To get a comprehensive picture from narrated happenings of the Ten Mile Creek oil boom, the reader should have a clear mental conception of the locale at that time.
The pool covered an area of Ten Mile Creek and most of its tributaries, from some distance above Turkey Foot to below Marshville. Its focal point was Lynchburg, now Maken, a new Post Office and Rail Road Station brought into being by the oil rush.
In midsummer of 1900 one could stand at the depot and count close to forty wells, recently completed or in the process of drilling. More scattered but still extensive drilling operations were in progress throughout the area.
Lynchburg’s outstanding landmark was the Hiram Lynch homestead and general store, situated in a grove of pine tress on the old Northwestern Turnpike, some two hundred yards from Ten Mile Creek in the rear. Directly across the road from the store and extending about a city block westward was a row of temporary frame buildings, occupied by a barber shop, restaurant and several rooming houses. Further on, between the road and the creek, was a machine shop with a small cluster of dwellings housing its employees. From the same point eastward for approximately two blocks was another row of semi permanent houses, the homes of migrant oil workers who dared bring their families with them. One hundred yards up the hill from the store front was the depot.
The various parts of this little community were accessible by typical board walks of the era, and were lighted by giant flames from open gas lights which burned day and night.
Practically every remaining foot of the level valley land was taken up by tents, lean—to shacks, stables and occasionally a more permanent dwelling. There is no official population figure but a conservative estimate would be six hundred of which ninety five per cent would have been adult male. This does not included several hundred more who preferred to live throughout the countryside close to their work.
With the exception of hauling materials, all work continued around the clock seven days a week. Horses were regularly rested at night and except in emergencies, on Sundays.
These are some of the visual aspects but there was also an audio side. Hissing boilers, puffing steam engines, incessant clinking of tool dresser’s hammers, crashing of steel pipe as it unloaded, teamsters shouting at their overloaded horses and the deafening roar when gas was struck are the sounds never to be forgotten.
Overlying both sight and sound was the not unpleasant smells peculiar to this business: exhaust steam, new hemp rope and rubber belting around the rigs, crude oil and raw natural gas practically everywhere.
At Lynchburg the railroad had no room for switching and storing facilities and these had to be located at Wolf Summit. Being on the outer fringe of the pool comparatively few workers chose to live there but it became the main supply base for the entire field. Great stacks of lumber, steel pipe, boilers, engines and countless other types of equipment needed were shipped and stored here.
Slightly to the west of Wolf Summit, at the junction of the turnpike and Sycamore Creek road was another settlement quite appropriately named “What Next?” Its dozen odd buildings quartered brothels, gambling establishments and speakeasies and with the closest law enforcement agency the sheriff in Clarksburg, law and order were nonexistent. During its short lifetime it was the scene of several killings and almost daily brawling. Whether by accident or design, these vices were mainly segregated, keeping the neighboring areas relative clean and peaceful.
This was a fleeting era. As drillings were finished, workers moved on and their ramshackle dwellings disappeared. By midsummer 1902, “What Next” had vanished and Lynchburg was a ghost town. The sturdier buildings remaining empty except for a few maintenance workers needed to keep the leases in operation.
Wolf Summit alone retained a semblance of its heyday for many years to come, supplying the needs of a thriving oil field in production. Incidentally, many young men of that generation became professional oil field workers, quite a few traveling to the four corners of the earth in that capacity.
Another phase of the oil industry was the social impact upon the citizenry. Prior to the discovery of oil they, for the most part, had been honest, hardworking, God fearing farmers. Not many could be classed as wealthy but fewer were extremely poor. But overnight a great change came about. Men who had managed to raise families hoeing corn and other farm work for seventy five cents per day, could now earn two dollars and fifty cents per day as roustabouts for the oil companies. A farmer and team were paid five or six dollars per day, earning in two months more than their former net income for a year. Farming became a lost vocation.
Those fortunate enough to strike high producing wells became wealthy overnight. All these things plus the hordes of irreverent, migrant workers had a temporary stifling effect upon the educational and religious attitude of the natives. But to their everlasting credit, most of them kept their feet on the ground, spent their newly acquired money wisely and went back to their old pursuits to resume a fuller, happier life than it otherwise might have been.
To a youngster of seven, coming from the quiet village of Lumberport to this atmosphere of confusion, every day was exciting. And each day a little bit different from the last, with an occasional outstanding incident adding to the high lights.
In early March, 1900, my father and uncle, later Dr. D.E. Ritter, took over the ownership and management of the Lynch General Store and Post Office. Business was brisk and as all transactions were cash, considerable money accumulated, which was kept in a large steel safe in the store between weekly trips to a Salem bank for deposit. Late in October this same year, the store was burglarized in the night and the safe was blown open by a charge of nitro glycerin. Due to the usual noises in the field, the robbery went unnoticed until morning. Luckily my father had made his regular visit to the bank that day and their monetary losses were light.
Within a few hours a sheriff’s posse with blood hounds was on the scene but the trail was too cold for them to follow. As the Post Office was involved, Federal investigators were on hand in a few days but nothing had been molested in their department and their interest was short lived. At that time a gang of professional safe crackers had been brazenly operating in western Pennsylvania.
A group of detectives and newspaper men came from Pittsburgh, took pictures, searched for clues and gave the incident a big write-up in Sunday’s papers. In their opinion it was the work of experts but they could find no conclusive evidence that would link it with the Pennsylvania operators.
Fires were commonplace. An overheated stove in a crowded tent could render its occupants homeless in a matter of minutes. Frequently lightning would strike a rig and the oil soaked timbers would ignite like powder. No fireworks could equal the spectacle of a rig fully engulfed in fire, its blazing superstructure standing out against a midnight sky not unlike a human skeleton. All would be over within thirty minutes as the timbers came crashing to the ground amid showering sparks and dust.
Wherever the lay of the land permitted oil storage tanks were located far enough from the well to form a fire break. Such was not the case of one near the mouth of Turkey Foot. While the rig was burning and overheated tanks exploded, countless barrels of burning oil ran down the hill and floated on the surface of Ten Mile to well below Lynchburg. Flame and smoke ascended hundreds of feet and the inferno like heat destroyed everything for a great distance on each side of the stream. By this time most of the temporary residents had departed and there was a minimum of property damage, the foot bridge across Ten Mile and a large stable were destroyed but not before all its fifty horses had been evacuated.
Sometime before this, another stable fire probably of human origin, took the lives of one man and twenty horses. It is thought the man died in his sleep but people living several miles distant reported hearing the agonized screams of the poor animals as they perished.
Death by explosion was a daily threat to people in the oil fields. When a well had been drilled to the desired depth, heavy charges of nitroglycerine were gingerly lowered to the bottom and detonated, to fracture the surrounding oil bearing rock. Wagons carrying loaded torpedoes of nitro traveled back and forth between storage depots and the wells. And when they were on the road there was rarely a moment that the lives of one or more families were not endangered in case of accidental explosion. I have a distinct recollection of one wagon which met this fate in a remote area. This fact alone held casualties down to the driver and his wife who habitually accompanied him. The couple, horses and wagon, was completely annihilated and the large circular space surrounding the crater which it blew in the ground was denuded of all vegetation.
A producing well on Grass Run, about two miles above Marshville, was being given a very light booster shot of nitro. Before it reached bottom, an unexpected surge of gas blew it back to the top of the derrick where it exploded. The derrick was demolished and a farmhouse some distance away was severely damaged. The lives of several persons working around the well were miraculously spared through a series of fortunate circumstances. The point of the explosion was some eighty feet in the air. It was a very light charge of nitro and there was no more in the vicinity of the accident. At the time my family was eating our midday meal some five miles from the scene. The table trembled as if in a mild earthquake several seconds ahead of the sound which resembled distant thunder.
Satellite fields continued to develop for several years particularly in the New Creek and Salem areas. Marshville served as a hub for the New Creek leases and Salem was denied the status of an oil town because its larger population and diversified activities enable it to absorb an extensive oil industry in stride.
As noted earlier, horse provided the sole means of transportation for both men and material throughout the oil fields. Ironically, they toiled to nurture a fledgling industry which indirectly was to render the hose obsolete as a draft anima.
Today the site of Lynchburg is almost obliterated by a multi-lane highway. Thousands of high-powered cars and huge trucks from every state in the Union speed by a spot on the old Northwestern Turnpike where this writer, as a young boy, saw his first automobile in the summer of 1902.
In a few short years no living person will have seen the Ten Mile Creek oil boom. And it will be remembered only as our generation knows life of the pioneers who preceded us.