Titusville and Oil City, PA Oil Creek Disaster, Jun 1892


Great Loss of Life and Property in the Oil Regions.

A Dam Burst Carries Death to Titusville and Oil City.

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.
The bursting of the huge dam of Thompson & Eldred at Spartensburg, 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.
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 smouldering 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.