Upstart Oilman

06.1.2006 | George Zucker | Cultural Affairs | 2 Comments


It was a good day to start a newspaper in Titusville, Pa., America’s first oil capital. The fledgling industry was faring well, despite some early setbacks for a man named Getty. And then there was that uproar over another promising local oilman who killed President Abraham Lincoln.
In other news: Jim McCune’s barn burned down. A runaway horse upset its wagon on Franklin Street. Ground was broken for the Morey Farm Hotel. Everyone was talking about the great strawberry festival. And a swell organ, shipped all the way from Boston, “was awaiting its introduction to sacred melody at the new First Presbyterian Church of Titusville.”

But the big news that day was the source of all these divers and worthy tidings – the debut edition of The Titusville Morning Herald, a four-page broadsheet launched with lofty purpose in the heart of this prosperous oil town. It was Wednesday, June 14, 1865 – just two months to the day after a local oilman, John Wilkes Booth, gunned down President Lincoln.

Business was booming. There were 138 guests registered at the five hotels in Titusville, all duly chronicled in the new journal with nary a Mr. and Mrs. John Smith in the lot. Besides fires and frightened horses, readers learned a man named Getty was having trouble with his first oil well. A story buried on an inside page disclosed that for two days, Getty’s initial well had produced a respectable 130 barrels daily until the good flow was slowed to a trickle by a mysterious accident. The story offered the curious reader no details.

But in a statement that would prove historically astute, The Morning Herald said work on the stalled Getty operation “will be commenced very soon and every confidence is had in its turning out a good well.”

The would-be Gettys of the world had flocked to Titusville since 1859, when a retired railroad conductor, Edwin Drake, 40, drilled the world’s first commercial oil well there and struck it rich. Drake’s discovery touched off an oil boom that made Titusville the hub of the U.S. oil region. In the next decade, oil production in western Pennsylvania would exceed 4 million barrels.

And so The Titusville Morning Herald set forth in 1865 to be a good and true record of petroleum news. One read within its pages about the incredible successes at Wild Cat Run, a new oil field 11 miles down Oil Creek from town. The newspaper’s Wild Cat correspondent reported the area was getting “a due share of attention because oil has been found in every well sunk and in sufficient quantities to pay for working.” Hence the oilman’s term: wildcat well.

The young oil industry was rife with intrigue. But in the spare journalistic style of the day, this was left to readers of The Morning Herald to glean for themselves. No big headlines pointed the way. In the first edition, for example, a fascinating historical nugget awaited the diligent reader under a one-column heading, “Oil News.” The lead item was about the Homestead well on the Hyner farm, reputed to be pumping 500 barrels a day as “probably the most productive oil well in Pennsylvania.”

“The owners of the well are Boston parties,” the story said, saving the real news for last. “Their property consists of 25 acres in fee of the Hyner farm. John Wilkes Booth purchased one-thirteenth interest in the territory in August 1864. The price of the entire interest was then $15,000.” The story concluded with a startling revelation, but left readers hungry for details: “We are credibly informed that this Homestead well in which Booth was interested was destroyed by fire on the day he assassinated President Lincoln.”

Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, while watching a play with his wife at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Booth, 27, broke an ankle in a leap to the stage from the presidential box, and was overtaken 12 days later on April 26 in a barn near Bowling Green, Va., where he was fatally shot.

Soon after Booth’s funeral, his older brother, Edwin Thomas Booth, 28, an actor of some repute, wrote a letter to fellow Masons in New York, thanking them for their expressions of condolences. The debut edition of the Titusville Morning Herald published the letter in full, given John Wilkes Booth’s local celebrity as a promising oilman.


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