Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

A Walk Through the Historic Oil Patch

By Thomas A. Miller
Olean, N.Y.

Twenty-first Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 21, 2017
The Century House, Latham, N.Y


Back in 1996 we were working on some problems with zoning and building inspectors in our town. We formed a little organization and right about that time I happened on a publication of the Property Rights Foundation, which was in its infancy and I liked what I saw and I called the phone number there and I talked to a person named Carol LaGrasse. We probably talked for an hour and a half. It went on from there. We became very good friends. Carol actually came out then and spoke at a group where we were kind of made little of by the town board until this happened but we had a little gathering with Carol speaking and some of the other of us spoke. But then we had to hold up the beginning of it for half an hour because people were waiting in line to get in the door. The next day we were on the front page of the newspapers. They paid a little more attention to us after that. But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

For twenty years I've been trying to get Pete to come out and see some of what's left of the oil field because I knew he would really enjoy it. Carol saw a little bit of it there back in 1996. Finally, they came out last April. I think Pete thought it was worth it. He's not saying anything.

Peter LaGrasse: It's worth it. Oh boy, is it worth it.

Mr. Miller: There wasn't as much to show as there was because we have been really, really destroyed. I mean, we've had the EPA, the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] in New York, the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] in Pennsylvania. I've kind of given up and I think a lot of us have in this, the small operators. I don't think we have any future left. There isn't much. There's a double whammy because our price dropped in half, too, which there were periods in the past where industries weathered low prices but they didn't have all the bureaucracy on top of you, it's something that can't be done cheaply. That's a whole other thing but I'm just going to give you a tour.

I grew up in a little place called Knapp Creek, New York. There's about two hundred people. It's actually in the town of Allegany, it's in Cattaraugus County about directly south of Buffalo right on the state line. The settlement of Knapp Creek, formally known as Knapp's Creek was a genuine boomtown in the early days of the Bradford oil field beginning about 1877. It was on a narrow gauge railroad and later an electric streetcar line. The town boasted a bank, a drug store, and two bottling works, over a dozen saloons and many other businesses including a Chinese laundry. Knapp Creek is the birthplace of aviation pioneer William T. Piper, known as the Henry Ford of aviation. This is where I grew up. This is actually in the park next to the firehouse, which used to be the school. There used to be a baseball diamond or I should say softball. If you used a baseball you'd never find it because it would be down in the woods someplace behind it. As a kid we'd play games up there but I can remember winding from one end of the town to another to see if anybody in town had a ball that was usable. It may have been wound up with friction tape. We didn't have a lot when we were kids. Just about everybody worked in the oil field. Everybody thinks we're all J.R. Ewing but that's not the case. That was Knapp Creek.

Actually, today, now, I live about two miles down the road in a place called Rock City. I guess I never got very far in life. Then you go another five miles down the road and you come to Olean, New York. So of you have heard of Olean. But the name Olean comes from the Latin word oleum, for oil. In the 1880s just about all the oil in the world went through Olean. Olean was the oil storage capital of the world. There were close to three hundred, 35,000-barrel tanks for storage in Olean and a pipeline from Olean to Bayonne, New Jersey to take the oil down to the coast.

Just to give you an idea of that magnitude, a barrel is forty-two gallons. So, three hundred of those tanks amounts to 441 billion gallons. Eventually, the field died down and there was reasons for that, technical reasons. It came back again but then the tanks were moved to Oklahoma.

Then if you go south of Olean, across the state line into Pennsylvania and over the hill about fifteen miles, I kind of live in between, I'm on top of a mountain, 2400-foot elevation, you go to Bradford, Pennsylvania. The famous Bradford oil field was discovered in 1871. It was the biggest field so far, to date. The industry essentially began in 1859 with a Drake Well a hundred miles south of Titusville, Pennsylvania. It wasn't the first well to produce oil. It's just the one that kicked out the industry. When the Bradford Field was discovered, it was the first giant oil field. It was the first oil field to produce a billion dollars worth of oil. There are several claims to fame for the Bradford Oil Field. Still in Bradford, we have the oldest continuously operating family owned oil company in the world that was founded in 1874. We have the oldest continuously operating refinery, refining crude oil, in the world. We just have a tremendous amount of history there.

If you go about eighteen miles east of Olean and that's the town of Bolivar, New York. Right near Bolivar was the Allegheny Oil Field, which was discovered in 1879, I believe. That was very similar to the Bradford Field. It's very close. Things were about the same but they still had a distinction. The pools were kind of connected, but maybe not. The geology was pretty much the same but they were a little apart. They had their own identity.

Anyway, when Carol and Pete came out, they got there pretty late at night. Pete had to finish up his tax assessments previously. The next morning we set out on a trip. We went to an oil property owned by a friend, Jim who inherited this from his father-in-law and this was in the guy's backyard. It was kind of a hobby, in a way, but also he produced enough natural gas from these wells to heat his house and being in his backyard and all that, everything was pretty snazzy, all painted up and everything. This well is pumped by the old central power method of pumping with one prime mover with ground lines radiating out to the wells. I meant to bring my laser pointer but I didn't but as you can see the jack — what you call the pumping jack — converts the horizontal motion of the rods to the vertical motion to pump the well. Next is the powerhouse. You see there are several rods going out to wells. This is a hookout system where you can hook each well individually. Not all wells make the same amount of fluid. What we call pumped off is pumped everything out. Depending on wells and the geology you may pump them everyday or several times a day or every week or every two weeks or every three weeks or whatever it just depends on the wells. I think this guy pumps these, like, every couple of weeks. Inside the powerhouse is the central power. This is a small central power. It's an enclosed oil-bath gearbox. There were powers with 24-foot diamond or band wheels instead of a gear reduction which had a design entirely done with belts. The belt would take a twist around a [unintelligible] and around 24-foot band wheel. I just didn't have a picture ready to show you with that. Those band wheel powers, there were probably hundreds of thousands of them just in the Bradford Field and between the Bradford and Allegheny Field there are a lot of them, especially in the heyday of the water flooding secondary recovery take. Yes sir?

Audience member: How many horsepower does it take to pump one of those wells, just one well?

Mr. Miller: Well, it depends on the depth of the well, how long a stroke you have, how fast you're doing it. If you're on a single well balanced pumping unit, 1,600-foot well generally you figure a three-horse motor if you're doing it electric. On a 2,000-foot well it might be five-horse. Here, with central power, they'll balance each other. You're overcoming friction in lifting the fluid. This is actually powered here. This is a 25-horsepower Bovaird and Seyfang engine manufactured in Bradford Pennsylvania in 1925. This wasn't the first installation for this engine but these things will run forever. I worked for a guy who had a B&S engine just about like that. It ran [unintelligible] twenty-four hours a day and he installed it, I think he said, in 1929. I worked for him in 1968 and it sat there running for twenty-four hours a day. I saw it. It was really loaded, too. It was down on its knees and he said the only thing he'd ever done to it was to put two sets of rings in it, in all those years. And the engine still lives today. His son still has the engine and he takes it and it runs in the parade in Bolivar every year. I have a little building full of these things. I love them.

Audience member: Can you parts for that flat belt?

Mr. Miller: Well, if you want to pay enough you can get belts. They're pretty pricey. There's a few powers still operating but very few. I'm actually still operating two of them and you'll see pictures.

This is just another well down in Bolivar. It's an example. We'll get through it. From there we went all over there and stopped at the property of mine. I'm not so pretty. I'm out in the woods. This is actually 28 miles from home. So, it's a long ways to go over there to work. On this particular property, I'm the third generation to operate this. I've been operating it since 1985. These are deeper wells over here. These are over 2,130 feet deep. Actually this property adjoins my great-grandfather's farm. I go over there and I pump these once a week. You have to service the well periodically because things go wrong downhole.

Audience member: I don't see any tankers. When you pump the oil out is it going through underground?

Mr. Miller: Yes, I've got an underground pipeline to the tanks. If you can, save your questions for afterwards. As I say, you've got to bring equipment in and service on them and all that. But I go over there, for all this, and I get about two barrels of oil per week out of the three wells put together. I'm not J.R. Ewing.

Here I am standing by old Number One. That well was drilled in 1914 and is still producing. You can see this is another well at a distance from the powerhouse. I have video of this and when I conclude this slide presentation I'll have some videos of this stuff in operation I just took last Wednesday. That's a rod line coming from the powerhouse. There's another view of the well, the previous one. So, from there we traveled not too far. In fact, I was there on that other property pumping those wells when the tornado came that took this bridge down. I was sitting in my vehicle. When it was over with, it only lasted a few minutes, there were trees down all around me. It was quite a feat getting home.

But since Carol is a civil engineer and Pete's an architect, we had to show them this. This is the Kinzua Viaduct. There's a plaque there. I don't think you can read it.

"As the tallest and longest bridge of its time, the Kinzua Viaduct embodied the spirit of the industrial revolution. Cargo and sightseers rumbled across the viaduct for 120 years until an F1 tornado toppled the viaduct in 2003. Today, a skywalk and observation deck mark the next stage in Kinzua Bridge State Park's history."

Well, the bridge was built in 1882 originally out of tubular iron but then they wanted to put bigger trains over it. They tore it down and completely rebuilt it in 1900 with heavier construction. It was 301 feet high in the middle and 2,052 feet long. Train traffic ran on until 1959. In 1963 the state purchased it for a state park. They didn't do anything to maintain it or paint it or anything else. It got pretty rusty. The elements were taking their toll. An excursion line started from 1987 and it ran from '87 to 2002 when the bridge was deemed unsafe. Then the state started some rehabilitation work. I don't know whether the rehabilitation work compromised it or if it would have gone down. I don't know. But the tornado came in 2003 and that's what happened. That's the rest of it. The state decided to leave it just as is, so you can see. Now they got an I-don't-know-how-many-million-dollars visitor's center. It's nice. It's very nice. That was the bridge. We had to get that in even though it wasn't worth it. There used to be wells underneath the bridge, up the hill, and on the other side. We had wells every place. There are areas with two wells per acre. I mean, just I should be dead because of all these terrible, dangerous oil wells according to the media, the DEC, and everything. I've been working around them all my life. I was servicing wells probably when I was ten-years-old or younger. I was working around the wells wrenching pipe. I started running one of those gas engines kicking the flywheel that's how you started get your foot on on the flywheel and kick the flywheel. You had to know when to get off or you'd go through the ceiling but I was doing that when I was twelve years old on my own with a band wheel power.

Next we went to the city of Bradford and here you can see part of the Bradford Refinery, which used to be the Kendall Refinery. It's now the ARG, America Refining Group Refinery. Witco Chemical company bought out Kendall and then they decided they'll leave Bradford and a guy by the name of Harry Halloran bought the refinery for a dollar and I think he put I don't know how many million into it to get it in operation but, fortunately, he saved our refinery. That's looking at the refinery there from the city looking back towards East Bradford. Here's another picture of it with East Bradford there in the background.

It had a historical marker about Bradford Oil Refinery:

"One of the oldest refineries in continuous production in the US was founded near here in 1881 by pioneer independent oilmen Robert Childs, Eli Loomis, and William Willis. The original refining capacity was 10 barrels a day. One-hundred twenty-five years later, the refinery processed over 9000 barrels daily, purchasing more than three million barrels of Pennsylvania Grade crude oil annually, most of it from wells within 125 miles."

So then we had to go to McDonald's. And here, in the middle of the McDonald's drive-thru, when the car goes through the drive-thru you come in this side. You go around the well and you come back this side and you go by the windows. I think it's right back there where you get your order. But, anyway, this is the oldest producing well in Bradford. It belongs to a man named Willard Cline, who was a classmate of my dad's. Willard is 92 years old and still active. Here's a little sign he has there by it. "Cline Oil Number 1. Oldest producing oil well in Bradford. Drilled in the early 1870s to a total depth of 1,125 feet from a 38-foot body of Bradford 3rd sand. This well daily produces three-quarters of a barrel, thirty-one-and-a-half-gallons of the world's finest crude oil." That's a pretty darn good well. I mean, three-quarters of a barrel, we produce them for a whole lot less. Sometimes a barrel a week is a good well.

Down we went to the office of Minard Run Oil Company, the oldest continuously operating oil company in the world. Family owned, anyway. It was established by a man who was the Honorable Senator Lewis Emery, in 1875. Lewis Emery had several businesses around Bradford including the refinery, which is part of that Bradford Refinery today. Lewis Emery took on John D. Rockefeller. He believed that the oil industry should be available to everybody, not just Rockefeller. He fought Rockefeller and he instigated building a pipeline out of Bradford to New York City to get the oil out of Bradford so it wouldn't have to go on Rockefeller's railroad. Rockefeller would just keep jacking up the transportation costs until the producer couldn't make a profit and then he'd go under and Rockefeller would buy it for a song and it would all be his. Lewis Emery stopped that from happening in Bradford. Not without some difficulty. He'd go lay his pipeline on the railroad and Rockefeller's guys would come out with a locomotive and blow white steam on the guys.

Next we're going to the Penn Brad Oil Museum in Bradford. I highly recommend it. We have brochures here. We have some for Bolivar Museum and the Pioneer Oil Museum, also. I happen to be president of the Penn Brad Oil Museum so I have to push them some. On the board of the museum, we have Lewis Emery's great-grandson and his great-great-granddaughter. And the great-great-granddaughter is now president of his company. There's our museum. This is the welcome as you come to the door. "Welcome to the Penn Brad Oil Museum. The Bradford Oil Field, discovered in 1871, was the first giant oil field covering a large area of both Pennsylvania and New York. It was the first oil field to produce a billion dollars worth of oil and gained further notoriety as the birthplace of secondary recovery with the advent of water flooding, becoming known as 'the field that lived again,' having produced more oil in its second crop than in the first. It is the mission of the museum to preserve and display the history of the petroleum industry and the [unintelligible], to foster appreciation of our community heritage and to honor the people who contributed to its development. Many of you may either work in the oil industry yourselves or have ancestors who have. Whether they worked on wells in the field, worked in the refinery, drove a truck, worked in an office or in the factory building equipment for the industry, please help us to celebrate our rich heritage."

We actually feature a completely authentic wooden standard rig with a 72-foot derrick. This was what was used to draw the well back in the 1800s and in the early part of it and probably half way through. Some of them are still in use in the Twentieth Century. Inside you can see some of the museum proper. That steam fire engine was actually Lewis Emery's fire engine. There are stories that when Rockefeller's guys blew the live steam at Emery's guys they brought this out and blew it back. I don't know if that's true. We are still trying to determine whether that's actually true. We keep adding to our museum and doing what we can. I fact, we're in the process right now building a central power at the museum.

This is out in our tool house. This is a steam powered or gear powered pumping outfit. Here is what we call a half breed engine, it's a converted steam engine. When the technology was steam engines all over the field, we had several local machine shops that would manufacture gas conversion cylinders and you can make a gas internal combustion engine which is much more efficient and you didn't have to buy the whole engine.

This was the next morning Carol and Pat went to town and Pete and I went up on another of my properties. This is two miles off the public road. Both these wells were drilled around 1910. This one is operated by the central power. Here I am at central power hooking the well on. There's the power. This is a bigger one than the other one has two eccentrics so you can balance two wells on the same side. This one is operated by a six cylinder vertical engine. It's a Waukesha engine.

Then later in the day we went over to Bolivar to the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar. By the way, there were several refiners in Olean. There was a refiner in Eldred. There are refiners in Bolivar. In fact, here I have a can from Bolivar Refinery, Allegheny Motor Oil from Allegheny County. This is a historical marker that was reconditioned back to the Discovery Well in the Allegheny Field in New York State. There's a book that was written by John P. Herrick in 1949 [Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State]. It's a wealth of information. This covers the oil industry in New York State. You wouldn't believe how much New York State had an oil and gas industry in one way or another.

And then there's our fearless leader in front of the Pioneer Oil Museum. In the next photo we'll conclude these. I got a picture of the superintendent of the refinery posing in front of the refinery but I nearly got the photo.

These are some short video clips. I took these last Wednesday as I told you on the property that's been in the family for three generations. Here's the first one. That's a Franklin Valveless gas engine running on natural gas from the oil wells associated gas and this engine was built by Producers Supply Company in Oil City Pennsylvania. The patent date on the engine is 1914. The next one is the central power instead of an enclosed gear box. It's an open gear machine. Next is outside the powerhouse. You see the route line going over to the wells. That's the well I told you was drilled in 1914. This is another well. This is from the power. The camera seemed to pick up noises. I don't really know where they come from. It must be squeaks and rattles. That does it. That's it. So, if anybody has any questions, come and see me. Okay?

Back to:
PRFA Property Rights Conferences PRFA Home Page

© 2018 Property Rights Foundation of America ®
All rights reserved. This material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.