McKean County: Where the Gold is Green

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

The great gold and silver rushes of the late nineteenth century to places such as the Black Hills, Colorado, Arizona, California and Alaska have long been hailed in story and song for their excite­ment, riches and heartbreak. But, the rush for “green gold” to McKean County during the same century was equally or more exciting.

First, there were the forests – immense forests of white pine, hemlock and hard­wood which yielded fortunes to many. As the lumbering era neared a close, a new “green gold” was discovered. The first sign of petroleum brought thousands of people to secure leases, drill wells and to build towns, refineries, highways and railroads. The gold was green because of its unusual paraffin base, and it became known as the highest quality oil in the world. Despite the greater fame of Titusville and Oil Creek, the McKean County fields became the world’s first great oil region. While Titusville wells dried up in months or even days, Bradford field wells pro­duced petroleum for years and even decades. The new city of Bradford became the oil metropolis of the world.

Over two centuries earlier, however, in 1681 when William Penn gained his Charter, there were no European settlers anywhere near the area which would ultimately become McKean County. In fact, there were apparently no set­tlements of any kind. Little evidence has been uncovered to indicate the existence of even permanent Indian villages, although there were Seneca settlements at Kinzua and several other locations along the Allegheny River in what is now Warren County. The land was used in­stead, primarily by the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois (Six Nations), as a hunting and fishing ground.

The French laid claim to this area, as they did to the entire Ohio River Valley, until 1763 when the British acquired the lands as a result of their victory in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War). The British, preferring that the Allegheny Plateau remain in Indian hands, encouraged friendly relations with most tribes. Trouble ensued, however, when the Iroquois nation allied with the British in the American Revolution. That alliance prompted the sending of an American military expedi­tion from Pittsburgh in 1779 to destroy key Indian villages at Kinzua, Warren and Salamanca (N.Y.) in order to reduce the threat along the frontier.

Following the war, the Senecas ceded all remaining lands which they had claimed in Pennsylvania at the famous Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784), ap­propriately called the “Last Purchase.” The only land withheld was a small tract along the Allegheny River granted to their famous chief, Cornplanter. Thus, for $10,000 Pennsylvania gained land which today accounts for about one­-fourth the total area of the entire Com­monwealth and provides land for fifteen counties and parts of five others. The advantages to the state, however, were not immediately apparent following the treaty. Except for the Allegheny River Valley, the area was primarily one of dense pine and hemlock forests.

Within three months of the “Last Purchase,” the state Assembly opened the lands by surveying 1,000-acre tracts. One-hundred-acre blocks of land were offered for sale at $80, with the stipula­tion that purchasers had to actually set­tle upon them. Few settlers were lured by the offer, however, and the area remain­ed virtually unoccupied.

In 1792, the condition of settlement was dropped and the price was reduced to $13 for 100 acres. The new incentive worked, for soon thereafter wealthy families and interests began to purchase vast tracts. The Holland Company of Amsterdam, for example, bought two million acres in New York and Penn­sylvania. William Bingham, perhaps the wealthiest and most influential politician in Pennsylvania at the time, also ac­quired enormous holdings.

Despite these sales, early settlers were discouraged from actually locating in the north central highlands due to their great distance from existing population centers, the almost impenetrable pine and hemlock forests, and the reports of unfriendly Indian activity, even after Fort Stanwix. Nevertheless, a few set­tlers slowly trickled in; most of them traveled to McKean and Warren coun­ties using the now famous portage route over the drainage divide between the Susquehanna and Allegheny basins via Keating Summit. Others came via New England to settle along Oswayo and Portage creeks and in the Tunungwant Valley. Ceres, along Oswayo Creek, is considered the first permanent settle­ment in the county (1798), although there may have been a few settlers in other areas earlier.

These early arrivals found food, clothing and shelter extremely difficult to secure, making trips for supplies to Jersey Shore, Williamsport and even Pittsburgh a frequent necessity. Com­pounding these supply problems were natural hardships such as early and late frosts and frequent floods. Thus, at the turn of the century, occupants of the area were living at a level of subsistence which sometimes verged on starvation.

Nearly a century and a quarter after the creation of Pennsylvania’s original counties, McKean County was formed in 1804 from a part of what was then Lycoming. The newly created coun­ty consisted primarily of a vast, unset­tled forest land originally attached to Northumberland County and drained by four large tributary streams: Potato, Tunungwant, Kinzua and Sinnemahon­ing creeks – the last draining toward the Susquehanna River. The Allegheny River crossed the northeastern and northwestern parts of the county, with a jog into New York State in between.

The newly established county was named for one of Pennsylvania’s most distinguished personalities, Thomas McKean, who served as Pennsylvania’s governor from 1799 to 1808 and approv­ed the Act of Assembly creating the county. McKean was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Continental Congress and even served as Chief Justice of the Com­monwealth. He was sincerely interested in the development of the region and, although he originally purchased land at Mt. Equity to counter Connecticutt claims in the area, he later settled disputed land claims by verifying the deeds of Connecticutt settlers and even encouraged more New Englanders to enter the territory.

Once established, McKean County came under the jurisdiction of Centre County until 1814 and then Lycoming County until 1826. Although land (228 acres) at the confluence of Marvin and Potato creeks had earlier been given to the county for a county seat by John Keating, a courthouse was not com­pleted until 1826, the same year that a judge was appointed. That judge, however, had to commute from Towan­da. It was not until 1832 that the first local judge, Edward Herrick, was designated.

Smethport, the county seat town nam­ed for an agent of the Old Holland Land Company, was organized and settled in the 1810-20 period. During the early years following the establishment of the courts there in 1826, long-distance travel to the town was extremely difficult. As a result, McKean was subdivided and lost a great deal of territory to other counties. Ter­ritorial losses included land to Elk (1843), Cameron (1860) and Warren (1864).

The first residents of the county were farmers who cleared the dense forest by cutting and burning, but lumbering became the first important economic endeavor. The lumber industry, which began in earnest in the 1830s with the rafting of logs down the Allegheny River, prompted more dense settlement and led to the organization of many municipal governments. In fact, the crea­tion of nearly all the county’s townships in any given area usually coincides with heavy lumbering activities there.

Streams became primary transporta­tion routes and were heavily used during the lumbering era. Oswayo Creek and the Allegheny River developed into major arteries, and Tunungwant (Tuna) Creek was declared a public highway in 1838. Many towns became “ports” (i.e. Smethport, Port Allegany) because of their locations at the head of navigation or their utilization as ports of entry. Some roads were established, but they were alternately dust paths and mud sinks, depending upon the weather. What few roads did exist followed old Indian trails, including the old Iroquois Main Road and the Olean to Emporium road via Smethport.

With the exception of Sergeant Township, which originally consisted of the sou them third of the county, all early settlements were located along the Allegheny River and its major tributaries. By 1810 when census records showed 142 county residents, set­tlements had been established on the Allegheny River at Corydon, Allegheny Bridge and Morrison, and on Potato Creek at Farmers Valley. By 1815, Canoe Place along the Allegheny and sections of Norwich Township were be­ing developed. By 1825, settlements ex­isted in the Tuna Valley along Kendall Creek and near the state line. As lumber­ing operations expanded. Turtlepoint, Prentisville, Marsh burg and other towns were settled accordingly. The settlement of the central and southwestern portions of the county occurred much later, however, nearly half a century after the original communities.

As early as 1829 a village which would grow to become the metropolis of north central Pennsylvania was formed in the valley where Tuna, Kendall and Foster creeks converge. Established as a lumber camp, the town was originally know as Littleville or Littleton, named after Col­onel L.C. Little of the U.S. Land Com­pany who was sent as a purchasing agent to develop lands in the area. By the 1850s, the village was known more wide­ly as Bradford. probably because of the New Hampshire town from which several of the families living there had originated. Although lumbering provided the economic base for the community, attempts commenced as early as 1861 to find oil which bad recently been discovered in nearby Titusville. Many ef­forts to find petroleum were initiated in the 1860-70 period, all unsuccessful. In 1870, Bradford remained a small village concerned primarily with the rapidly developing lumber industry.

One of the most interesting stories of early settlement in McKean involves the isolated southwestern portion of the county which was far removed from any navigable streams. Here, Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia purchased large tracts of land. The territory was surveyed in 1850 and the following year the village of Kane was founded. As the years progressed and it became evident that differences between the North and South would lead to warfare, Mr. Kane immediately began to organize a volunteer unit from the “Wildcat District,” so referred to because of the frequency of those animals in the Allegheny Mountains. Sentiment in the area was staunchly pro-Union and anti­slavery. In fact, the King settlement above Ceres was an important depot on the Underground Railroad and Smethport served as a way-station. After receiving authority from Governor Curtin, volunteers from throughout the county formed at Smethport, added Elk and Cameron County volunteers at Driftwood, and on April 24, only nine days after President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers, were on their way to Harrisburg. The unit laid claim to being the first volunteer regiment organized for the defense of the Union.

Variously know as the First Rifles, the Pennsylvania Reserves and the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, this regiment became one of the Civil War’s most famous. The unit was immortalized as the “Bucktail Regiment,” named for their identifiable hats which displayed hair from the tails of whitetail deer.

Following the Civil War, McKean County was little different than it had been fifty years earlier. The county population had grown slowly over the decades to 8,825 persons by 1870. There was some coal mining and farming was still important, but lumbering was the main occupation. It was the discovery of oil in paying quantities, however, which would shape the future of McKean Coun­ty and still does to the present day. Although many other important in­dustries were established during the post­-Civil War period, the petroleum industry thoroughly dominated the county’s economic and cultural history for the next several decades. As a result of the discovery of oil, the county population exploded to 42,565 by 1880, a five-fold increase in a span of ten years. Highways and bridges were built, newspapers were formed, communities expanded and in­dustries grew.

Although oil had been found in McKean County as early as 1861, wells bad been drilled to only the approximate depths of the Titusville and Oil Creek discoveries, a depth too shallow to find it in commercial quantities. At the time there was no geological information available to give explorers any reason to expect to find it deeper. Nevertheless, since some oil had been found in the shallow sands, drilling continued. By 1865-70, exploratory wells were pushed to nearly 900 feet, still about 200 feet above substantial deposits.

The initial significant find came in 1871 in the Tuna Valley on the Foster farm, two miles northeast of Bradford. The well struck oil at 1,110 feet and pro­duced ten barrels per day. The strike caused some excitement, but activity did not accelerate greatly since production was still small compared to the Venango County strikes. Late in 1874, however, the first large producing well (70 barrels per day) was struck in the soon-to-be­-famous Bradford third sand on the Buchanon farm northeast of Bradford.

Another of the earliest large pro­ducers was the Olmstead well on the Crook Farm north of Bradford along Tuna Creek, now an important historic resource which serves as a reminder of the boom and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By early in 1875, several other wells were producing oil in paying quantities. By 1880, there were 4,000 wells producing in the Brad­ford Oil District alone, yielding 50,000 barrels of oil per day. In addition to the main Bradford field, other fields were opening. The end of 1881 showed 11,200 producing wells in the field and an in­crease in oil production to 23 million barrels yearly.

Due to the lack of markets in these pre-auto days, however, production rapidly exceeded all demand. Accord­ingly, prices dropped to less than one dollar per barrel and there was soon an oil glut. In 1879, the first drillers’ organizational meeting was held in Brad­ford to discuss the unfortunate price situation. Despite these efforts, operators failed to agree on cutting back production and the unfavorable condi­tions persisted.

Even with these early problems, the Bradford field, which included the main field around the city of Bradford, several smaller fields in McKean County and a substantial portion of the fields in Cattaraugus County (N.Y.), became in­ternationally famous. For several years, McKean County led the world in the production of petroleum. Due to the high quality of the paraffin-based oil, Bradford became the “High Grade Oil Metropolis of the World.”

After less than fifteen years of high production, however, yields began to decline. Despite new finds, local production dropped rapidly, falling off con­siderably in the main field after 1890. By the end of the century, the field was con­sidered exhausted, and by the turn of the century, most wells had been abandon­ed. In 1906, the entire field yielded only 2 million barrels.

During the first few years of the new century, however, oil began to flow from some abandoned wells once again. This was especially true where fresh ground water entered the wells through leaking casings. At first, this was viewed as a problem and prompted a new state law requiring that the abandoned wells be plugged. Enterprising producers realized the potential benefits, however, and began to illegally inject fresh water into the old wells. The effects of “flooding” became noticeable by the end of the decade when the general decline in production was somewhat forestalled.

Although petroleum produced greater excitement, other im­portant industries developed around McKean County’s great wealth of natural resources. Lumbering activities were con­siderable as early as the 1830s, but the in­dustry didn’t really take off until the ar­rival of the railroads in the late 1860s. Rail made the timber easier to reach and the lumber easier to market.

The lumber industry consisted of three different though related businesses: saw timber, tanneries and wood chemicals. The great sawmill (mainly white pine) and hemlock era spanned nearly three quarters of a cen­tury, from 1850 to 1925. During several years of the decade between 1880-90, the county even led the nation in timber pro­duction. As time progressed, harvest operations concentrated on hemlock, and large tanneries were built, especially in Port Allegany, Eldred, Ludlow and Mt. Jewett. Following on the heels of tanning was the great wood chemical in­dustry, which began around the turn of the century and lasted for approximately fifty years. At one time, at least forty chemical plants were in operation in McKean County, the most famous located at Betula and Westline.

The Heinamann works in the Crosby­-Betula area was one of the largest and best known lumbering operations in the entire region. The works included a lumber mill at Colegrove and the Crosby chemical works, the largest chemical plant in Pennsylvania when built which handled some eighty cords of wood per day. The Heinamann operations, begun in 1898, were finally sold by the family in 1940 and ceased all operations in 1949.

The last of the great timber operations in McKean County, and one of the last large operations in the state, was the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Com­pany. In twelve years, from 1911 to 1923, the company was responsible for the removal of timber from 26,100 acres in Norwich Township. To process all the wood, a sawmill at Norwich ran around the clock. The operations also included a stave factory at Betula and a large wood chemical plant at Keystone. During the peak of activity, there were 3,000 people living in the immediate area; today less than 500 remain. By 1925, virtually the entire county was deforested, a treeless wasteland with serious erosion prob­lems. The great tanning and wood chemical industries were nearly finished.

A third great enterprise to develop in the county during this era was the glass industry. Due to a local abundance of silica sandstone and cheap natural gas, factories were established in almost every town during the late nineteenth century. As with oil and lumber, McKean for a time (1895-1905) led the nation in glass production. It was reported that McKean County plants could produce enough window glass to meet one-fourth of the nation’s total de­mand. Although window glass was the primary product, bottles, wireglass, and fireproof windows and doors were also produced.

Port Allegany holds a special place in the history of the glass industry. The discovery of natural gas nearby in 1883 eventually led to the construction of the county’s first glass plant there in 1896 by Samuel Pancoast, owner of an Olean glass factory. Two other major producers soon followed, the Mississippi Glass Company (1898) and the Allegany Glass Company (1901). The Mississippi con­tinued until 1933 when the plant was demolished, while the Allegany was shut down in 1923 due to a lack of natural gas.

The Olean Glass Company closed even earlier in 1912, due to competition and a diminishing gas supply. The Wightman Corporation purchased the company, however, and operated it from 1915 to 1917, when it sold the operation to the Pierce Glass Company of Buffalo. Pierce Glass still remains in Port Allegany, making it the area’s oldest glass company. Pierce Glass and Pittsburgh Corning Corporation, which began later, are the only two glass plants remaining in McKean County, both in Port Allegany.

In order for all of this new industrial growth to occur, transportation had to be improved. In the oil and lumber heydays, railroads were built in every valley and eventually all products were moved by rail. The Erie branch of the Philadelphia Railroad was built in 1864, with many other railroads following im­mediately: the Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia via Port Allegany and Eldred (still the main Conrail Line); the Buffalo and Pittsburgh; and the Buffalo and Bradford. Several famous railroads were constructed during the 1880s, in­cluding the Bradford, Bordell and Kin­zua narrow gauge railroads and the famous “Peg-Leg” Railroad, an ex­perimental single rail (monorail) line built from Bradford up the Foster Brook Valley. Another wonder, the great Kin­zua Viaduct, was built by the Erie Railroad in 1882 to span the valley of the Kinzua. By the 1890s with the decline of oil production, however, most of the smaller lines had ceased operations.

The entire history of what McKean County was to become was shaped during the several decades near the turn of the twentieth century. Today’s land­scape reflects what happened during that period, including the decline of farming and the eventual regrowth of a very even-aged forest. Although the great mineral resource industries had declined considerably by 1925, they still left their imprint on later development. In fact, many of today’s key industries were formed during that era. McKean County has demonstrated a unique ability to re­tain those industries which have con­tributed greatly to its early history. The population boom which resulted from the oil industry led to the establishment of Bradford as not only the county’s key urban center but the cultural, economic and industrial center for an even larger area of the Commonwealth.

By 1925, the landscape in McKean County had radically changed from the pre-oil days. Despite the decline in petroleum production, wells and associated equipment covered much of the land. New industries began to absorb the unemployed oil workers and con­tributed greatly to continued develop­ment in the county. Population growth proceeded, but at a slower rate, from 42,565 persons in 1880 to 56,673 by 1940. The population of the City of Bradford also continued to expand, despite the decline of the petroleum in­dustry, from 9,197 in 1880 to an all-time high of 19,306 by 1930.

Although many of the businesses which remain important today were established after the turn of the century, two which are worthy of special note had their beginnings in the 1880s. Dresser Manufacturing Company, today a division of Dresser Industries, Inc., was established in Bradford by Solomon R. Dresser in 1880. Mr. Dresser patented the product in 1885 which would provide the foundation of his great success and prosperity; the “Dresser Coupling,” a flexible, leak proof coupling for uniting pipe was to become world famous. The coupling became essential to both the oil and gas industries and remains func­tional today.

The Kendall Refining Company, another nationally known firm, was established by William Willis, E.R. Loomis and R.H. Childs in 1881; shortly thereafter the refinery was sold to Theodore Barnsdall. At first refining strictly kerosene, Kendall boomed by 1910 with the new motor car industry. During the 1920s, the company secured its fame by producing a new guaranteed “2,000 mile” motor oil, made recognizable nationwide by an illustra­tion of two fingers held in a V shape. Headquarters have remained in Brad­ford, but in 1966 the business was merged with the Witco-Chemical Corporation and a new product called Ken­dall/Amalie has been introduced.

The area in and around the City of Bradford attracted many important in­dustries. The Zippo Manufacturing Company, producer of the world famous Zippo Lighter, was established in Bradford in 1932 in the height of the depression by George Blaisdale. Zippo is perhaps the county’s most famous local product. W.R. Case and Sons Cutlery, producer of famous high quality cutlery and the “Case” knife, moved from Lit­tle Valley, New York to Bradford as ear­ly as 1905. The Bradford Motor Works, today known as the Trico-Bradford­-Monarch Division of Trico Industries, Inc., was established in 1915 to produce oil pumping equipment. The Northeast­ern Container Company, now part of Owens-Illinois, Inc., was established in 1935 to produce corrugated boxes. Corn­ing Electronics Division came to Brad­ford in 1944 to produce components for military radios and radar sets and con­tinues to be an important local industry.

Major industries have also located in other parts of the county. Houston Elec­tronics, founded during World War II as Mel Smith Labs, is now owned by Kidde Inc. and manufactures glass-to-metal seals at its Kane plant. The Stackpole Carbon Company retains an important division in Kane. The Eldred Division of Ethan Allen, Inc., which produces high quality upholstered wood furniture, was established in 1945. Known previously as VIKO Furniture, this company became the Eldred area’s most significant in­dustry. The Quaker State Oil Refinery Company maintains an important refinery just north of Smethport.

Despite the statewide and local decline in oil production after the turn of the century, the oil industry showed some signs of rejuvenation by 1930. By 1920, McKean was responsible for only 30 per­cent of the state’s production, but the accidental discovery of water injection into oil wells was beginning to show great promise. By 1928, the famous “five-spot” system of systematic water injection was becoming effective. This new production method pushed McKean County’s total petroleum yield to over 10 million barrels by 1930, representing three-quarters of the state total. A new peak of 16.5 million barrels was produced in the county in 1937. More significant than these figures perhaps is the fact that this occurred in the midst of a great in­ternational depression.

This new boom crested in 1940 and afterward a steady decline began. The effects of water flooding diminished and few new fields were discovered. Declin­ing production became rapid after 1950, and by 1960 McKean produced only 4 million barrels. By 1970 that figure dropped to 2.2 million, representing less than two-thirds of the state total. Pro­duction fell even further to less than 900 thousand barrels in 1980, only a third of the state total.

Nevertheless, McKean County still has over 12,000 producing wells, almost half of those in the state, and recently several experimental tertiary recovery projects have been initiated to get at the considerable reserves still in the ground. Over the past several years, with the rapid change in the international pricing structure, there has been a substantial increase in drilling activity.

Lumber is also once again making a comeback as a significant and valuable resource in McKean County, with hun­dreds of thousands of acres of managed forest lands. As professional timber management practices were applied to vast areas, the forest began to re­juvenate. Hardwoods began to grow in the extensively deforested stretches and much of the abandoned farm land bas been taken over by infant trees. The forest now produces considerable amounts of high quality hardwoods, in­cluding the finest black cherry in the world. Smaller acreages of state game lands and forest lands have also been established and contain considerable amounts of timber. In 1923, the Allegheny National Forest was establish­ed for ”the regulation of the flow of navigable streams and for the protection of timber.” In order to protect this valuable natural resource, the National Forest has been extended over the years to include nearly half a million acres in four counties, over 135,000 of which are in McKean.

Along with important strides in manufacturing and business, the oil and lumber industries, and other economic developments, a number of other factors have been important in recent county history. The Bradford Regional Airport, begun in 1936, serves a multi-county area for freight and passenger service. The Kinzua Dam, built in 1963 as a flood control measure for downstream Allegheny River communities, has created a reservoir which is the center of one of the most outstanding recreational resources in the northeastern United States. In order to provide for the con­tinuing educational needs of the region, a University of Pittsburgh Com­monwealth Campus was established at Bradford in 1963.

Today, McKean County occupies an area of just slightly less than 1,000 square miles with over 50,000 permanent residents, more than any county on the entire northern tier except Erie. The City of Bradford, which when combined with the surrounding area contains nearly one-half of the county’s population, re­mains the largest and most important community in all of north central Penn­sylvania. Smaller population concentra­tions are located at Kane, Port Allegany, Smethport, Eldred and Mt. Jewett.

Although the oil industry, with two local refineries, and the timber industry are still important, most county residents work in manufacturing or in the rapidly expanding service industries. While McKean County contains many important businesses, some of national and international significance, it is also a year-round haven for tourists who enjoy fishing, camping, boating, hunting and snow sports. Significantly, the county is also part of one of the largest high quali­ty environmental resources left in the eastern United States and protects many headwater streams so essential to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Although isolated from the state’s major metropolitan areas, McKean County occupies a significant and prestigious position within the Com­monwealth. With the instability of oil prices and supplies around the world, the importance of the county’s “green gold” has again been realized, and a rush of activity has recently returned to the world’s first oil kingdom.


Terry L. Hess is presently the county planning director for McKean County and chairman of both the North Central Highlands Forum and the Regional Planning Policy Committee. He also serves as a director for the McKean County Historical Society and com­mander of American Legion Bucktail Post #138 in Smethport.