Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fire Rode the Flood: Disaster in the Oil Region

A boy sits among the debris in Titusville
For most of May and the early part of June in 1892, Northwestern Pennsylvania was soaked in a seemingly endless period of rain which culminated in four days of torrential downpours that devastated the entire region. This unprecedented act of nature wreaked havoc for area residents making roads and bridges impassable. In the early morning hours of June 5th, however, the situation turned catastrophic for those in Titusville and Oil City, and the aftermath would produce scenes reminiscent of the great tragedy in Johnstown just a few years earlier. The following dispatch filed on the 6th of June captures the highlights of this horrific event.


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The oil regions of Pennsylvania have been visited by a disaster of fire and water that is only eclipsed in the history of that country by the memorable flood at Johnstown just three years ago. On the day after the calamity it was known that at least eighty persons were drowned or burned to death. Estimates of the loss of life increased, hour by hour, and it was thought that the death roll might swell to from 150 to 200, if not more.

A dam seven miles above Titusville gave way in the night. Oil tanks were swept away, the stream leaped its banks, and bearing on its back a widespread layer of oil, dashed into Titusville a roaring, tumbling mass of flame. There was a terrible stampede. Scores of persons were swept away in an effort to find safety. One-third of the town was burned, and at 10 o'clock that night forty bodies had been recovered. The scenes of the night in Titusville were repeated on perhaps even a larger scale at Oil City, eighteen miles below. The damage to property in Titusville and Oil City, and the towns along the creek between those cities, amounted to millions of dollars, and appeals for help have been made to the country at large.

For nearly a month it had been raining throughout Western and Northern Pennsylvania almost incessantly, and for the three or four days before the disaster the downpour in the devastated regions had been very heavy. The constant rains had converted all the small streams into raging torrents, so that when the cloudburst came the streams were soon beyond their boundaries and the great body of water came sweeping down Oil Creek to Titusville, which is eighteen miles south of its source.

A dispatch from Titusville tells the following pitiful story: Flood and fire have wiped out fully one-third of this town, and at least two score of human lives have been miserably lost amidst horror and destruction.

A rendition of the Spartansburg dam after it broke
The bursting of the huge dam of Thompson & Eldred at Spartansburg, seven miles from Titusville, at midnight, loosed a lake one and a half miles in length by one-quarter in breadth, the waters of which came rushing down, swelling the historic Oil Creek to a raging torrent, which overran nearly half this town with resistless force, sweeping many of the smaller buildings and scores of people away down the valley. Many of the latter reached the shore farther down, but at least seventy-five were undoubtedly lost.

The waters of Oil Creek rushed through the streets in the lower part of the city with resistless force. From housetops, windows and driftwood piles came wails and screams of anguish and distress from the helpless victims, all imploring aid. Brave men with boats and ropes battled against the terrific current, and hundreds of the captives were brought safely to land.

Fully 100 persons of all ages were carried down with the flood. Five persons, all males, were seen to perish while grasping a piece of timber. Just as the thousands of spectators who were looking on with bated breath, unable to render the slightest assistance, were led to believe that the sufferers would reach land, a neighboring tank of burning oil exploded in close proximity, and in a moment the men were enveloped in flames, and death came speedily to relieve their sufferings. Their bodies were at once swallowed in the raging waters.

Immediately a streak of flame fully 200 feet high pierced the inky darkness and threw a glaring light over the angry waters. At once the cry rang out that the Crescent Oil Refinery Company, owned by Schwartz & Co., close to the north bank of the east end was on fire.

Woods Refinery in ruins after the flood's passing
Never before did a fire seem to spread so rapidly, and in less than three minutes from the time the explosion was heard the vast plant was aflame. Then it was that pandemonium seemed to break loose and terror reigned. Thousands of persons rushed pell mell through the streets, tumbling over and knocking each other down in their endeavors to escape from what they appeared to imagine was the crack of doom. The bright light thrown on the surroundings revealed a truly appalling sight. On the roofs and in the windows of the upper stories of most of the houses in the flooded districts appeared men, women and children dressed mostly in night clothes, and all piteously appealing for aid.

Clinging to the driftwood, timbers and other debris they were borne onward down the stream were scores of human beings, their white and terror stricken faces and desperate struggles and cries for aid combining to create impressions never to be forgotten. About one hour from the time the Crescent Works took fire another alarm was sounded. Oil on the creek, spilled by the water overturning a tank located some distance up stream, had taken fire, and the expanse of creek for a number of acres square was all a solid blaze, and the sky was filled with dense and pitchy clouds of smoke arising from the smoldering ruins of refineries, cooper shops, furniture factories, radiator works, hotels, railroad warehouses, cars and dwellings.

The illuminating gas works, the electric light plant, the water works are all under water, while the natural gas mains had been turned off at Oil City. This leaves Titusville without water, fuel, or light, at least from the sources from which those necessities have been accustomed to come.

Parents and children stood by without the power to aid one another's struggles against the clutches of the flood until eventually they went down to rise no more. As sad and as sickening scenes as occurred in the valley of the Conemaugh three years ago were repeated, while thousands looked on unable to avert them.

One father is a maniac over the loss of his whole family, a wife and seven children, one a babe three days old. A brother was rescued from a burning building, where he was forced to leave a sister, her husband, and two children to perish.

Titusville street gullies created by the flood's force
Fully one-third of the business and residence portion of Titusville is in ruins. The terrible flood rushed through the streets. Brave men with ropes tied about their waists breasted the terrible current rescuing the unfortunates who patiently awaited their return. A little four year-old boy, just brought to shore from the wreck of a handsome residence was placed in the hands of friends. When asked where his parents were he replied with a sob, “Papa and mamma both drowned.”

Oil Creek was swollen to 500 times its natural size and reached from one hillside to the other, presenting an appalling picture. Floating swiftly by on its bosom were all sorts, manners, and kinds of animate and inanimate objects -- tanks, stills with the steam in them and blowing-off house, barns, horses, cows, chickens รข€“ everything almost being borne onward with a rush.

Clinging to various objects, such as driftwood, pieces of boards, timbers and any other object they could lay hands on, were scores of human beings, their white and terror stricken countenances, desperate struggles, and plaintive soul piercing cries for aid all combined to create impressions in the minds of the beholders never to be forgotten.

The undertaking establishments of Davidson and McNitt have been turned into temporary morgues. With the exception of the bodies of seven Hebrews and two children, all the bodies were taken there as fast as they were brought from the water.

Most of the bodies bear evidence of having met death from burning oil, many of them burned almost beyond recognition and several of them in such a terrible manner as to leave the bodies nothing but blackened crisps, entirely without the least semblance of the human form. One woman, with a babe closely clasped to her breast, was burnt to a crisp. Another woman found burned had a prematurely-born babe by her side.

No sooner was the true state of affairs apparent to the citizens than a meeting was called and over $2,500 in cash contributed for the immediate relief of the sufferers. Committees were formed and the Rouse Armory turned into a vast hospital and sleeping and eating house. No less than 100 homeless people were cared for. The loss in the country by washouts and loss of bridges will be enormous. There is not a county or township bridge for many miles that is not washed away, and the roads in every direction are nearly impassable.

Washington Street after the flood in Titusville
The above harrowing scenes were repeated on an even more dreadful scale at Oil City, eighteen miles below Titusville, as told by the following dispatches from the ill-fated city: At 11:30 o'clock in the forenoon a large proportion of the population of the city was distributed along the banks and bridges of the Allegheny River and Oil Creek watching the rise of the flood in both streams, the chief cause of the rise of the latter being due to the cloudburst above Titusville, which resulted in the loss of many lives in that city.

At the time mentioned an ominous covering of oil made its appearance on the crest of the flood pouring down the Oil Creek Valley, and the dangerous foreboding waves of gas from distillate and benzene could be seen above the surface of the stream, which, at the bridge, is about 100 yards wide. People began slowly to fall back from the bridges and the creek.

Hardly had they began to do so when an explosion was heard up the stream, which was rapidly followed by two others, and quick as a flash of lightning the creek for a distance of two miles was filled with an awful mass of roaring flames and billows of smoke that rolled high above the creek and river hills.

Oil City if bounded on all sides by steep hills. Oil Creek comes down the valley from the north, and just before its junction here with the Allegheny is crossed by a bridge to the portion of the city embraced in the Third Ward, which lies along the west bank of the creek and the north bank of the river. Almost all that portion of the town was on fire within three minutes from the time of the explosion, and at the time this dispatch was sent no one knows how many of the inhabitants were lying dead in the ruins of their homes.

Painting depicting the raging fire in the water at Oil City
An eye witness at the time of the first explosion stood at the east end of the bridge. Almost as quickly as the words can be written fully 5000 persons in that portion of the town were on the streets, wild with terror, rushing to the hills. Men forgot that they were men, and scores of men, women, and children were knocked down and trampled upon both by horses and persons in the mad flight for safety.

Just as this frantic throng had started up Centre street a second explosion occurred, knocking many people down, shattering the windows in the main part of the town, and almost transforming the day to night with an immense covering of smoke. Hundreds thought the day of judgment had come and many prayers were heard mingled with moans and lamentations. The heat was intense, and the awful spectacle presented to the panic stricken people was that of a cloudburst of fire, bordered and over-capped by a great canopy of dense black smoke.

It was no wonder that people wept and fainted, leaving everything behind them and ran or were helped to the hills. And after they were out of danger, and even before it, came the anxiety and suspense regarding relatives and friends who had been along the creek watching the flood when the avalanche of flame came. The flood in the Oil Creek Valley had inundated the upper portion of the town, flooding from fifty to seventy-five houses on North Seneca Street. Most of the inmates reached places of safety by the use of boats or by swimming and wading, but some of them were yet in the upper stories or in the water when the fire came, and their fate was quickly sealed. Some of them were seen to jump into the water to escape death in the flames. From the remnants of the only building remaining in the waste after the flood was over three persons were removed in a boat severely burned, but alive, namely Mrs. Hawk and daughter and Mr. Hassenfritz.

The distillate and benzene on the creek came from a tank lifted by the flood, and is supposed to have been ignited by a spark from an engine on the Lake Shore road, just above the tunnel at the northern part of the city. The fire shot up the creek as well as down, and several tanks were set on fire up the creek. The Bellevue Hotel, the Petroleum House, the Oil City barrel factory, the new building of the Oil City tube works, the big furniture and undertaking establishment of G. Paul & Sons, and probably 100 other dwelling house have been totally destroyed.

Meadville, Penn., was swept by the worst flood in its history. A midday rain of great volume swelled every stream bank full, and the storm which followed in the evening brought the flood. In Meadville, Mill Run overflowed its banks and swept the whole business portion of the city, demolishing a dozen or more buildings and entailing a total loss of $150,000, of which $50,000 is to the streets. The loss throughout the country cannot be estimated now. Bridges were washed away in every direction, leaving scarcely passable roads in the country. The damage to growing crops is heavy.

Crew of men pose next to Titusville's steam-powered fire hose pumper
Sidewalks are carried away and the roads in places gullied from four to six feet deep. Nearly every basement in the business part of the city was flooded and also many of the stores. The loss on stock to merchants is heavy. It is safe to say that the loss throughout the city will reach $50,000. The storm was general throughout that locality.

The property loss will reach far into the millions. At Titusville the loss is estimated at $1,500,000: Oil City, $1,500,000; Corry, $60,000; Meadville, $150,000, and surrounding country probably a million more. Of the devastated cities Titusville has a population of 10,000 and Oil City 12,000. Oil Creek rises in the north part of Crawford County and flows in a general southerly direction to Titusville, and from there almost due north to the Allegheny River at Oil City. Just below Titusville it is joined by East Oil or Pine Creek. Between Titusville and Oil City there are nine little hamlets where oil wells have been sunk which have attained the dignity of Post Offices. Altogether these hamlets have a population of about 2,000. The eighteen miles between Titusville and Oil City probably represent a population of from 40,000 to 45,000.

Later Details

The loss of life and destruction of property in Oil Creek Valley, Penn., were far greater than was stated in the first reports. At Oil City sixty-seven bodies were recovered in one day, and it was believed that not less than 150 persons perished by flood and fire. At Titusville fifty-five bodies were found in the ruins, and there was every reason to believe that many were washed away and will be recovered when the water recedes. The latest estimate of the total loss of life placed the number at 350.

Calls for financial help are made by both cities, and a generous response has already been received. Several hundred thousand dollars at least will be needed. One-third of Titusville has been destroyed by the combined horrors of fire and flood, and $1,000,000 will not cover the property loss. It was impossible at the time this dispatch was received to estimate the loss of life and property in the Oil Creek Valley, outside of Titusville and Oil City. Twenty-nine miles of the creek banks on either side were laid waste.

Originally published in The Cranbury Press, New Jersey, June 10, 1892


Photos Credits:

- Drake's Well Museum
- Venango County Historical Society
- Pittsburgh Gazette (drawings)
- New York Public Library


Note: More on the 1892 flood will be published in the coming months.

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