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Before gas and oil, petroleum yielded riches in another form

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By Robert B. Van Atta

Published: Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003

Two of the men who figured prominently in area coal and oil development initially made their money with the sale of patent medicines made from early petroleum discoveries in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Reputedly the first person to refine petroleum in America was Samuel Kier (1813-74), a native of Conemaugh Township in southern Indiana County.

His early experience was in helping his father in salt well operation, as well as in canal shipping and boatbuilding locally in the Kiski-Conemaugh river region. The arrival of railroad transportation in the early 1850s doomed canal commerce.

By this time, although involved in a variety of business interests, he bottled the petroleum coming from his father's salt wells and sold it in 1848-49 as a medical "miracle" cure-all, under the name Kier's Rock Oil, for 50 cents a bottle.

It was advertised as a natural remedy for just about everything, including breathing and lung ailments, diarrhea, cholera, piles, burns, skin diseases and deafness, among others. Salesmen traveled throughout Western Pennsylvania selling the oil from painted wagons.

But Kier was able to use only part of the petroleum from the brine, and found that it could be refined as a fuel for lamps and lighting. He also began a small refinery in Pittsburgh to produce carbon oil for lighting from that excess.

As a result, Kier became a quite successful industrialist with these and other enterprises. However, his failure to capitalize on the apparatus he designed by patenting it might have deprived him and his heirs of a major fortune and more recognition.

In 1842, Kier married Nancy Eicher of Greensburg.

Another eventual resident of Pittsburgh, David Hostetter, was born in Lancaster County in 1819, lived much of his life in the city, and died in 1888.

Hostetter inherited the medicine business from his father, a physician, and began to manufacture "Hostetter's Bitters" in 1853. His medicine, which was 47 percent alcohol by volume, became quite popular.

By July of 1863, the Union Army had carloads of it in Gettysburg, ostensibly to cure diarrhea. From a practical standpoint, scared soldiers felt better with a dose of Hostetter's to fortify them.

Sale of these bitters made Hostetter (who assumed the title of doctor) so wealthy that he ultimately owned a large share of a major natural gas company in Pittsburgh, established the Hostetter-Connellsville Coke Co., and was involved in oil, railroads and banks, as well as in financing the Smithfield Street Bridge in the city.

His coke company was sold to Frick, and the community where its mines and operations were located, south of Latrobe, was named for him. Hostetter was second only to William H. Vanderbilt in share of ownership of South Penn Railroad, which never was completed but ultimately became the route of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

This date in history

Farmington post office in Fayette County was established Dec. 14, 1857, and has been active since. There was a post office in Farmington as early as 1841, with Morgan H. Jones as postmaster, and an even earlier one known as Bryant's, from 1830 until 1841, with Henry Van Pelt as postmaster.

Fires on this date included a three-story store and apartment complex in Arona in 1893, many Scottdale buildings in 1907, and the McCrory building in Somerset in 1936.

East McKeesport was incorporated in 1895. Bus service was initiated between Indiana and Punxsutawney in 1925.

Worth noting in connection with the recent column portion on Prohibition was that a day later, Dec. 15, 1923, a major raid of 17 Latrobe hotels, clubs and speakeasies was carried out. Butler and Greensburg state police confiscated enough liquor to fill three large vans.

Railroad trestle gone

The Western Maryland Railroad trestle that ran through Connellsville's West Side, beginning in 1912, is gone. Built to cross the Baltimore & Ohio tracks, the area then was a quite busy coal and coke shipping center.

Activity on that section of the railroad ceased in 1975, and the trestle was partly demolished in 1994. The demolition will enable PennDOT to make improvements on Route 119 in the area.

Foot traffic over the pike

Prior to and long after the establishment of a stagecoach line from Pittsburgh via Greensburg to Philadelphia in 1805, travel on foot was resorted to by many such travelers.

The wagoners who hauled freight built up all along the road a line of what for the times were substantial and comfortable inns, so that the foot traveler could always find a good eating and resting place.

The distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia of 300 miles was usually covered by foot travelers in nine or 10 days, unless the weather interfered. Travel, of course, was not undertaken for pleasure, and nobody took to the road unless compelled or necessary to do so.

There was no change in travel until 1829, when canal passage could be secured. It, however, took four days or more. Stage travel occupied three days.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad opened in late 1852, both stage and canal travel ceased. History does not record the cessation of foot travel, but it was undoubtedly somewhat earlier.

Count not accurate

One of the established histories of Allegheny County, published in 1889, does not think much of an account published a century earlier of Pittsburgh's then quite small population is accurate or realistic. In fact, the book makes fun of the earlier information.

The target was a publication from Ireland, "A Historical Review of North America." That book is quoted as saying "Pittsburgh is a neat, handsome town, containing about 400 houses."

Not much information, but the 1889 history does not agree with it. Says that history, "This book, with its estimates, was probably, like the peddler's razors, 'made to sell,' and was not intended as an authority. Whatever Irishman wrote it must have licked the blarney-stone incessantly. Pittsburgh, in 1789, was neither 'neat' nor 'handsome' and did not contain over one-fourth of 400 homes."

Old Pittsburgh impressions

Some impressions of Pittsburgh in the late 1780s were not very optimistic about the future of the new and growing town.

Arthur Lee, an Indian commissioner, passing through the place in 1784 while it was still a part of Westmoreland County, wrote:

"Pittsburgh is inhabited almost entirely by Scots and Irish, who live in paltry log houses, and are as dirty as in the north of Ireland, or even Scotland. There is a great deal of small trade carried on; the goods being brought at the vast expense of 45 shillings per cwt. from Philadelphia and Baltimore. They take in the shops money, wheat, flour and skins.

"There are in town four attorneys, two doctors and not a priest of any persuasion, nor church, nor chapel. The rivers encroach fast on the town; and to such a degree that, as a gentleman told me, the Allegheny had, within 30 years of his memory carried away 100 yards. The place, I believe, will never be very considerable."

In the summer of 1790, another traveler, John Pope, penned his reaction: "I viewed the fort and neighboring eminences of Pittsburgh, which will one day or another will employ the historic pen as being replete with strange and melancholy events. The town at present is inhabited, with only some few exceptions, by mortals who act as if they were possessed of a charter of exclusive privilege to filch from, annoy, and harass their fellow creatures, particularly the incautious and necessitous; many who have emigrated to various parts of Kentucky can verify this charge. Goods of every description are dearer in Pittsburgh than in Kentucky, which I attribute to the combination of pensioned scoundrels who infest the place."

Mine disaster in 1907

One of the worst coal mining disasters in national history occurred 96 years ago in Westmoreland County, near the Fayette border, when 239 miners lost their lives in an explosion at Darr mine in the village of Jacobs Creek.

That tragedy happened Dec. 19, 1907, at the mine site near the Youghiogheny River. It was the fourth-largest mine toll in the United States in the 20th century. It was exceeded in the number of fatalities by those in Monongah, W.Va., on Dec. 6, 1907 (361 deaths); Dawson, N.M., on Oct. 22, 1913 (263 deaths); and Cherry, Ill., on Nov. 13, 1909 (259 deaths).

Other large tolls in this region included Cheswick, Jan. 5, 1904 (179 deaths); Marianna, Nov. 28, 1908 (154 deaths); and Mather, May 19, 1928 (195 deaths).

Mini-Vignettes

The first coal mines at Wilkinsburg in the 1860s were known as "dog" mines, since dogs were used to draw cars in the generally quite small mines after they were filled with coal. The first large mine in that area opened near Edgewood by Duquesne Coal Co.

In 1913, an Indiana Normal order (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) specified that students who engaged in modern dances such as the Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, and Jelly Fish Wobble, and other "seductive steps" would be expelled.

School teachers at McKeesport a century ago in the fall of 1903 were ordered to wear short skirts or accept responsibility for damage to their clothes from oiled floors. Some objected to wearing "short" skirts and resigned.

A police force was created at Pittsburgh in 1836 to consist of a captain, two lieutenants, and 16 watchmen. By 1868, the then day and night forces were combined into one with a police chief.

Three students were expelled at Madison College at Uniontown in May 1852 because they set fire to a small outhouse at the rear of the then college building.

A muddy July 4 fireworks celebration at Indiana in 1924 mired so many autos that could not get out after the fireworks. They were pulled out the next day.

One stunt used by miners in Fayette County many years ago to forestall theft of lunch cakes was to put Ex-Lax, a laxative with the appearance of chocolate, on the cakes.

The December 1941 start of World War II at Pittsburgh was in dramatic contrast with the August 1945 scene as the war ended with Fifth Avenue filled with a dancing crowd and soldiers, sailors and Marines kissing any girls within reach.

Thirteen private banks and nine incorporated banks were operating at Pittsburgh in 1857.

Fayette Street in Uniontown was laid out in 1824, and originally ended at Redstone Creek until a wagon bridge was built in 1859.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened its first Greensburg store at 101 N. Main St. in September 1932.

Sports history

The late Jimmy Russell, who coached football for 34 years at Donora High beginning in 1931, didn't play high school football. He learned the game at a summer military camp, then became a quarterback at Notre Dame.

When Saltsburg High defeated Laurel Valley in 1962, 13-6, it ended a 37-game losing streak since 1959.

Ben Falcone of Waynesburg College established an NAIA collegiate extra-point record in 1968 of 143 conversions. He kicked eight of nine in that season's finale, a 69-0 win over Lock Haven. Falcone played in high school at Greensburg Central Catholic.

North Union High, now part of Laurel Highlands High, lost its first ever football game in 1917 to Dunbar High, 97-0.

In the first decade of the Pittsburgh City League football, from 1917 until 1927, Allegheny was the dominant school. Since then, it has been Westinghouse. Allegheny, one of the first public schools to have the sport in southwestern Pennsylvania, closed in 1982.

A night game played under regular lighting installed for baseball in 1929 at Charleroi Community Park was a 6-6 tie between Charleroi and Ellsworth highs.

Duquesne University Preparatory School, known as Duquesne Prep, had a varsity football program from 1914 through 1940. Its first team in 1914 won its four games, including a 109-0 victory over Mt. Pleasant Hurst. Its all-time record was 69-60-17.

Brashear, Pittsburgh's newest public high school, began football in 1976.

 

 
 


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