Olean’s most celebrated industry was petroleum production. Oil was first discovered in North American in 1627 only twelve miles north of the city. It was originally used for medicinal potions, lubricants and as a replacement for whale oil as a heating fuel. From 1865-1930, Olean and its surrounding oil fields was the largest producer of oil in the world, and there wasn’t anyone running a close second. The internal combustion engine in use at the turn of the century created an enormous demand for the refined petroleum product-gasoline.
Our surplus oil was transported via the first oil pipeline ever that ran from Olean to Bayonne, New Jersey. Standard Oil of New Jersey financially supported the oil enterprise of the area and in return accrued an immense fortune. Though never becoming “Rich as the Rockefellors”, several prominent locals became wealthy in the glory years of the “black gold” boom. One of every fours workers was directly or indirectly employed in the petroleum industry.
Oil, Olean’s namesake, gradually diminished after 1930, largely due to the discovery and production of the Oklahoma and Texas fields. The western oil was not as good a grade due to the large, shallower pools. New York fields drilled through hundreds of feet of soil and rock to reach the oil sands. The new fields in the west were less than half as deep and weren’t hampered by rock formation. In 1954, the Socony Oil Company moved from Olean to Ferndale, Washington and an era of Olean history was over. There are still a small number of independent leases and there is still oil in the ground, but even the current high price of oil has not resurrected the excitement of another time.
Information submitted in 2008 to the Bicentennial History of Cattaraugus County
By David Deckman, Bartlett Campus Director and City Historian