Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago this summer, the placid calm of northwestern Pennsylvania’s sparsely populated but panoramic vista was ruptured when “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake’s well coughed up rich, black crude oil on August 28, 1859. The following boom years of the oil industry gave rise to numerous towns and cities, some of which were short-lived ghost towns.

The most famous ghost town of Pennsylvania’s oil region is Pithole, located on a hillside about ten miles southeast of Titusville. [n the spring of 1864, the United Stales Petroleum Company leased the secluded Thomas Holmden farm bor­dering Pithole Creek, marking the first well sunk away from Oil Creek. The company’s first well “came in” during January of 1865 and served as a magnet. drawing thousands of eager speculators and wildcatters to the area. By September the remote countryside had been transformed into a booming city of more than 15,000 residents whose concerns were the nearby wells which, at the time, produced nearly two-thirds of all the oil pumped in the world. For a year Pithole teemed with people and activity-more than fifty hotels, some elegant and most large, were hastily erected along with two banks, two tele­graph offices, churches, grocery and dry goods stores, brothels, saloons, a water works and a fire company. But the big wells began failing about 1866 and Pithole’s meteoric rise was matched only by its velocious downfall. A succession of catastrophic fires – coupled with dry wells – sent disgruntled opportunity seekers in search of new and better investments in other places. Within two years, Pithole was nearly deserted.

Today, nothing remains of the boom town but grassy slopes and meandering Pithole Creek. The ghost town lay neglected for nearly a century until the mid-1950s when it was purchased by James B. Stevenson, who cleared the overgrown area and marked the sites of the long vanished streets and structures. Stevenson presented to the Commonwealth about ninety acres of land encompassing the site of Pithole, which is now admin­istered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Stevenson, a resident of Pittsfield, is publisher of the Titus­ville Herald, the oil region’s first daily newspaper. Born in Frank­lin in 1911, he received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in 1932 and, after completing a course at the Empire State School of Printing in Ithaca, New York, Stevenson joined the staff of the Herald, of which his father was editor and publisher, in 1933. On the death of his father, he became the publisher.

In 1948, James B Stevenson was appointed a member of the advisory board of the Drake Well Memorial Park. In 1952, he was chosen by Gov. John S. Fine to sit on the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission, and he was appointed chairman of the Commission in 1962. He broke ground for, and presided at, the dedication of the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg, advocated the construction of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania at Strasburg, Lancaster County, and actively encouraged the erection of a visitors center at Pithole.

The following interview recounting the history and more recent background of Pithole – the oil region’s must famous ghost town – was originally an oral history project conducted by the Titusville Community History Program.


What is your connection with Pithole, Mr. Stevenson?

I am the former owner of Pithole, the site where the city was built, not the flats where the oil was drilled. They were dis­tinct and separate sites in the early days, with the town on the hill and the wells down on the flats. I bought the town site, and a friend of mine owned the wells on the flats.

How did you get interested in Pithole?

It’s a long story. I had long been interested in history. So, a long while ago, must have been the 1940s, a friend told me: “Jim, did you know that the pipeline trench where the first oil flowed was never backfilled and still exists?” That fasci­nated me. You can still follow it. I was told where it crossed a country road and I went up there and found on both sides of the road was a trench. You see, after Pithole folded, they dug up the two pipes, because pipes, then as now, were valu­able. They dug them up and didn’t fill up the trench. But they did not dig all of it up. We found a length of pipe from a rock-fill area and had the metal analyzed at the Cyclops Steel labs. They assured me that the type of wrought iron was the kind they were using in the 1860s, so I knew I had the real McCoy, not a modern line.

So I followed the pipeline down into the woods. I assumed pipelines were like railroads, that they followed the grade of least resistance. But they don’t. They’re straight as an arrow – through fields, rock piles, forests. From Pithole, it went northwest for more than 5 miles and then crossed under Oil Creek to Miller Farm, which was the shipping center for the oil at the time.

In tracing that Line, I ultimately came to Pithole. It had been a field, probably of corn, and in the last year, a pasture. It was mostly covered with vegetation, yet street grades and cellar holes were visible. There were some 250 cellar holes, and [they] were easily seen.

First I tried to follow the line myself, but this was too time­-consuming because I had to double back to my car. Then, when I was able to get a friend interested, we got a car on each end of the line.

It all fascinated me, so I decided to buy it to see if I could make a tourist attraction out of it. I paid $6,000 for about 95 acres in 1957. It was a high price then. The Smith brothers, whom I bought it from, knew they had a sucker, that I wanted it so badly. It cost me $63 an acre. Today, similar park land would cost about $250 an acre. That’s what the Western Pennsyl­vania Conservancy pays for its land on the average.

The first thing to do was to open up the street grades, so we could drive them. There was so much brush growing that you had to go single-file. I rented a power saw, but found out it was not for me. So I hired a man expert with the power saw to cut the underbrush.

So you were responsible for making Pithole what it is today, a tourist attraction?

Yes. I developed signs on steel posts reading: “You are here.” with photos of what Pithole was like in 1865-66. Knowing the area was for hunters, I had to take them down each fall.

The area was originally a farm, half owned by Walter Holmden, the other half by his brother, Thomas Holmden, who died early in the proceedings. It was from his widow that the fellows from the Humboldt Refinery in Plumer, 4 miles away, bought it – Mr. Frazier and Mr. Faulkner. They bought it at a ridiculously low price and hired a fellow with a witch hazel twig to say where oil would be found. I don’t think they expected to find oil. In those days – ’65-’66 – the thing was speculation. More money was made in speculating in oil stocks than in oil produc­ing. It was easy to buy a tract of land, have some fancy stock certificates printed up, and peddle them in New York, Cleve­land, Boston. Then you hoped you’d strike oil. Speculators would sell stock for $100,000 for land that cost them $5,000 and later the wells turned out to be dry holes. They’d tell the stock­holders: “Too bad, fellows, we didn’t find oil.” Then they’d pocket the $95,000 and away they went.

Pithole, then, was an accident?

Yes, but it had a close similarity to the site at Drake Well, a flat land near a water course. At that time people thought there was some relationship between streams and oil. There wasn’t, of course. But it looked like the Drake Well site. That’s why they selected it.

Oil was discovered in 1865. Was that the Frazier Well?

It was owned by the United States Petroleum Company; the stock sold on the New York Stock Exchange. It was al times called the United States Well or Frazier Well.

Once oil was discovered, the stock rose?

Once oil was discovered, the stock of U.S. Oil jumped 36 points in one day. This was the first well discovered any distance from the Allegheny River or Oil Creek, way out in the back woods.

How did the city come about?

The wells first “came in” in February, and it was a devilishly rough winter. They got out 250 barrels a day, but the problem was storage. They managed to get enough carpenters and lumber sledded in there to build storage tanks and a shed, but the roads were virtually impassable. So it was a very rough winter. It wasn’t until May, when the roads had hardened enough for transportation, that the city began to boom.

But then, from May to September 1865, a city of 15,000 people was created. It seems incredible, but, in the first place, there were no brick or stone buildings. They were all of wood. They were slapped together so hurriedly that, often after the build­ing was built by the carpenters, You could walk into the build­ing and see outside through the cracks in the walls. They weren’t particular about the fit of the boards; they wanted the building done.

Because of Pithole’s crowded conditions, space was at a premium. That was the reason for the cellar holes. You built a two-story building and added a cellar hole, and down there was the cobbler. On the first floor was perhaps a drug store, and upstairs a couple of doctors had their offices. So underneath every building, down in the cellar hole, there was some tenant paying rent.

So the city was built very, very quickly?

Yes, indeed.

What kind of a town, was it, once it was built?

It had everything. It had a water system which was un­usual, because Pithole’s first shortage was – not only storage facilities – but water. A glass of water cost you more than a glass of booze. But, eventually, Pithole had its own waterworks, for which I had the ledger I think I turned it over to the Drake Museum, but I’m not sure.

And it had two banks, a telegraph office, a daily news­paper. You name it, Pithole had everything a city should have. Except for a sewage system.

Remember, some of the hotels could accommodate 200 guests, and 100 people could be seated at once in the dining room of the Chase House. They had an awful lot of left-over food and night soil to dispose of. They dug a dry well out behind the back door, and threw everything in there in the morning. So, on a hot July day in 1865, Pithole must have been “nosable” from a distance. Of course, the overpowering smell of oil may have covered that up. The scent nevertheless was there.

Who were some of the most interesting, important people in Pithole during the boom days?

Mr. Guffey, one of the founders of, I believe, Gulf Oil, was a resident. His son founded Gulf Oil. But the most impor­tant resident of Pithole was one who never had his biography written up, and deserves to be. He was the one who made Pithole historically important.

He is Samuel Van Syckel. He came here from New Jersey and he saw immediately that the problem at Pithole was trans­portation. Here you were with a valuable commodity. Of course, none of the oil had to be pumped, it came gushing out of the ground.

When you delivered it to the railroad at Miller Farm for shipment to a refinery, the refinery would pay you $6 a barrel, but the producers had to pay the teamsters to haul it at $3 a barrel. So, for 5 1/2 miles of teaming with 5 barrels to a load­ – sometimes they could make 2 loads a day – they were getting as much as the guys who were risking their money in drill­ing the wells.

Van Syckel saw that was not a very smart way to do busi­ness and, furthermore, it wasn’t very efficient because of the oil storage that took place at Pithole, and the oil couldn’t be delivered to the rails. So, he thought, how about a pipeline? Thus he had a two-inch, wrought-iron pipeline laid the whole way from Pithole to Miller Farm, 5 1/2 miles over hill and dale, straight as an arrow. It was all on the surface of the ground by the way.

When he was having the pipeline built, people made fun of him. “What are you going to do, make water flow uphill?” they asked. So he took refuge in the Morey House, the hotel at the extreme edge of Pithole where he would be less annoyed by taunts from drunken wisecrackers.

He put four pumps on that pipeline and in October he tested it with water. It worked fine. Then he went around to the oil producers and said: “Gentlemen, I’ll take your oil to Miller Farm for a dollar a barrel.”

Well, who got the business? Sam Van Syckel did. But the teamsters didn’t give up without a fight.

The pipe was laid above ground except when it had to pass under a road. But the teamsters got the bright idea of hitching their teams to pipe with a length of chain and pulling it apart.

Van Syckel stopped that by stationing armed guards along the 5 1/2-mile length of pipeline within earshot, and bullet shot, of each other. And that quieted the teamsters. But, as a further precaution, Van Syckel had a trench dug and put his pipeline in the trench.

He was so successful that he soon laid a second line. He had four pumps and he gradually cut out one and the three worked fine. He then cut it down to one and found that one worked fine. See how well he thought things out? He didn’t start out with one. He started on the safe side. He was going to move the oil. He first moved water to make sure it worked.

He is the fellow who should be written up. He revolu­tionized the transportation of oil.

Was this the first pipeline in the United States?

They had pipelines from wells to storage tanks near the wells. But there were no, we laugh, “long-distance” pipelines. But 5 1/2 miles then was “long-distance.”

But, of course, there’s nothing about a pipeline that you could patent. So, by the end of 1865, after Van Syckel had shown the way, three or four other pipelines were laid in the area by the end of the year. Eventually, they laced the whole oil region. Pipeline shipment and railroad shipment to distant places, like Philadelphia and Cleveland, moved all the oil, and the team­sters were out of business. The teamsters did have a little bit of a job, after Van Syckel’s line was laid, by m1wing oil from the well to the pipeline dump, where the pipeline would haul it away.

But then Alf Smiley, who was an oil buyer out there, said: “Well, gosh, if the pipeline works from here to the Miller farm it would certainly work from the well to Van Syckel’s line.” So he had the stock tanks at the wells connected to Van Syckel lines.

And Pithole was responsible not only for the pipeline, but for the 42-gallon barrel. Prior to that 1865 year, there were 44-gallon barrels and 60-gallon barrels. There was no uniform size. Of course, if you wanted to chisel a little, you could label it “one barrel” and give the guy 36 gallons. But Pithole was the first oil production site or field that regularly and invariably made use of the 42-gallon barrel.

Didn’t the pipeline ultimately go all the way to Oleopolis?

Well, that’s another pipeline, a quite interesting pipeline That was the larger one. It seems to me it was a 4-or 6-inch line, much bigger than Van Syckel’s. That line flowed oil by gravity from Pithole down Pithole Creek to Oleopolis about 7 miles away.

Any more pipelines?

After Titusville men saw that Miller Farm was getting all the business, they then ran a pipeline from Pithole to Titusville and another from Pithole to Oleopolis. I think there was a fourth line, but I’m not sure.

The gravity line, being a constant downhill flow, handled a lot of oil without a single pump. It crossed and re-crossed crooked Pithole Creek. We have a section of that line at Drake Well Park. And it was not only a gravity line – instead of threaded joints, it had plumbers’ joints.

A fellow named Hilton, who lived in Plumer, was the one whose father was an operator out al Pithole. Mr. Hilton, with friends from Quaker State. were the only ones working that section. Hilton knew exactly where the gravity line was. I remember he took a couple of friends and myself out there when he was about 60 – at that time I thought that was advanced age – and showed us where the pipeline was. He’s the guy re­sponsible for the section of gravity line at Drake Well Park.

Pithole is located in a very inaccessible site. Prior to the pipeline, how did all those people get their oil out?

Mule teams, horse-drawn wagons.

Was it muddy?

Of course. About the third or fourth thing Pithole is famous for – after oil and the pipeline – was mud.

The history of Pithole, written by C.C. Leonard, had a story about the mud. A fellow was driving his horse down Holmden Street one day and it sank into the mud up to his head! Any photograph taken of Pithole, except during the dry part of summer, shows the mud.

How did the ladies manage in such mud?

We have letters to the effect that the only time they were free of mud on their skirts, petticoats or shoes was when they were tucked in bed at night. You came into the front door of the house and left your shoes there, but you still dripped mud into the kitchen.

Were there many women in Pithole?

No. Not nice women. There were plenty of what are called “hookers” today. By the way, that name comes from the Civil War days. General Hooker, Northern Commander-in-Chief, had permitted camp followers around his camps. So, any camp follower was called a “hooker.”

Anyway, Pithole was full of them. One time, after Pithole began to fail, some 250 of them were leaving town a day. They were described in the ads in the Pithole Daily Record as “pretty little waiter girls.”

They took out ads?

No. Their places of business did. For instance, the Oyster House advertised “pretty little waiter girls.” They waited on tables and other business too.

After Pithole had been cleared of underbrush to some extent, a friend of mine, John Dunn, went out there one Saturday and followed First Street to the flats, where the railroad was.

He was interested in oil. He had three or four wells on his own property, a summer place in the country, quite productive wells. He and I were down at the flats one day and I said: “I smell gas, oil.” So we beat around until we came to a spring­like place and on top was oil scum. Out of the water came bubbles. This was in a depression in the ground, because in the early days they didn’t use drive pipe. They dug a hole and cribbed the sides with wood. The wood eventually rotted and what you had left was a big depression in the ground.

Anyway, in the middle of one of these depressions was this water and oil situation. John and I looked over the place and found it not too far from Pithole Creek. Comparing it with the way we came down, it was about where the United States well should have been, according to our recollection.

That was the site where my friend James D. Berry (major Quaker State stockholder) decided that he would drill a well because he owned the flats. So, he set about drilling a well. It must have been about 1959, the 100th anniversary of oil. He had to pump off a tremendous amount of water, but finally he had produced a little oil, so little that it would never pay for the drilling of a well.

Incidentally, when I operated Pithole, I used to take people on a horse-drawn wagon down Duncan Street over to First, then to Holmden, then to the point of beginning. Then I hired a man with a tractor, which was a little noisier than horses, but it was much more economical. Anyway, we could never get the wagon safely down to the well.

Why was the city abandoned so quickly? Was one reason because the oil wells stopped flowing?

Yes, but Pithole collapsed because the oil producers did everything wrong. The well spacing. for example. Here we are sitting in my office and across the street, 60 feet from that tree there, another oil well would be drilled. Now, today, they wouldn’t think of drilling so close to another well. In those days they piled one well on top of another, and pretty soon, you ran out of oil.

And then, they did permit water to get into their wells. They had many dry holes and never plugged them. They would soon fill with rain water or water from a creek. This ruined all the nearby wells. That put Pithole out of business pretty fast.

If Pithole had been worked then as we work oil farms today. it would still be producing, because it is producing uphill from, the flats where my two wells are working and where a friend of mine (Dick Roberts) bought 400 acres, the old Fitts Farm …. Jack Chodar, the Californian who drilled a couple of wells for me, drilled six or eight for Roberts.

Is he still getting oil out of Pithole?

Yes. I got in touch with him in the last year and a half and I complained to him that my well – that can be seen from the terrace of the museum – wasn’t pumping. The belt had slipped off. It was news to him. So I hope that he had that rectified because it means a loss of money to me.

What archaeological diggings took place at Pithole? I understand there were some diggings in the 1970s.

Yes, the first diggings were done by Jimmy, my son, and myself, and my nephew, Jay Haskell. We took shovels along one day to dig at Chase House, which was one of the leading hotels in Pithole. It was the place where Jay’s great-granddad had lived. Mr. Haskell came to the oil region here from Wis­consin early on and went directly to Pithole, bringing his wife with him. His wife was a woman from Philadelphia and they lived al the Chase House.

Incidentally, when Mrs. Haskell became pregnant, her fam­ily would have nothing to do with her having to deliver a child in the wild woods that probably still had Indians around. She went back to Philadelphia to have her first child. But the next three were delivered out here, because by that time Pithole had folded and they were living in Pleasantville, a real town.

Back to the digs. One of the things that Jay Haskell found was a completely intact champagne bottle. Now, it is entirely pos­sible that great-granddad Haskell had the champagne on the suc­cess of a new well coming in or on another occasion.

We found other things. But our best site was the dry well of the Danforth House. All kinds of stuff were found – ham bones, steak bones and lots of oyster shells.

Wasn’t there an oyster house there?

Oh, there were several, five or six oyster houses. Hotels served them, too, but some specialized in nothing but oysters.

But very little archaeological work has been done, except for a period of a few weeks. Of course, everything that you find is out of the same period. There was nothing before Pithole, except the Holmdens – and they didn’t leave much. So everything that you find is from 1865 to 1871.

There must still be a lot to find out there?

Oh, there would be all kinds of artifacts. Of course, alongside the railroad we were using mine detectors. You can still see the outline of the railroad bed. My detector brought me out a railroad spike similar to the spikes used today, only smaller.

Where was the railroad?

It was in the flats, down by the wells. It paralleled the gravity line pretty much, along the Pithole Creek valley.

Any more stories to tell?

I have one. One of the most fascinating stories for me – it was a minor incident. The Tremont House, along the north end of Holmden Street, caught fire one day.

By the way, Pithole had two fire departments, but there wasn’t much interest in them and they didn’t last very long. They would reorganize, elect officers and then would disband.

Anyway, Tremont House caught fire and a bucket brigade was formed to haul water from the 16-foot deep Widow Ricketts’s well nearby. They were pouring the water on the fire. And they soon noticed that they weren’t putting the fire out. It was getting worse. What they found they were doing was pour­ing crude oil on the fire.

So, the hell with the fire! They ran up to see where the oil was coming from. The widow Ricketts then had all kinds of proposals for marriage because she was the possessor of a well and a couple of the springs nearby.

After a few weeks, they got to question how in hell oil got up there on a hillside, and down 16 feet. I can’t explain it, and nobody else can. But it’s a true story.

In my efforts to develop Pithole, I built a small souvenir shop, a little bigger than the room we’re sitting in. And I sold bottles of oil from Pithole, other trinkets, ashtrays, etcetera. Then I also built a hot dog stand, also as big as this room, and had a water well drilled so that we had water for the food stand.

Today at Pithole, you can see all that I saw through the underbrush – streets, grades, cellar holes and so on. But, in addi­tion, you can see a top notch museum. That diorama, a scale model of Pithole, is marvelously done. And the reason that it’s done so well is that the man who did it was the same man who did the displays at Drake Well Museum. He was interested in the subject.

Thank you. Is there anything else?

Oh, yes, the use of casing to prevent flooding was also developed at Pithole. So, in addition to the oil pipeline, the cas­ing was designed to prevent water from gelling down to the oil drilling tools.

There are lots of boom towns; but only one – Pithole – has developed so much for its industry.


For Further Reading

Darrah, William C. Pithole, The Vanished City. Gettysburg, Pa.: William C. Darrah, 1972.

Miller, Ernest C. The History of Pithole. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1945.


Kristin R. Woolever served as project coordinator for the Titusville Community History Project. The project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, included this interview and focused, in part, on the early oil industry in northwestern Pennsylvania. The interviewer received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and currently is a professor of English at Northeastern University, Boston.


Michael J. Zavacky, responsible for the transcription of this interview is an associate professor of history and political science, and serves as chairman of the Division of Social Sciences at the Titusville Campus of the University of Pittsburgh.