State marker recognizes McDonald's oil heritage
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After McDonald struck oil in 1890, newspaper headlines swung daily between declarations of boom and bust, and the town attracted a motley crew of speculators, suppliers, roustabouts, reporters and day-trippers eager for a taste of the so-called "great excitement."
Pittsburgh society ladies disembarking at the McDonald train station were met with words of warning: Tie up your petticoats or risk grease on your lace.
McDonald was the hub of a 13,000-acre oil field that in 1891 and 1892 gushed the highest levels of oil in the world. Indeed, oil -- black gold, bubbling crude, Pennsylvania tea -- was everywhere in McDonald 120 years ago, joining coal mining and railroading as the main local industries.
A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker commemorating the McDonald Oil Field was unveiled last Thursday along West Lincoln Avenue/Route 980 at the School Bell Plaza in Heritage Park. About 45 people attended the dedication.
The blue-and-gold sign marks the town as a key contributor to the state's highest ever annual oil output in 1891 -- more than 31 million barrels.
The McDonald Oil Field, measuring about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide, was the second largest in terms of size and production in Pennsylvania history, after the Bradford Oil Field in McKean County.
The area covered numerous smaller fields that together extended southwest from around Coraopolis at the western edge of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County to several miles into Washington County, along the way passing under McDonald, a small borough straddling the two counties.
During the three-year oil boom, McDonald saw wooden derricks spring up across the skyline, their bases plunked among homes, shops and churches. The town became populated with people, pipelines, refineries and other apparatus that bring to mind the modern-day natural gas boom.
Tim Thomassy, a former McDonald councilman whose grandparents lived in town during the oil heyday, said the boom brought prestige, prosperity, populace and problems.
His grandmother used to tell him stories about the Cook well fire, which in 1891 was ignited by a spark from a passing train, causing a blaze that raged for a week.
As fortunes were made and lost, Mr. Thomassy said, the local population quickly swelled from about 2,000 to 12,000 people, along with oil- and coal-funded construction and an influx of unlicensed bars.
"We were the biggest community around," he said. "We had the railroad, and we had the initial wells come in. We had more speakeasies than any town in Washington or Allegheny counties."
The new industry also drew journalists, society ladies and curious visitors, as well as business suppliers, skilled machinists, unskilled laborers, horse teamsters, rig hands and other workers, said Kathy Flaherty, a petroleum geologist, oil history hobbyist and author of a journal article on the McDonald field.
The grand scale of oil production in and around McDonald had worldwide impact, with Standard Oil buying crude and building pipelines and William Larimer Mellon shipping the oil to new markets in Europe, she said.
"The McDonald Oil Field story is one of hard work [and] one of opportunity, and as you can see, it was a big deal," Ms. Flaherty said. "You might just say Big Oil started right here."
Entrepreneurs developed the new industry then took their knowledge and skills west to Oklahoma and Texas, she said.
Today, out-of-state descendants of the McDonald boom are returning to Pennsylvania to drill the Marcellus Shale for natural gas.
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said the first Marcellus Shale well was drilled in Mount Pleasant, a Washington County township within the McDonald zip code.
He saw similarities between the early oil industry and the modern Marcellus industry, including the influx of workers and the constant boom-and-bust cycle.
"It creates opportunities and challenges," Mr. White said.
Remembering McDonald's "Great Excitement of 1891" is timely considering the region is amid another energy boom, said Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
"It's a great reminder from history that what goes around comes around," he said.
In 1892, the U.S. was the world's top oil producer, with much coming from Pennsylvania and the McDonald area, a standout in the Appalachian region, Ms. Flaherty said.
Most of the McDonald oil came from sandstone about 2,000 to 2,450 feet below the ground, she said.
Peak production in the McDonald field was 84,300 barrels a day in November 1891, and during a one-year period in 1891 to 1892, the field produced 12 million barrels of oil, she said.
The historical marker says the wells achieving Pennsylvania's highest daily oil production rates were located within three miles of McDonald -- Mevey No. 1 just northwest of town and Mathews No. 1 near Noblestown.
Those two wells together produced enough oil to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool each day, and the Mevey well gushed so hard at first that thousands of barrels of oil flowed into a creek, Ms. Flaherty said.
According to information posted near the historical marker, at least 1,266 oil wells were drilled in the McDonald area from 1890 to 1893, more than 100 inside the one-square-mile borough. At least 1,000 more were drilled in the field during the next 17 years.
The McDonald Oil Field historical marker is the borough's second. The first was installed in 2004 to honor native son Jay Livingston, the composer of songs such as "Silver Bells," "Que Sera, Sera," and the "Mister Ed" and "Bonanza" TV themes.
The borough and the McDonald Area Redevelopment Association split the $1,860 cost of the oil field marker.
Mr. Thomassy said it's important to remember the oil boom.
"It's something we don't want to forget, and we don't want our young generation to forget," he said.
First Published August 23, 2012 5:29 am