A little background: In August 1859, along the banks of Oil Creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania, George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake became the first people to use an oil drilling rig. Until then, oil had bubbled up here and there and was used in some way, but never purposely drilled. Bissell and Drake’s success began the oil industry in the United States, replacing whale oil with kerosene. Refineries and storage facilities sprang up for miles along the creek.
But in the first week of June 1892, the western area of Pennsylvania experienced heavy rainfall that culminated in the massive flooding of Oil Creek. On the evening of June 4, the gas works in Titusville flooded. Around midnight, the dam at Spartansburg north of Titusville burst, sending water rushing into the town and polluting it with oil and benzene.
Crowds in the Third Ward of Oil City gathered around 11:30 Sunday morning along the banks and on the bridge near where the Alleghany River and Oil Creek merged. A long bridge separated the Third Ward from the rest of the city.
Having heard of the flood, drowning, and fires in Titusville to the north, people anxiously watched as Oil Creek swelled and overflowed its banks. A murky yellow haze filled the air, which soon turned black with smoke. The first explosion, sparked by a train engine, set in motion a horrendous succession of additional explosions, fire, drowning, heroism, attempted escape into the surrounding hills, and a wind change (God’s miraculous deliverance?) that saved the rest of the town. Even so, houses and businesses were destroyed, people perished or were listed as missing, and others were homeless.
As happens when tragedies strike in our day, people immediately came to the rescue, both physically and financially. A Relief Committee was organized before the fires were extinguished. Funds were raised and makeshift hospitals and shelters established to help the injured and displaced—mostly those from the poorer Third Ward district.
In the end, the final death toll was around 130 (sources differ slightly) with at least 70 in Titusville and the rest in Oil City. Property damage was in the millions of dollars. You’ll find fascinating accounts of the tragedy in the June 6, 1892 Pittsburg Dispatch.
While this was happening, Kit Barnes, the hero in my new novel A Reluctant Melody, traveled from his home in Pittsburgh to open a new ministry to inebriates in a much smaller North Carolina town. While there, he read a snippet of the story in a North Carolina newspaper. Here’s how the news appeared on page two of the June 10th issue of the Charlotte Democrat:
Titusville and Oil City, Pa., and several villages lying between them on the banks of Oil Creek met with a startling calamity on Sunday morning, and great numbers of their inhabitants and much of their property were destroyed by flood and fire.What a bland reporting of an event primed for today’s disaster movie audience!
I don’t know if there is such a thing as climate change sparking many of our natural disasters today. Frankly, I don’t care. What I do know is that God is control in every situation.
Sandra Ardoin writes inspirational historical romance. She’s the author of The Yuletide Angel and A Reluctant Melody. A wife and mom, she’s also a reader, football fan, NASCAR watcher, garden planter, country music listener, antique store prowler. Visit her at www.sandraardoin.com and on the Seriously Write blog. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, and Pinterest. Join her email community to receive occasional updates and a free short story.