Archive for August 24th, 2009

The Burning of Petroleum Centre aka “Sodom and Gomorrah”

August 24, 2009
Petroleum Centre - Washington St. - 1868 (Image from

Petroleum Centre - Washington St. - 1868 (Image from

Destructive Fire at Petroleum Centre — The Upper Half of the Town in Ashes.

Shortly before midnight Thursday night, the citizens of Petroleum Centre were startled by the cry of fire, and upon going to the stree, flames were seen upon the north side of Washington street, in the vicinity of the Buffalo House, an hotel building, but unoccupied. A pretty stiff breeze was blowing, and before the fire engines, or even many citizens had assembled, the Buffalo House (which was the place at which the conflagration originated) was one sheet of flame, which was swiftly and surely creeping towards the upper end of the town. Those who supposed the fire would be confined to the locality where it started, were soon undeceived, for the wind, which was varying, suddenly changed, and in a few moments the buildings upon the opposite side of the street were in flames, which spread rapidly in a westerly direction.

It then became apparent that nearly the entire western portion of the town would be destroyed, though fortunately the progress of the devouring element was stayed near the place of starting by the efforts of the citizens, who tore down one building, and by hard work prevented any further destruction down the street, or towards the more densely populated portion of the town.

The scene that ensued during the three hours was fearful and baffles description, and though this was the fourth time that the same locality has been burned over, those who have witnessed the previous destruction of property in this vicinity, say that never before was there so little property saved, nor so complete a sweep of everything that would burn, combined with desperate attempts to save at least something from the flames, as upon the present occasion.

The buildings which were of wood, were nearly all old, and of a highly combustible nature and it was but a few moments after the flames had caught before the entire structure was a blaze of flame, from which it was impossible to save anything. Furniture and property of every description was brought out into the street only to be shortly after consumed by the flames from which it was a moment saved.

Several of the buildings were occupied as concert saloons or brothels, and the “soiled doves” were seen fluttering about in the lurid light of the flames, in [dishabille] or resembling Wilke Collins’ “Woman in White,” though their only anxiety seemed to be to save their wardrobes and trunks which was through the kindness of acquaintances generally effected.

The American hotel which stands near the western end of Washington street, )and which has twice before narrowly escaped destruction), was fortunately saved by the aid of wet blankets, and the wind which at this juncture shifted sufficiently to carry the flame across the street and in an opposite direction, and shortly afterwards the fire was arrested near the upper end of town and near Second street.

The following list comprises the names of property owners and the loss, together with insurance, so far as could be ascertained:

W.B. Davis, Petroleum Centre House and furniture, loss $3,500; no insurance.
E.W. Bailey, building, loss $500.
J.W. Thompson, building, loss $1,400; insured for $600.
H.C. Machter, building and stock of groceries, loss $4,100; insured for $2,000.
Delia Yorrick, building and groceries, loss $1,000.
G.R. Kemp, building, loss $800.
Owen Gaffney, building and stock of liquor, loss $5,000; insured for $1,000.
Nellie Robinson, Queen City Hotel and [Maison de Joi(jot?), loss $1,800; no insurance.
J. & M. Barrett, building and liquors, loss unknown.
Sweeney & Collins, liquor store, loss unknown.
Ellen Donnegan, furniture store and pawnbroker’s shop, loss $3,000; insured for $1,800.
M. Souble, building, loss $600.
George King, meat market, loss $1,600; insured for $600.
David Ham‘s building, loss $1500; insured for $1,000.
J.M. Schultz & Co., grocers, building and stock, loss $1,400; insured for $300.
Michael McGee, building and fish market, loss $900.
John Glenn, building and shoe shop, loss $700.
Wm. Lee, building and news room, loss $400.
Mrs. T. Maloney, building, loss $1,000; insured for $500.
Johanna Collins, building, loss $400.
F.W. Barker & Co., stock of groceries, loss $1,700.
Mary Beck, building, loss $300.
W.H. Casey, building, loss $450.
Eliza Jane Riel, building, loss $500.
Mary A. Sargent, building, loss unknown.
Adam Fisher, building, loss $250.
Lizzie Brown, building, loss $300.
Ellen Donnegan, building, loss $400.
E.P. Sweeney, building, loss $600.
L.M. Sternberg, building, loss $1,200.
John Freel, building, loss $600.
Mary M. Smith, two buildings and saloon, loss $1,000.
Michael Freel, building and grocery, loss $500.
W.J. Bennett, building and stock of groceries, loss $900.
Ellen Donnegan, building, loss unknown. [did she have two, or is this a repeat?]
J.F. Hanna, machine shop, loss $4,000; no insurance.
John Ulmer, building, loss $700.
John Marvin, tenant, loss $700 on furniture.
L.A. Davis, building and billiard rooms, loss $1,000; insured for $300.
L.A. Hughes, building and billiard parlors, loss $2,500; insured for $1,200.
H.B. Aldrick, Buffalo House, not occupied.
Louis Riel, bowling alley, loss, $400.
Benj. Sabins, concert hall, loss $900.
E.W. Bailey, building, loss $400.
James Rutherford, hardware store, loss $9,000; insured for $3,000 in Williamsport and Cumberland Valley Companies.
Deckert & Evans, bulding torn down.

In addition to the above list of several small buildings and barn were also destroyed, making a total of about sixty buildings, including one that was pulled down to prevent the spread of the flames. There was comparatively little insurance upon the property destroyed, as will be seen by reference of the value of the property destroyed is $65,000.


Never before in the history of all the towns in the oil region that have suffered at times from the fire fiend, was there so complete destruction as that which marked this last burning. An eye witness says that, when the fire was at its height, the scene was terrible, yet interesting; the roar of the flames, the showers of sparks, the crowd of people trying to save property, the “scarlet women” and their followers dusting out, made, altogether, a scene worthy of Dore’s pencil.

Many of the buildings that were saved were covered with mud, which is about the only good use this peculiar product has ever been put to in the oil region.

The morning after the fire the upper end of Washington street presented a gloomy and desolate appearance, a space of several acres in extent, being covered with burnt and smoking ruins, with charred timbers protruding at short distances, like blackened tombstones. The stoves in most of the buildings were but little injured by the fire, and were seen in every direction upright and apparently ready for use. A safe in Owen Graffney’s liquor store was found in the cellar the following morning and opened but the contents, including seven hundred dollars in greenbacks, was badly burned, though the money has been sent to Washington, where perhaps under the skillful manipulation of the “Government money members” it may yet be made redeemable.

There was a general rush from Titusville yesterday, to the Centre to view the scene of the fire, and upon the return of the four o’clock train one-hundred and  twenty tickets were taken up from the Centre alone, to points up the creek. The fire originated in the Buffalo House, which as previously stated, was unoccupied. It is supposed to have been the work of incendiaries, and strenuous efforts are being made to ferret out the guilty parties. Had the wind been in an opposite direction the best and most densely populated portions of the city would have been destroyed, as it is, however, with a few exceptions, the part “scorched” was of little benefit to the town.

We are indebted to the editors of The Daily Record, and Mr. McWalters of the Central Petroleum company for many facts and figures relating to the fire and losses.

TITUSVILLE MORNING HERALD (Titusville, Pennsylvania) Mar 11, 1871

MR. C.M. MORSE, of Oil City, writes us an explanatory letter concerning his report that characterized Petroleum Centre as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and conveyed the intimation that the inhabitants of that borough had been visited by a fire-fiend as a penalty for their transgressing.

The article was published in the leading editorial column of the other paper, but in the next issue the editor repudiated all responsibility for the libel on “the good people of Petroleum Centre,” and declared that the account was “sent to the office by a private hand, and at so late an hour as to preclude corrections. Mr. Morse asserts that he handed his manuscript to a reporter of the paper, with particular instructions to have it carefully revised (as it had been written hurriedly) and corrected.

This the reporter promised to see to, and fulfilled his pledge, for the article appeared the next morning with various alterations, but still retaining the obnoxious paragraph. Mr. Morse resents the attack upon himself as a very unworthy attempt of the editor to shift the responsibility from his own shoulders by unjustly throwing it upon the reporter. The communication was received at too late an hour for publication, but we have given the material points as a matter of justice to the young gentleman, who has no other medium for his vindication.

TITUSVILLE MORNING HERALD, (Titusville, Pennsylvania) Mar 15, 1871


Here is an interesting link referencing the seedier parts of the Pennsylvania oil region from Petroleum

The California Gold Rush – part 3 – Emigrant Train

August 24, 2009

High Lights of History – The Emigrant Train






Davenport Democrat and Leader (Davenport, Iowa) Jul 27, 1927