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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

The Black Gold of Lawrence County

******Saturday morning September 23 2023, we will be selling our extra school yearbooks for BTHS, LTHS and some RHHS for only $20! We don't have duplicates of Sumner or St Francisville, sorry, but we do have the great basketball years for both LTHS and BTHS. So come in and see if we have your year! 10:00-2:00


****Also the Cemetery Volunteers will be cleaning tombstones again Saturday Morning 8:00-10:00 at Moffett Cemetery. Please join us and help preserve Lawrence County History one stone at a time. Unless we get some more donations the work on Bell Cemetery will have to cease. Any amount will help; small amounts added together will add up.

The first main Illinois oil field lay in Clark, Crawford, Lawrence and adjoining counties, and was included within a belt about 60 miles long north and south and about 10 miles wide aggregating about 600 square miles. From 1910 to 1921, Lawrence County produced oil in excess of any other county in Illinois, according to the Rock Island Argus, December 26, 1921, (The History of Oil Production in Illinois.)


Oil was discovered on the Cap Lewis farm near Bridgeport, Lawrence County, Illinois, in 1906. One year later there were 587 wells producing oil in the county, including many in and around the town of Petrolia, near the locally famous Hell’s Half Acre.


In 1909, two refineries began processing petroleum products in Lawrenceville; the Central Refining Company, and the Indian Refining Company. By 1909, both refineries were growing rapidly, and the Sun Oil Company had located a skimming plant here.


Several years later the Indian Refining Company purchased the Central Refining Company, growing in 1925 to cover 300 acres and employing over 300 employees. In 1924, the general offices and headquarters of the Indian Refinery in New York were moved to Lawrenceville, relocating over 200 workers and their dependents. (The train of city dwellers was met at the station by the city council and a group of “mounted Indians in full costume.” At that time, the school mascot was an Indian. It was said that several New Yorkers believed their fears of moving to the Wild West had come true and they were afraid to get off the train.)


The Indian Refining Company was, in turn purchased by the Texas Company to acquire the de-waxing patents used in the processing of premium motor oil. The Texas Company was later operated by Texaco, Inc. The Pioneer Chemical Company made petroleum products from the refining waste. The Pioneer later became part of the Witco Group of plants.


The Ohio Oil Company, later renamed the Marathon Oil Company, located in Bridgeport hired hundreds of field workers in the early days of oil production. By 1907, they had 25 teams at work working 24 hours a day every day of the week. In 1954, the Company built a new million- dollar production and pipeline office.


The oil boom and the subsequent influx of population created an unprecedented demand for housing, schools, business services, and entertainment. Oil money built the brick buildings around the downtown square. Beautiful stained --glass windows appeared in country churches. The Bridgeport High School had the only high school course in the state for the purpose of training young men for the Oil Field.


The refinery sponsored a ball team, the Havolines with Mordecai Brown as pitcher and manager, in the 1920s. This was no hometown amateur team. Games with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee American Association were played, and huge crowds for the time watched the games.


A local railroad was built during the early 1900s between Oblong and Bridgeport. The major purpose of this railroad was to serve the oil producing companies in both Crawford and Lawrence Counties by delivering supplies. The line was started in 1909, in Oblong, reached Bridgeport in 1913, and ceased operation in 1916. Officially known as the Oil Belt Traction Company, it was locally referred to as the Pumpkin Vine Railroad because of the crooked tracks. On Sundays, it ran excursions to a small picnic park along the river.


The oil industry certainly influenced the lives of the people who lived and worked here. The entire community mourned the lives of the 26 men who died in the refinery explosion in 1928. Accidents among the field workers were reported frequently.


Money was made and lost by wild cat drillers and lease owners. There was said to be more “horseless carriages” in Lawrence County than in Chicago at the time. Oil royalties from the wells drilled on land too poor to raise a mortgage on, supported the county’s welfare efforts at the Poor Farm where indigent persons resided.


Chevron still sponsors an Old Timers get-together here each summer although the refinery site is now a superfund site. Many people in the county and beyond trace their parents and grandparents’ livelihoods to the oil industry in Lawrence County.



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