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Susquehanna Life

Looking Back: Photos and History of the Pump House B&B

Aug 14, 2015 06:14PM ● By Kevin
The history of the Pump House began in 1878, when three ambitious men hatched a plan for a long-distance oil pipeline which would pump oil from eastern Pennsylvania all the way to Williamsport, PA, a journey of over 100 miles. The pipeline, the first of its kind in the world, went on to revolutionize oil transportation and create a thriving oil industry - but that came later. The Pump House’s beginnings were more modest, conceived as an attempt to break the Standard Oil Company’s monopoly on oil which had been held for years by John D. Rockefeller.

After the 1849 gold rush in California came the lesser-known but far more globally influential 1859 oil rush in Pennsylvania. After the first oil well was discovered in Titusville, the oil industry boomed. Men streamed into the state to strike their own oil and get rich from the profits, but by 1878,  John Rockefeller was the only man getting rich. 

To break the Standard Oil Company’s strict monopoly on almost all oil drilling and refining, Bryon Benson, Robert Hopkins, and David McKelvy designed a new and apparently impractical system: a pipeline stretching more than one hundred miles across Pennsylvania, from the eastern oil regions of the state to the city of Williamsport, where the oil could be collected and refined. They named their endeavor the Tide Water Oil Company, hoping that their pipe would eventually stretch all the way to the “tide water” of the eastern seaboard.

The pipeline was a wholly new way of transporting oil. Until then, oil had been carried in barrels loaded onto horse-drawn wagons. Not only was the system time-consuming and labor-intensive, but it was expensive. The only alternative was the railroad companies, many of which were owned by John Rockefeller himself. A pipeline would not only eliminate the expensive teamsters and the monopolistic railroads, but it would increase the speed at which oil could be transported. In only a week, oil pumped directly out of the ground could pass over the Pennsylvania terrain and into the receiving tanks at Williamsport.

John Rockefeller, his Standard Oil Company, and the rest of the world were amazed at the success of the three American entrepreneurs who had destroyed the old tenets of oil transportation and installed a new, cheap, and miraculously efficient way of drilling and carrying oil. Rockefeller attempted to sabotage Tide Water’s efforts many times - by destroying the company’s credit, buying out the independent oil refineries buying Tide Water’s oil, and buying a strip of land across the entire state in an attempt to thwart the new pipeline - but, when his efforts were futile, the Standard Oil Company bought one-third of Tide Water’s stock, giving the Tide Water Oil Company control over more than 10% of the oil market. Eventually, the Tide Water pipeline stretched to Bayonne, NJ, where the oil could be sold at higher prices.

Although the Tide Water Oil Company created on this spot in 1878 no longer exists, this site is one of the only “pump houses” in the country which preserves the original buildings. The Brick Barn once housed steam pumps to pressurize the pipe and keep the oil moving, and the Catawissa Suite behind it served as the telegraph room. The Brick Barn contained boilers the produced the steam to power the pumps, while the Studio Suite functioned as a blacksmith’s workspace. Foremen slept in the Seasons House and in Doug and Marika’s home; oil workers traipsed through the grounds and bathed in the creek to clean the grease and sweat from their skin.

Once, the Tide Water Oil Company’s pumping station housed burly workers, smeared with oil, coal dust, and sweat. Now, the same ground hosts brides-to-be in spotless wedding gowns, enjoying both the beauty of the Pump House’s surroundings and the richness of its history. 

Information and photos provided by Doug Hopkins and Marika Handakas.

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