced 10 barrels a day for some weeks. No attempt was made to save the oil. It was allowed to pour out on the derrick floor.

Taylor passed through some of the bitterest experiences of his life while drilling the Triangle well. He was distrusted by all except a few tried friends. The Bradford papers poked fun at his efforts, and dubbed Allegany "the land of cheese and buttermilk." Just before the Triangle well was completed the jars broke. The nearest point to get them repaired was Bradford. Taylor was totally out of funds and could not borrow or secure the loan of a dollar, and went home, for once, completely disheartened. His wife inquired the cause of his despondency, and when informed, to his great surprise, she offered to advance the money needed. She had sold her gold watch, rings and jewelry to buy the necessaries of life, but her faith in his venture was great enough to ignore hunger. From the moment the well was finished Taylor's star was in the ascent, and everybody was glad to acknowledge him as a friend.

The next well was located on Brinner Brook and it was dry. Taylor then built a rig on the Moore farm, lot 1, Alma, where I. S. Bellamy had leased 600 acres for him. The well was spudded in deep enough for the casing, another party finished a dry hole on the Norton not far away, and Taylor ordered work stopped and the rig moved to the Williams farm on lot 6, Alma, where a dry hole was drilled. The 600-acre lease, which he abandoned, afterward proved to be some of the richest territory in the field. But that was "Taylor luck." He next went 600 feet southwest of No. 1 Triangle and got a good well. Then he had no trouble in raising funds to drill another well known as No. 3 Triangle. This well was completed on July 4, 1880, and produced 301 barrels the first month.

Taylor then went to Bolivar and drilled a dry hole on the Williams farm, lot 37. This well was within a stone's throw of the oil belt. That was another sample of "Taylor luck." Taylor then in company with Riley Allen bought an interest in a well just started by Charley Campbell on the Sawyer farm. This well was a fair producer.

Soon after its completion the old Richburg Oil Company was formed, and several hundred acres of land leased in the town of Wirt. The company was composed of Riley Allen, O.P. Taylor, Crandall Lester, A.B. Cottrell and several oher "silent" partners. The first well drilled was located on the Reading farm, lot 33, Wirt. The well was finished April 28, 1881, and started off at 80 barrels a day. At a depth of 1,280 feet, 20 feet of sand was found. the well was drilled into the sand at midnight and at daybreak the next morning Riley Allen bought the Reading farm outright for $100 an acre.

The well was the key to the situation and opened to the world a rich oil field. In a few weeks Taylor was a rich man. One deal alone netted him $46,000. He lost $40,000 in one week speculating on the oil market, but such was his industry that when he died on November 17, 1883, he left an estate valued at over $60,000.

One of Taylor's staunchest friends was the late Enos W. Barnes of the Wellsville Reporter. In one of his sublime moods that gifted editor wrote: "Through sunshine and storm he never wearied; out of friends and with public confidence at a low ebb, this man, chuck full of sand, grit, pluck and brains, made a forlorn-hope charge on Triangle."

Rise and Fall of Richburg

On April 27, 1881, Richburg was a quiet little village of perhaps 150 people, and was connected with the outside world by a stage line. Within a few months it was one of the liveliest oil towns in the country, and boasted of a population of nearly 8,000, recruited from the four points of the compass. Stores, hotels, machine shops, saloons, bagnios, dance-houses, and gambling dens sprung up as if by magic. For several weeks after the tide set in, sleeping apartments indoors could not be secured at any price and many a night several hundred of Richburg's floating population slept on benches under the maple trees in the village park, and in many cases on the bare ground. One old oil man remembers paying a dollar for the privilege of sleeping on a billiard table over night, and another paid half as much for the privilege of sleeping in a bar-room chair.

At this time, Richburg boasted two banks, and a morning and evening newspaper. The "Oil Echo," a morning paper edited by P.C. Doyle, now of the "Oil City Derrick," was printed on a three-revolution Hoe press and possessed a valuable news franchise.

The first month's freight receipts when the Allegany Central was completed as far as Richburg amounted to $12,000, and box-car served as a depot for some time. The Bradford, Eldred & Cuba Railroad built a spur from Bolivar up the valley to Richburg and ran trains both ways every half hour. For a long time the spur averaged 700 passengers daily. Rent for building lots quickly jumped up and $500 a year rent for a 20-foot front lot on Main Street was not regarded as extortionate. In fact, the lot owner could name his own price.

Everybody was "oil crazy." Oil wells were drilled in village gardens and in door-yards. Even the church people became afflicted with the popular craze. One of the leading ministers speculated in oil on week days and preached powerful sermons on Sunday, and no one chided him. A well was finally drilled on a parsonage lot, and oil was struck, but the venture was not a profitable one and the trustees decided that it was not best to invest church funds in that kind of a gamble.

Richburg had a fine system of water works, an electric fire-alarm system, an elegant brick church, a fine opera hours, and at one time a street-car line was strongly talked of. Liquor was sold at 100 different places, and prostitutes occupied over 40 buildings. In one instance the village grist-mill was purchased and converted into a bagnio. The finest attractions were nightly seen at the opera house and money flowed like water.

But the boom was not to last forever. In May, 1882, the news of the big gusher at Cherry Grove carried the floating population away with a rush and few of them ever returned. This was the beginning of the end of Richburg's greatness. Bolivar, a little hamlet a mile further down the valley, began to boom in earnest early in 1882, and gradually superseded Richburg as the metropolis of the Allegany field. Fires swept away some of Richburg's noted buildings, and many others were torn down and moved to adjacent villages. Fine buildings that cost thousands of dollars went for a mere song.

Today Richburg is desolate and almost deserted, and in a few years it will appear much as it did before the oil boom came. The population at present is less than 400. An elegant church and a fine academy building are the only noted relics of its former greatness. The opera house in which operatic stars once shone so brightly is now used as a cheese factory, and the railroads have given way to a stage line.

A Bit of Bolivar's History

Next to Richburg, Bolivar was for a season, a hot oil town, but Bolivar people showed good sense in confining oil operations 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 daily. In January, 1880, 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 here.

Those Who Made Fortunes

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 a 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 a 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 a 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 benefitted 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 today 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 today who are work from $10,000 to $25,000, who 10 years ago were employed on leases "by the month." There are probably a dozen resident producers who have amassed from $75,000 to $100,000. 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 turn in the oil regions.

Some Big Wells

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 excitement. In 1881, the Allegany field produce 681,500 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 million 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 49 cents. Since 1889, 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 Farthwait 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 Wells are Stayers

The longevity of the wells drilled in the Allegany field is quite remarkable. The oil sand is very hard. The 80 wells drilled on the Reed farm in the town of Bolivar have already produced $1 million worth of oil, and they will continue to produce oil for a dozen years to come. Records show that in the past 12 years a cluster of eight wells on a farm owned by Riley Allen at Allentown, have produced over $185,000 worth of oil, and they are still producing 3,000 barrels a year. And there are many farms in different parts of the field that show better records than this one owned by Allen.

Cost of Drilling and Torpedoing

The average depth of the wells drilled in the 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 $9,900. 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 one dollar 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 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 there are half a dozen applicants ready to fill every vacancy that occurs.

The pioneer oil-well shooter of the Allegany field was Col. W. A. Myers of Bolivar. The story of his experiences 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 field. He established a factory in Titusville, Pa. in May, 1869. 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 afterwards 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 from 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.

Where the Oil Goes

From the wells the oil is either run by gravity or pumped into small receiving tanks erected on the leases. When these tanks are filled, the lease owner sends word to the pipe line office that he wants his oil "run" and the gauger comes and measures the number of feet and inches of oil in the tanks and "runs" it into a pipeline which leads to the big iron storage tanks near the pumping station. As soon as a gauger "runs" a tank of oil he reports the number of barrels it contains and this owner can call for his balance and get a check for the amount as soon as he wishes. From the storage tanks the oil is pumped into the main pipeline which carries it to the big refineries at Bayonne, N.J.

One of the most fiendish murders in the annals of the Empire State was committed in Richburg on November 19, 1881, when John D. McCarthy, a low-life desperado, who drifted in with the oil boom, almost without warning, fatally stabbed Patrick Markey, a tool dresser, in front of a Main Street saloon. McCarthy narrowly escaped lynching. He was tried and convicted of murder after a sharp legal fight. Judge Charles Daniels presided during the trial. The late Horace Bemis, at that time one of the most gifted criminal lawyers in the State, defended McCarthy.

McCarthy was hanged at Angelica, March 24, 1882. He was a man of iron nerve and asserted his innocence "in the sight of God," as he stood on the scaffold. Other crimes darkened the history of the county during the same oil excitement, but none created as much interest as the murder of Markey. The most independent producers today in the Allegany oil field are Sawyer Brothers, who own a small refinery near Allentown. When the market is low, they refine the oil produced by the 50 wells on their lease, and when it is high they sell the oil to the pipelines. In this way they always get a good price for the product of their wells. Over on the hillside east of Bolivar is a 40-acre pasture field. Early in 1882 it appeared to be on the oil belt and George B. Forman and his partner bought it outright, of J.S. Hoyt, for $10,000. Wells drilled on an adjoining lease came in about as good as dry and he pasture lot was never drilled. Today the land can be bought for less than $10 an acre. This illustrates one phase of oil development that is not talked about as much as some others. The multitude is always ready to bend the knee to the fellow who strikes it rich.

Explanation of Oil Field Terms

by Richard Palmer

In the case of oil drilling, the term striking sand is used when they do their "core samples" and find a trace of sand, they know they have reached a potential oil supply. With "light crude" as the Allegany field has, the oil flows of it's own accord forced by natural gas that replaces it, through the oil sand into a pocket which is then collected by means of a "jack" or pump. Light crude flows vs. the "heavy crude" of other areas of the world which are closer to tar. They even refer to tar sands in many journals and areas of the world. These are closer to bituminous structure than crude oil.

The Bradford and Allegany fields produce oil from a sand that is quite rich with paraffin and it hampers flow. Various studies have been done on ways to get the oil to release from the oil sand. In the 1930s through the 1960s a "recapture" process was used called flooding where they "5-spotted" an oil lease by drilling four water injection wells around an oil well. By injecting water into the oil sand under various pressures ranging from a few hundred pounds to as high as 1500 or so lbs the oil was pushed through the sand and a lot more oil was captured. It took a lot more pumping labor and was more expensive on wear/tear of machinery, but, many companies made lots of money.

Today they are even harvesting the tar sands and using them as their base for synthetic oil. Sand is a layer of ground structure between rock layers which can contain crude oil.


"Casing": large pipe (modern times approx 10", early drillers used smaller) driven into ground ahead of drilling the hole in order to close off veins of " ground water" from flowing into the well.

"Tubing": Usually 2" pipe (o.d.) which is inserted into the well after oil is reached and ready to pump.

"Rods": Metal (early, wood "sucker rods") which are inserted inside the tubing which move up and down and work the "pump" on the bottom which sends the oil up the tubing to the surface.

© 2007, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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