14.  Tales of Destruction...Pithole, Oilfield Ghost Town

Incident at Pithole by Scott Canfield

Pithole City was an oil boom town that sprang up on a wooded hillside in Pennsylvania near Titusville, in 1865 at the close of the Civil War.  It went bust just two years later when the oil ran out.  In those two years, Pithole swelled to a population of 15,000, and contained over 60 hotels, theaters, saloons, dance halls and brothels.  Millions of dollars changed hands as fortunes were made and lost.  Shootouts in the streets occurred daily, and murders in the allies nightly.  It rivaled any of the wildest towns the old west had to offer.

Perhaps "Hell Hole" would have been a more appropriate name for this town.  The streets were constantly knee deep in mud mixed with oil.  A visitor once described it as smelling "like a camp full of soldiers with diarrhea", and for good reason; there was little sanitation.  Outhouses, when used, were inadequate and poorly maintained.  Garbage was tossed in the streets, and dead horses and mules smelled to high heaven as they rotted in the brush.  Disease ran rampant.  Drinking water was scarce and sold for half a dollar a cup, and little was available for personal hygiene; surface water was unfit for human use.  Pithole was no place for women and children, although both did come later.

It surely was a sin city with all it's gambling, crime, drinking and prostitution.  And there to provide those services were the likes of the notorious Ben Hogan and his mistress, French Kate.  Ben was a husky stout boxer who traveled about for years entering prize fighting matches.  He was an excellent fighter, never having been defeated, so good that he was ranked amongst the best, and dodged by the champions of the day.  Built like a bull ox with broad shoulders, dark hair, piercing eyes and a handlebar moustache, he could whip or intimidate any opponent.  Kate was a mean calloused red head with years of experience in the prostitution business.  It was even believed that she was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.  Together they ran a successful saloon, gambling den and brothel in Pithole.

To recruit girls for their "rooms of entertainment", they placed ads in newspapers in Buffalo, offering a "position with a private family to some young lady of good character."  Our story deals with one such young lady who applied for a position.

Rebecca was seventeen and living in central New York when she answered the ad by mail, quite innocently believing it to be authentic.  She was instructed to report to work in Pithole.  Upon her arrival there, she found the address and was introduced to her employers--Ben and Kate!  It was not exactly the respectable family she had expected.  The poor girl was made captive and locked in an upstairs room where she refused to cooperate with them.  She was denied food and threatened with starvation unless she joined the staff of "hostesses".  Her rescue is as fantastic as any fiction writer could ever imagine.

The young girl wrote a note explaining her predicament, somehow got an envelope, addressed it to her mother, and threw it out the window.  A passerby found the letter near Kate's restaurant, and this kind hearted stranger paid the postage for the letter's journey to New York.  No small miracle in a lost place like Pithole!

Her mother, receiving the cry for help, hurried to Pithole.  Upon arriving she found Ben Hogan, who told her no such girl was there and rudely forced her into the street.  Tears and pleading were of no use in getting to see her daughter.  The poor mother went to the surrounding authorities who were reluctant to go to Pithole, much less tangle with the notorious Ben Hogan.  At her wits end, she was finally directed to the Honorable Reverend Steadman.  Steadman had previously had no personal dealings with either Ben Hogan or French Kate; they were not members of his congregation, and quite understandably their paths had not crossed socially.

Brother Steadman rounded up three parishioners, all veterans of the civil war, and all four, each armed with a pair of loaded 44 revolvers, paid a call on the notorious Ben Hogan.  True to her colors, French Kate made a hasty departure from the barroom upon their arrival.  Ben at first attempted to brush off the whole story as feminine imagination.  Failing to convince the Parson, he ordered them to leave peaceably.  When this did not work, he made the mistake of trying to evict them; however, unlike the girl's mother, the men stood their ground.

When Hogan reeled about to do battle he found himself staring down the barrels of eight loaded pistols!  With the familiar clicking sound of eight hammers cocking, Ben realized the men meant business.  Even the invincible Ben Hogan was not a man to gamble against such odds.  He simply shrugged his shoulders, led the men upstairs, unlocked the room where the girl was being held, and released her without further ado.

And so goes the story of how good people will respond to evil doing when pushed to the limit.  These details were recorded by the honorable Reverend Steadman himself.

Scott Canfield is a storyteller and writer who resides in Erie, Pennsylvania

An interesting final note to the above story is that Ben Hogan got religion in his later years and went around the country preaching.  He was greatly disappointed that the citizens of the oil regions lacked a proper enthusiasm for his rebirth.

And this Pithole story appeared in Derrick's Hand-Book of Petroleum by The Derrick Publishing Co., Oil City, Pennsylvania, 1898, "Lewis H. Smith, while yet in the heyday of his tenderfoot stage, with no experience worthy of mention, devised improvements in the machinery and fixtures for producing oil that endure to this day.  His first well was No. 129, Holmden farm.  It began in a fussy way, indicating 100 barrels a day or better, but it was short lived.  The pump was not effective.  The torpedo, now so popular, was then unknown in Pithole.  Smith thought any artificial disturbance let off at the proper spot ought to be beneficial, and he had seen too much trackless prairie around him to want to quit just because the well did.  This suggested the idea of a torpedo.

"He never saw a torpedo, yet he planned one, made a mental draft of it and then repaired to the only spot on earth where it occurred to him that the manufacture of such an implement of destruction was possible--Phelps, N.Y.--and the only man, in his opinion, equipped for the task, was a young mechanic apprenticed to the business at the time when Smith was mastering the details of the retail trade, and still in business at the old stand.  Smith applied to him, and the result was a galvanized iron tube four inches in diameter and five feet long.  The firing head, a most unique structure, is substantially the same as that upon which Roberts later obtained letters of patent, consisted of a quartette of gun tubes or nipples fixed in irregular position on the end, upon which a descending weight striking, would cause an explosion, the principle being the same as that of the charge of a gun, which is exploded by contact with the hammer acting upon a nipple provided with a cap charged with a fulminate.  Colonel Roberts, strange to say, followed these principles in his subsequent patent proceedings.  The charge was the next to be provided.  It was not thought that blasting powder could be purchased at Pithole.  The nipples being carefully capped and the caps secured in place by cement, a pound of rifle powder was first introduced to communicate with the nipples; then followed 25 pounds of rock powder, which completed the charge.  To get the machine to Pithole, more than 200 miles distant, was no easy problem.  One way, and about the only one that remained, was to carry it in his arms, a task in no wise calculated to compose delicate nerves.  Mr. Smith set out with his torpedo under his arm, its destructive character carefully concealed by numerous wrappings, as jauntily as possible for a person weighing not more than 130 pounds and conveying a package one-quarter his own weight.  After sundry hair-raising experiences, riding by car and stage coach, he arrived in Pithole with his precious cargo, which by this time had got to pass for a "bunch of maps" and as such was received without question or doubt by the patrons of those early steam car or stage coach routes.  The responsibility for the care and safe passage of this dangerous implement weighed upon Smith with no uncertain pressure.

"The experience was one of a lifetime.  It was such that few men would seek, nor its promoter care to repeat.  Mechanically, the torpedo was a conspicuous success, performing its one function with energy and vigor; yet it did not increase the production, for the well was past all help.  Such is the history of the first torpedo exploded in a Pithole well."

Smith undoubtedly enjoyed telling the above story of the first use of a torpedo at Pithole, sometime in late 1865 or early 1866, embellishing on it to allude to being the original inventor.  But it is well documented that Col. Roberts first conceived the idea of the torpedo in 1863 and fired one in a Titusville oil well on January 21, 1865.  It is hard to believe that Smith failed to hear of the Roberts torpedo success stories only a few miles away.

In later years, Smith organized the Bonanza Oil Co., which later became the Anchor Oil Co., with Smith at its head.  The Anchor Oil Co. passed into the hands of Standard Oil in 1890, at which time Smith permanently retired from the oil fields.  Along the way he was the president of the first oil exchange organized in Titusville, and a member of every oil exchange subsequently erected.  He was president of the New York Petroleum Exchange, and as a pioneer in the use of fuel gas, he organized the Toledo Natural Gas Co. and remained its president until its merger with Northeastern Ohio Natural Gas Company.

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