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"An Oil Sketch"

Reprint from The Financial Age, New York, a Thrilling Reminiscence

S. G. Bayne of the Seaboard National Bank Narrates His Personal Experience in the Early Days of Clarion County, Pennsylvania

Samuel Bayne, president of National Seaboard Bank, New York, was owner of the second oil well drilled in the United States.  His son-in-law, Alfred Bossom, was a well-known architect whose specialty was designing banks and buildings for the petroleum industry, usually in the form of the skyscraper.  Lord Alfred Bossom was also a member of the British Parliament in both houses and was a good friend of Winston Churchill.

New York, May 22, 1906.

C. R. Watson, Esq., Secretary, Butler, Pa.

Dear Sir:

I have duly received the request of your committee to write an "oil sketch" for a souvenir book commemorative of the oil men's reunion at Conneaut Lake.  I am not sure that I can send anything of interest, but I will make an attempt to bring up something to the memory of the "old guard" connected with the days of "auld lang syne."  There are many of our friends who are familiar with the details of this little story, as they were printed in the papers at the time, but it may interest those who have come into the business since those good old days when oil sold for $5 a barrel in the woods.  The story is a long one if told with all its collateral details, but I have tried to cut it down within the limits of your space, in the hope that this mere synopsis will serve to show your reunion the kind of times and conditions we had in oildom 35 years ago.

I shall begin by saying that I had been operating near Titusville in the early [18]70's, but moved down to Clarion county, Pennsylvania, with the argonauts, when the oil excitement broke loose on the banks of the Clarion river.  I rented Smith Cook's office in St. Petersburg, and made it my headquarters; I was associated with Jonathan Watson, under the firm name of Watson & Bayne.  Oil supplies were then very high and hard to get, and if a contractor could furnish the machinery with casing, tubing, etc., he was sure of a contract at his own figures.

Two very enterprising contractors, whom we will call Clayton and McCabe, because these were not their names, conceived the brilliant idea of putting the Allegheny river between them in their operations, McCabe contracting in Butler county and Clayton in Clarion county.  Their scheme was to steal their supplies from local operators where they were drilling, boat the stuff across the river at night, and each hand it over to the other partner to use in his contracts.  This worked to perfection for a long time, as the victim could never find a trace of the stolen plunder in his neighborhood; and as a consequence, the firm of Clayton & McCabe soon sported fast trotters, with furs and diamonds on the side.  They lit on my pile hard and often, but I could never trace the theft.  I finally passed the hat "'round among the boys," and we raised a fund with which to employ a detective.  McGuire, our detective, was an artist in his line, and he soon ran down the thieves.  Charley Clayton was drilling a well on the picturesque banks of the Clarion river, directly opposite the celebrated ten-acre grove of rhododendrons on the Logue farm.  This patch was never despoiled of its flowers, as it contained the largest settlement of copperhead snakes in the Eastern States.

Our man hung round Clayton's well till the tools were pulled out.  When the jars came up he looked for the maker's name, but found that a pean [sic] hammer had been used to obliterate the name and trade mark on the jars.  This was his cue, and he asked Clayton what firm made the tools; whereupon Charley blushed as red as a lobster and stammered out that he knew nothing about them, as it was Jim McCabe who had furnished them.  We then got a warrant and had both of them arrested.  The gave bail before Squire Bostaph out at his Dutch "kraal," about two miles from the village.

The day was set for the preliminary hearing, and the whole countryside was roused to a pitch of feverish excitement.  Clayton and McCabe had a gang of "bad" men about them, and murders were a weekly occurrence in 'Petersburg those days, so I had to prepare for action.  Watson & Bayne were then drilling a dozen wells, employing forty-eight men, and when the day for the hearing arrived I "shut down" all our wells and hired teams to take the drillers to the Squire's office.  I supplemented the force by getting what men Dan O'Day could spare me from his pile line stations, as he was just starting up the first practical system of pipe lines in the oil country.  There were over fifty men all told, and as only a few of them had revolvers I borrowed the deficit at the hardware stores in Foxburg and Parker's Landing.  This was an imposing body guard, and made a fine showing as we started out for the field of battle.

When we arrived at the Squire's we found the Clayton-McCabe cohorts ensconced in the "office" and lounging on the grass plot in front of the house, with their horses hitched to trees.  They were armed with revolvers and shot-guns, and we had no advantage, as they were nearly a hundred strong.  The old Squire, who was almost an exact prototype of President Paul Kruger in race, courage, and personal appearance, came out of his bed-room and looked us over and quickly made up his mind that if he did not show some nerve there would be trouble on the "Reservation."  Returning to his room, he brought out a loaded double-barreled shotgun, laid it on the table in front of him, and said:

"Gentlemen, if there's going to be any shooting here to-day I proposed to do it myself.  I want you all to drop your weapons on the floor, and the first man who picks one up I'm going to shoot him on the spot."

As the Squire was a man of his word and a celebrated character, we all obeyed his order -- we felt we had to -- and quietly put our "guns" on the floor.

The case was called, and the defendants pleaded "not guilty," and stated that they would prove their innocence at the County Court House with good and reliable witnesses.  The Squire demanded cash bail, and as they had the money with them the matter was soon settled, and we all got ready to leave.  I had a fine old buckskin mare that knew as much as the average man, and could do everything but sign a note.  With her harnessed to the buckboard, I led the procession from the house down the dugout road to Keating's Furnace.  This road ran down the hill at a steep angle, with a low precipice on the left, below which were rocks and tree stumps.  There was room for only one rig on the road, and consequently passing was a delicate operation.  Suddenly I heard warning shouts from my men behind to "look out," and looking round quickly I saw Clayton and McCabe with their team dashing after me at full tilt, evidently intending to force me over the brink on to the rocks.  I waited till the last moment and then, just as they were about to crash into my buckboard, I pulled my wheels up on the bank at the right; my mare understanding the situation, stood stock still, and the pair shot over the precipitous embankment, killing both horses and wrecking their buckboard.  The men, however, miraculously escaped with a few cuts and bruises, which I did not stay to examine, and the incident closed, at least till the trial came off at Clarion.

It took almost a year to reach the case.  During that time I had to "keep in the middle of the road" and travel by daylight only, as the gang gave it out that they would put me away before the trial was reached.  I was obliged, however, on one occasion, to visit Oil City, and thinking it quite safe to return by the night train, I boarded it.  As I neared Foxburg I took the precaution to walk through the cars and in the last seat of the last car I saw Clayton and McCabe, trying to hide themselves.  They had followed me from Oil City and had planned to catch me on the walk of three miles from Foxburg to 'Petersburg.  I knew there was a siding on the track at a place called Fullerton, about two miles this side of Foxburg, where there was an iron receiving tank and a telegraph operator's office.  I quickly found the train conductor, and urged him to stop at the siding and let me off.  I told him I had good reasons for making the request, and that I would drop off before the train came to a standstill.  He pulled his bell, I landed safely on the platform, and the train went on without stopping.  I knew the telegraph operator, and borrowing his revolver, I set out on the path that led through the woods to 'Petersburg.

St. Petersburg during the oil excitement was lit all night by natural gas, and none of the public places there closed, as the drillers coming off their "tours" at midnight kept things moving till daylight; so when I walked into the hotel at three a.m. it was crowded, and there I found Clayton and McCabe ahead of me.  I stepped up to them with a bold front, and said:  "Boys, won't you take a drink after your long walk?"

Clayton replied, "No, sir; the wine's on us, and you can have the best in the house at our expense on this occasion."

And so the second chapter of the incident was closed.

At the trial I employed the late Judge James Campbell as my counsel, and the enemy retained Bill Corbett, a celebrated criminal lawyer, now also dead.  Judge Trunkey, late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, presided.  The defense was so ridiculous that the Judge practically took the case away from the jury; it was that I had sold Clayton & McCabe the jars at a low price under a bond of secrecy, and then had them arrested for the purpose of blackmailing them under the pretense that they had stolen the tools.

An absurd incident occurred during the trial.  Clarion was a new oil field, and the jurors knew nothing at all about the oil business.  The word "jars" was in constant use, and the foreman in order to distinguish himself, jumped up and said:  "Your Honor, Mr. Bayne has not told this jury what kind of fruit was in the jars."

The Judge, in convulsions of laughter, replied:  Mr. Foreman, the steel jars in question are lying out on the Court House green, and if the jury will go out and bring them into court, we shall all be able to see what they are like."

They were not prepared to see an enormous steel tool, but eight of them got some cross-bars and by a supreme effort dragged the jars into the court room.  As they were lowering them to the floor, the foreman caught his finger between the sharp steel links and had it nipped off, and the case was stopped till a surgeon had dressed his hand.

Clayton was finally found guilty, and McCabe escaped.

The calendar being crowded, court was again held after supper and Clayton was to be sentenced at the evening session.  I went over to the Loomis House to get my supper, and after I had finished I went up to my room to avoid the mob, but I had hardly lit a cigar when I was obliged to answer a knock at the door.  What was my surprise to find Lawyer Corbett with Mrs. Clayton and nine children in the hall, the latter ranging from a babe in arms to a lad of fourteen.  (Had our worthy President been there the scene would have de-lighted him, and he would undoubtedly have extended a helping hand.)

I invited them in and asked what they wanted, whereupon most of the children and Mrs. Clayton began to cry copiously.  Between sobs she explained that if Charley, her husband, was sent to the penitentiary for a term they would starve till he got out.  I asked what she wanted me to do, and then Mr. Corbett suggested that I appeal to the Court for a commutation of the long sentence in the penitentiary to imprisonment for one year in the county jail.  I agreed to do this.

When I adjourned to the Court House I found it crowded.  It was insisted that I should address the Court personally.  This was rather hard on me and I had a bad attack of stage fright, for at that time I was only twenty-five, but I managed to enlist the sympathies of Judge Trunkey, and Clayton was sentenced to a year in the county jail.  After it was all over an enthusiastic crowd tried to carry me to the hotel on their shoulders, but I escaped with disheveled clothing.

One might suppose that this would end the tale, but it doesn't.  The Claytons were popular idols that night in Clarion.  They had got out of a tight place, and Mrs. Clayton had no difficulty in persuading Sheriff Beck to allow her to take to her husband in his cell a large basket of choice food, beer and cigars, as a sort of cocktail before his long sojourn in the "stone jug."  But the jailers missed Charley in the morning.  His wife had filled the basket with burglar's tools, a line and some large spikes, topped off with bananas and apples.  Clayton managed to cut the bars of his cell during the night, drove the spikes into the unpointed joints of the old jail wall (which he had counted on being able to do), and with the aid of these and the line, dropped on the grass on the other side and regained his liberty long before the sun was up.  Being an expert woodsman in perfect training, who carried his six feet four without an effort, he had no difficulty in making his way through the woods to the Ohio river, where he obtained a job on a raft bound for New Orleans.  It was reported afterward that he had a quarrel on the raft, and fearing he had killed his man, he jumped overboard and swam ashore somewhere below Memphis.  Some time after this he arranged with his former partner, McCabe, to meet him at night at a certain selected point in Turkey run, Clarion county, to have a settlement of their contracting business.  They met there, and with the aid of a crude oil derrick lamp and a large pine stump for a table, adjusted their affairs.  It was a strenuous settlement, as Clayton afterwards explained that each stuck his bowie knife into the stump beside them as an evidence of good faith.

Nothing was heard of either of the men for some time after that, but one moonlight night as I was returning home on horseback through a belt of woods on the Heeter farm, a horseman rode up behind me.  It was Charley Clayton.  I thought my time had come, as I was not armed, but he said:

"Don't be alarmed, Mr. Bayne; I'm the last man in the world to hurt you.  But I want to ask you a question:  I know you can have me arrested for breaking jail, but will you do it, or will you give me a chance to start life again and behave myself?"

I gave him my word that I would not cause him any annoyance, and in shaking hands with me he said:  "If they ever steal anything from you again let me know it and I will either find the stuff or pay its value."

Clayton afterward made a snug fortune in the oil business, and became a quiet and respected citizen.

Donated by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.and transcribed by Billie McNamara.

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