The Oil City PA Derrick Wednesday morning, September 11, 1946



A story told by Dr Herbert Wilbur Rand of his grandfather, Isaac Davis, his father, Herbert H. Rand, and Oil City.

Herbert Wilbur Rand
1872 – 1960

Isaac Davis
1823 – 1909
In 1859 some peculiar fluid substance known as “rock-oil” or petroleum was obtained from a hole in the ground near Titusville, PA. The event proved to be of vast importance. While petroleum does not cause the earth to rotate on its axis and move in its orbit about the sun, it is now responsible for most of the motions of mankind over the surface of the earth. But from my own strictly personal point of view, all of this shrinks to nothing compared to what the Drake well did for me. It was because of petroleum that I was born in Oil City. In fact, the particular “I” that I am would probably never have been born at all had not the lure of “oil” induced a certain young man born on a Massachusetts farm and a somewhat older man living in Central New York state, to emigrate to the Prospectors’ settlement which became Oil City.

The New York man was, by nature, a pioneer. He pioneered in the business of making daguerreotypes and he was a California ‘49-er. Oil was this third and last venture. The young man from Massachusetts, unencumbered by family, made his way alone to the “oil country.” The New York man had a wife and two young children. Also he had vision. He bought lumber suitable for construction of a small house and transported it to the headwaters of the Allegheny river. Here he built it into a raft with a cabin on it. Empty barrels, destined to become oil-barrels, were secured to the bottom of the raft to increase its buoyancy and keep the lumber out of the water. In the cabin he stowed complete furnishings and equipment for a home. In early spring (of the exact year, I am not certain) the New York man, whose name was Isaac, not Noah, put his family aboard his “ark.” It seems to stick in my memory that, as in the case of Noah, some animals – a horse, cow and chickens – were included in the passenger-list.

The voyage down the Allegheny was made in safety, although disaster was narrowly averted in going over the Corydon dam. To pass the dam in good order, a raft was supposed to have a special pilot. By some miscue, the “ark” failed to pick up its pilot and went over the dam quite informally, scraping off many of its barrel-buoys and suffering breakage of china and glass-ware. Arriving at its destination, the “ark” tied up alongside an enormous boulder on the north bank of the river. In later years, this family “Plymouth Rock” was pointed out to me, lying just at the Siverly end of the old Pennsylvania railroad bridge. (On second thought, it occurs to me that it was not Noah’s ark that landed at Plymouth Rock). The raft was dismembered and its lumber built into a house which stood on the east side of Seneca St., not far from the northerly end of the present Jones and Laughlin plant.

The New York man, true to his nature, became an oil producer. The Massachusetts man was less inclined toward speculative projects. He apparently saw that, on the one hand was the chance of a “dry hole” while on the other, was the certainty that everybody would have to eat. So he opened a store. And so it came to pass that, in course of the next ten years, the children of the New York man, Isaac Davis, grew up and his daughter married a prosperous young store-keeper, Henry H. Rand – and it further came to pass that I was born in Oil City in 1872.

At the earliest time within my personal memory, my grandfather operated oil wells situated at the foot of Cottage Hill, between Spruce St. and the Pennsylvania railroad tracks (then the NY, PA and O, or “Nypano”). One of my special joys was to be taken with him when he pumped his wells – to watch him fire the boiler and get up steam, and then exert all his strength to turn the great flywheel of the big engine to start it. As the pumping went on, we sat comfortably in front of the boiler and ate apples, while he told stories of his trip on mule-back across the Isthmus of Panama en route to California to dig gold, or of his voyage down the Allegheny. In a corner of the engine-house – not too near the boiler – he kept an open pail of oil with a tin dipper in it. There are “tricks in all trades.” When the fire languished, a dash of oil skillfully thrown from the dipper restored its vigor. Or when live coals dropped through the grate onto the hot ashes, a splash of oil onto the ashes produced a spectacular blaze for my amusement. I recall, too, that at home my grandfather used kerosene to stimulate the fire in the kitchen stove. These tricks with oil are, in general, not to be recommended to anyone who aspires toward longevity, but my grandfather “knew how”, lived well on into his eighties.

Oil fires on a much vaster scale than those created for me in the ash-pit of my grandfather’s boiler were perhaps the chief delight of my early days. I suffered keen disappointment when a thunderstorm failed to hit an oil tank. It was not that I loved destruction. Had opportunity offered, I would never have dropped a lighted match into a tank of oil. But, in terms of the old fire-insurance policy, a stroke of lightning was an “act of Providence” and at Sunday school I was taught that all the works of the Lord are good. Therefore, why should I not delight in a good big oil-fire?

I remember (being then not over six years old) how, for days, the sky to the south-east of our home (near the top of Harriott Ave) was black with smoke from burning oil at the Imperial Refinery in Siverly. A few years later (then living in our new house on Spring St) a highly spectacular fire resulted from the burning of several great tanks in the Third Ward, a quarter mile or more west of the old Moran House (on Main St), Oil City’s first hotel. Then, later, tanks at the foot of the hill opposite McClintockville burned – struck by lightning, as I recall it. It must have been the second night after the fire started that the city fire alarm sounded. It was a special signal. We knew that it meant that the fire had warmed up to the point where the contents of the tank boil over. Situated as those tanks were, the burning oil would inevitably flow into Oil Creek. It was probably about 3 AM when the alarm came. My father and I jumped into some clothing and hastened up Grove Ave to a point commanding a view of the creek valley. The sight was unforgettable. The solid black of the night was cleft by a chasm of fire a mile long. The railroad bridge at the north end of Seneca St was then an old-fashioned wooden-truss structure. Every inch of every timber in it was aflame. An infernal river was spanned by a bridge of fire.

But all of these earlier fires were as nothing compared to what happened on June 5, 1892. It was a calm and sunny Sunday morning. All the world seemed at peace. I was with my family in our pew in the First Presbyterian church. We were in the midst of the sermon when there came an awful sound– something between a boom and roar. The preacher stopped. A second or two later another great roar hit us. The congregation arose to its feet as by a signal – and then a third explosion shook us. There was no panic. The people walked out as if half stunned. It was a frightful shock – to be awakened in the middle of a good sermon and emerge from a peaceful church to find ourselves in hell. From a point on the horizon due north to another in the southwest, we were confronted by a wall of deep-red flame which shot up- as high as the top of “Hogback.” Above the flame was smoke so black and solid that it seemed incredible that it could have risen into the air. But it filled the sky to the zenith. From north to southwest there was no break in the continuity of the towering mass of flame and smoke. Our faces felt the heat of the fire. It seemed as the breath of a gargantuan monster ready to devour us – but roasting us first. My father said something about hanging wet blankets over the front of our house (on Spring St) and hastened into the store (at the food of Harriott Ave) to get the money from the safe. The rest of us stood dazed, not knowing what to do.

My grandfather had not been with us in church. At this juncture he appeared at our Harriott Ave gate – a striking figure, tall, erect, long gray beard, black “Prince Albert” coat and broad-brimmed black soft-felt hat reminiscent of California gold-digging. He stood for a minute, his eyes ranging the scene from north to south and from earth to zenith. Then he turned to us and calmly instructed us to remain on our premises until he returned. A panic-stricken mob was rushing up Spring St seeking refuge on the hill. He faced into it and, at a leisurely gait as if setting out for a pleasant Sunday stroll, went down into the lower part of the town to find out what had happened. It was perhaps 20 minutes later when he returned and assured us that we were in no danger. The burning oil, he said, was a thin film on a flood of water and would burn itself out in a half hour. And so it did, but leaving behind it a trail of burning buildings along the creek, on the flooded flats of upper Seneca St, and in the Third Ward where the burning structures included the wooden parts of the north end of the old suspension bridge.

Some 50 lives were lost in this worst disaster in the history of the region. The story came out later in the day – a violent “cloud-burst” miles up the creek; a sudden flood which rushed down the valley and, at (or near – McClintockville, under cut the foundation of a great tank which stood close to the edge of the creek. The weight of the tank’s contents burst the bottom out of it and the oil escaped into the creek. I say “oil” but, if I recall rightly, it was some volatile refined product such as benzine or naphtha. As the story came to us, the gas from the fluid on the surface of the water was ignited by the fire-box of a locomotive which was engaged in moving loaded coal cars onto the Seneca St bridge against the force of the flood.

Introduction of natural gas as a fuel was an important event – especially to me, because stacking the firewood in the cellar and lugging it up to the kitchen had been one of my heavy domestic duties. The devices at first used for burning gas in old stoves and furnaces formerly used for wood or coal were simple and crude. The gas was abundant, cheap and carelessly used. Minor accidents were frequent. In locating a leak it as a common practice to employ a technique which was both simple and effective, as the following incident shows.

For several days an increasingly strong odor of gas had been noted in the vicinity of my father’s store. Searching for a leak, a man went into the cellar and gained access to the space under the plank sidewalk in front of the store. By use of a lighted match, he ascertained that the space was full of gas – and lived to tell the tale. An observer from a high spot up Harriott Ave asserted that the north end of the store rose into the air about two feet and then dropped back neatly into place on its foundation. I am inclined to regard this as an over-statement, but I know that the breakable contents of the store suffered much damage.

Within a few minutes after the explosion, Spring St in front of the store was blocked by a crowd which gathered to view the wreckage of the sidewalk. Then along came the genius who really discovered the leak. He was a dapper young man who was always smoking cigarettes. Being a small person, he easily inserted himself into the midst of the throng and at once lighted a cigarette, dropping the burning match. Instantly jets of flame spurted from crevices between the cobblestones at his feet, and then jumped from crack to crack, until, within a few seconds, the greater part of the area which had been occupied by the crowd was bristling with miniature volcanoes. I said “had been,” but it is difficult to say which jumped faster, the flames or the crowd. It thus required only two lighted matches to prove that the leak was in the main pipe in the street and that the earth beneath the pavement was super-saturated with gas. Of course, the match has its limitations – it is effective only where there is gas enough to blow up.

Burning gas wells were spectacular, but incapable of the far-reaching devastation which could be caused by burning oil. There was a time when, every night for many months, the southeastern sky was reddened by a glare from the burning Speechley gas-well, some 16 miles from town, I was told. I read accounts (presumably in the “Derrick”) of futile attempts to extinguish the flame. Men rigged out in asbestos suits and helmets tried to get close enough to the well to cap it or otherwise control the flow of gas. Sometimes the red glare in the sky contained a local bright spot, doubtless a reflection from some small bit of low-hanging cloud.

Another hazard of the early days was nitro-glycerin. A good dose of it had proved to be a healthful stimulant for a sluggish well. The explosive was usually transported in the light horse-drawn vehicle known as a “buckboard.” The long torpedo empty while in transit, was slung alongside supported by a pair of outriggers projecting from the starboard side of the buckboard. These torpedo rigs were often seen on the main streets of the town. I think that we usually felt a definite sense of relief when the rig passed well out of sight around the next corner. Sometimes a rig failed to arrive at the well which was to be “shot.” About the same time somebody would report a deep newly opened gash in some country road and some bits of dubious wreckage in its vicinity. The “two and two” put together made a reasonable “four” as to the fate of the torpedo outfit.

Transportation of “nitro” in large quantity was preferably done by water. On one occasion a large flat-boat loaded with (it was said) tons of “nitro” slipped harmlessly down through the town and beneath its bridges, and tied up alongside a large ice-house just below the lower edge of the town. As a warning, the boat carried a red flag. The theory of the explosion was that boys on the hillside above the boat were playing with a rifle and, using the flag as a target, missed it. After the explosion most of the ice-house was missing and there was some breakage of large windows up in the town.

A great institution of the time was the Oil Exchange. It occupied a magnificent building on the west side of Seneca St and extending the entire length of the block between Center and Sycamore. It was all of three stories high. The height of the great main room where the trading was done extended from the ground floor to the skylight in the roof. At the level of the second floor it was encircled by a gallery designed for spectators and for persons who merely “followed” the market. At the center of the main floor was the “bull-ring.” It was a fence or rail strongly built of large metal piping surrounding a circular or oval space. The ring was surrounded by a low platform which enabled an outer zone of traders to see over the heads of those who crowded in against the ring. The bids, offers and orders were shouted across the bull-ring. When trading was lively, a spectator in the gallery got the impression that the chief function of the bull-ring was to keep the opposed traders apart and prevent them from grappling each other by the throat or tearing one another apart, limb by limb. Incidentally the bull-ring provided a safe and convenient enclosure for a battery of necessary cuspidors.

There was rarely a dull moment in the Exchange. If trading lagged, it was time for play. Most of the traders kept their hats on—or hoped to. But, on occasion, a hat would somehow be knocked off, and then followed what resembled a football scrimmage, the hat serving as the ball. At one side of the room was an attractive fountain. A tall pedestal supported a large tank from which rose a spray. I seem to remember goldfish in the tank. During these play-spells the traders sometimes found various means of spraying one another with water from the fountain. Instead of “pouring oil on troubled waters,” it was a matter of casting water on troubled oilers. These and numerous other pranks served to fill in the idle hours. I should add that, in my visits to the Exchange, I was chaperoned by my grandfather. It is my impression that the gallery was not open to the public, but only to certain qualified persons. He, in his later years, “followed” the market, usually but not always at a respectful distance.

Another “high spot” in my memory is Clark’s Summit. In the early days there was a fine racetrack on its broad flat top, and the Summit was accessible by an “inclined-plane” railway, which ascended the steep slope from a point near the old Lake Shore passenger station (now a bus terminal). The rolling stock consisted of two small cars, each attached to a cable which was connected with the operating mechanism at the top of the incline. When one car went up, the other came down, each counterbalanced by the other. The Summit never became a popular resort and before many years the racetrack and railway were abandoned. But it was always “popular” with me and innumerable times I have climbed the grade of the old railway, or else followed the winding road beginning at the foot of Halyday Run. My usual goal was the crag of rock, generally known as “Lovers’ Leap,” commanding a magnificent view of the whole city, the winding river, and range beyond range of encircling hills. I liked the feeling of being “on top of the world.” The Summit racetrack was superseded by a track on the South Side. It was here (probably about 1885) that I saw Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” with its great troop of Indians, cowboys, rough-riders and sharp-shooters.

Mention of “Buffalo Bill” leads on to other entertainments of the early days. The original Oil City “Grand Opera House” was (to me) a gorgeous structure with its two balconies, one above the other (I nearly said three), its tiers of boxes at either side of the stage, and its elaborate decorations in white and gold. My father always faithfully took the family to see the annual G.A.R. play. They were much alike year after year. Each worked up to a climax where a mighty battle took place between the heroic and noble blues and the villainous grays. The terrific gunfire seemed sufficient for the complete annihilation of two armies of 10,000 men each. But it all ended happily.

Occasional performances were given by “home talent.” These ranged from “Ten Nights in a Barroom” to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera (with some of its lines altered to make local hits). Here I saw “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” presented by a traveling company which advertised itself as the greatest on earth, having in its case “two Uncle Toms” and “three Topsies” and innumerable man-eating bloodhounds. Here I heard my first opera, “The Chimes of Normandy.”

Each season brought to the Opera House a series of traveling companies presenting entertainments, ranging from plays of Shakespeare down to “The Black Crook.” The latter was so far down that I was never taken to see it. But a good old-fashioned black-face minstrel show was not beneath us.

I had great civic pride. I gloried in Oil City’s many fine buildings (this in the decade 1880-90). I knew the exact number of brick buildings in the city, and how many were three stories high and how many only two. The skyscraper of them all was The Collins House (now the Arlington) with its four stories. I deplored the fact that there were still so many wooden structures, some of them of the cheap “battlement-front” type characteristic of the very early days. Then my father took me to New York. His store (in its earlier years in partnership with D.H. Merritt) was acquiring more than local fame because of his stock of china and glass-ware. He made one or two trips a year to New York, sometimes to Boston, to buy goods, searching especially for fine imported wares. I returned from the trip somewhat depressed by the fact that New York had buildings taller than the Collins House and also had street railways with horse-cars.

I was much encouraged when the National Transit building was completed, towering a full story above the Collins House. The tall J.P. Kern building and the Chambers building added further metropolitan height to the city’s architecture. It was with keenest satisfaction that I saw the little old wooden Catholic church replaced by a cathedral-like edifice of brick. I saw the wrecking of the small wooden Presbyterian church at the corner of Harriott Ave and Spring St, and the removal of the small house on the lot adjacent to the church on the south. That house had been, for years, my grandfather’s home. Then I daily watched the rising brick walls of the First Presbyterian church (about 1882-3), later enlarged to its present form and now completely covering the site of the old church and that of my grandfather’s old home. With equal satisfaction I saw the laying of the bricks of Trinity Methodist church, an impressive structure, replacing the unattractive wooden building still standing beside the railroad tracks between Center and Sycamore St. At that time I could not even have dreamed of such architectural magnificence as that of the present stone edifices of Trinity, the Second Presbyterian church, and the Catholic church on the South Side.

And so I began to feel that Oil City was acquiring an increasing momentum toward a truly metropolitan status. Gas was replaced by electricity for lighting. John B. Smithman built his electric street-railway. He extended it down the river and through Deep Hollow to Monarch Park which he created. At the park was a great pavilion which included kitchens equipped with gas stoves and all conveniences for preparing meals. Numerous private lockers were rented for storing utensils and tableware. We no longer needed to go to Chautauqua. Frequent excursions to the park gave us our summer outing – the long rides in a breezy open car down through the cool sweet-smelling woods of Deep Hollow, for a “picnic supper” at the park. But it was no ordinary picnic menu of cold sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and canned sardines. We had broiled steaks, chops, ham and eggs, cakes, pies and ice cream. In the evening a small orchestra or sometimes a local band gave us good music. Families and groups of families rented lockers and made the park a summer rendezvous. The only expense was the car-fare and the locker if one was desired.

Oil City became an important railway center. Between it and Pittsburgh were three daily trains each way on the Allegheny Valley, and the same number between it and Buffalo over the NYP&O. There were daily trains on the up-river Warren division. Between Oil City and Ashtabula were two or three trains daily each way on the Lake Shore RR, and a similar schedule on the Erie between Oil City and Meadville. Especially in summer, when travel was at its height, the Union Station was thronged most of the day. In early afternoon a long train of many coaches and Pullmans, sometimes requiring two engines, came up from Pittsburgh and a similar train came down from Buffalo. For an hour or more the whole platform of the station would be jammed with travelers. A tremendous volume of baggage had to be handled, for at that time no one (at least, no woman) could travel without two or three Saratoga Trunks. In mid-afternoon a long train, with Pullmans, came in on the Lake Shore. After a stop on the west side, it passed through the tunnel and up the creek, then backing down to the Union Station via the NYP&O bridge and tracks. About the same time a long train came in over the Erie. I never saw a busier place, for its area, than the platform of the Union Station on a summer afternoon. Excursions were numerous, especially to the Chautauqua lake, and there were many special picnic trains, for Sunday schools and various organizations, to Sandy Lake, Sugar Creek, Conneaut Lake, and points up the Allegheny. But automobiles have changed all of this.

Every incident that I mention brings to mind three or four more. Apparently the sooner I stop, the less I will have to omit. Therefore I may not go on to describe our winter sports – coasting on Cottage Hill; non-stop bobsled trips from top of Harriott Ave via Stout and Graff Sts. To the food of Spring St; skating on the river; nor our summer sports – especially boating, fishing swimming and picnicking up the river; exploring Panther caves; etc.

Also should be mentioned the marvelous display of fireworks every Fourth of July on “the boulevard” in front of the fine residence which was first the home of Captain JJ Vandergrift and later, of William J. Young. At this time the “boulevard” overhanging the cliff above the railroad tracks, extended far out Colbert Ave beyond the Vandergrift place. It was to the public-spirited generosity of the occupants of the Vandergrift-Young residence, that we were indebted for the fireworks.

I have said much about my father and grandfather. That I have done so is because I was better acquainted with them and their history, than with other men of early Oil City. It is not because I regard them as greater than their contemporaries. If I have said more about my grandfather than about my father, it is because the former’s career was more picturesque. My father’s was relatively prosaic, but equally vital. I regard both as fairly representative of the region and the period. I could enumerate a long list of men whose success in business enterprises and contributions to the material advancement of the city vastly exceeded those of my own ancestors. Certain names stand out prominently in my memory. WJ Young, George Lewis and CM Loomis I associate particularly with the Oil City Trust Company. Captain William Hasson and Samuel Lamberton I associate with important banks. WO Innis manufactured engines and Joseph Reid made pumps. Kenton Chickering and George Reed were prominent in the Oil Well Supply Co. Major Maitland was in the National Transit. John J. Fisher and Daniel Fisher were great oil-producers and Daniel F. was, at times, chief of the fire department and mayor. S.Y. Ramage built oil refineries, and I associate BF Brundred with an oil refinery and a famous duck farm up Sage Run. I remember Samuel Justus, as a prominent figure in the Exchange. DL Trax made wagons (and his wagons made tracks — a favorite poke of my grandfather’s). I was on speaking terms with several lawyers – Willima McNair, Isaac Ash, FW Hayes, HD Hancock. Fortunately, our family had little need of acquaintance with physicians. Among the great producers were two men, Reinbold and Saltzmann, but the liquid they produced was not petroleum. Each operated a big brewery, one at the food of Cornplanter Run and the other on Plumer Road.

On the intellectual side of the times were Patrick C. Boyle who edited a morning newspaper called the “Derrick,” and Frank Bowen who got out a smaller evening paper, the “Blizzard.” I understood that it was the purpose of the Blizzard to blow the Derrick off the map. But for many years the Derrick withstood the blast, and now it has come to pass that the wind no longer “bloweth where it listeth” – it blowth where the Derrick listeth. I am glad to have this opportunity of congratulating the Derrick, the world’s “organ of oil,” on its great success and its three-quarters of a century of vital service to the community and the oil industry.

At the highest and most sightly spot on Grove Hill stands a small piece of Granite bearing the names Henry H. Rand, 1840-1916, and Isaac Davis, 1823-1909. If the stone had eyes it could look westward, as many a time did theirs, over miles of winding river, and green of nearer hills shading into misty blue of farther hills, and the remotest fading into the dim horizon – such a view as impels a man to journey to that horizon and discover what lies beyond. Eight decades or more ago, these two men and hundreds of others dreamed of possibilities lying beyond a far horizon. They went out toward it and, at the junction of two waterways – always a strategic point for a settlement – they came together. Striving and achieving according to their various inclinations and abilities, they collectively established a city which, three-quarters of a century later possesses all the facilities, advantages, conveniences and comforts which any city can offer. If it is not yet as large as New York city, that is a fact for which its inhabitants should be profoundly thankful. In its picturesque location and in the surpassing beauty of the hill country all about it, the city is especially fortunate. As for the virtues of its inhabitants, I can cite only my own experience. Returning from time to time after living elsewhere for many (now 50) years, a native son always finds himself in so cordial an atmosphere of loyal and enduring friendliness that he feels himself to be truly “back home.”

So, Oil City, on this, your 75th Anniversary, let us all stand and sing “Happy Birthday to You.”

Dr. Herbert Wilbur Rand, who kindly contributed this well written and highly interesting story for The Derrick’s 75th Anniversary Edition, was born in Oil City, July 2, 1872, the son of the late Henry Howard and Ella Augusta Rand.

These facts concerning him are obtained from Who’s Who:

Graduating from Allegheny college with an A. B. degree in 1892 he was employed by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. at Pittsburgh until 1896 when he became assistant principal of the Oil City High School for the next two years. He studied at Harvard and secured his master of arts degree there in 1898 and his PhD in 1900. He then served as instructor in zoology at Harvard until 1909 when he became assistant professor and then associate professor until he became professor emeritus in 1938. He served as assistant at the Bermuda Biological station in the summers 1905-07-08 and was secretary from 1926 to 1937.

He was a lecturer at Wellesley college for three periods, 1909-19 and Harvard exchange professor at Grinnell, Beloit and Colorado colleges 1928-29.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; American Association for the Advancement of Science; American Society of Naturalists and American Society of Zoologists.

He is the author of comparative anatomy of vertebrates and has written various papers on regeneration of animals and experimental morphology.