A Mystery of Three Suicides: Oil City
All the names of the people in the following story have been changed. However, the events occurred exactly as reported.
In the early 1850s, a family of Irish immigrants named O’Hara came to a beautiful but curious area of western Pennsylvania where oil bubbled out of the ground and coated the local streams. The area, at the juncture of Oil Creek and the Allegheny River, was known as Cornplanter Township and the oil was considered more a nuisance than anything else, except to the Indians, who used it medicinally. The township was really nothing more than a few farms, a few stores, a forge and some itinerant lumberjacks. The O’Haras opened a hotel for the lumberjacks and acquired extensive farmland.
Then, in 1859, a man named Edwin Drake figured out an organized way to retrieve the oil — by drilling for it, thus inventing the oil well — and madness took over for a time. Soon the hillsides along Oil Creek were studded with wooden oil rigs. All kinds of drifters, tinhorns and fortune seekers descended on the area. Boom towns sprouted overnight, disappeared just as fast, and fortunes were made then lost even faster. And Cornplanter, at the center of it all, was renamed Oil City.
The O’Haras were among the richest families in town before long. Their land, which straddled the Allegheny River, was soaked with oil. In 1863, the Venango County Spectator reported: “We are informed that Michael O’Hara at his eddy below Oil Creek dipped from the river 700 barrels of oil. … Mr. O’Hara’s day’s work amounted to $2000.” It’s likely that oil from O’Hara leases often was sold to Mr. John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland, who was busy trying to corner the market and was much hated by the refiners along Oil Creek whose prices he undercut.
The boom lasted a generation and then began to taper off. The oilmen moved west, leaving only a few small refineries behind — Quaker State, Wolf’s Head, Pennzoil … and soon they, too, moved many of their operations elsewhere, keeping only small corporate headquarters and refineries of Pennsylvania-grade crude in Oil City.
The town has remained virtually unchanged since then, except for the steady trickle of people leaving. The business district is a narrow triangle of brown and gray buildings in the alluvial niche between Oil Creek and the Allegheny River, subject to serious flooding in the spring. The residential areas — mostly polite clapboards with a sprinkling of elegant Victorians — resolutely climb the steep hillsides surrounding the business district. There is one movie theater in town, the Drake. A radio station. A newspaper, the Oil City Derrick. There are two bridges across the Allegheny and one across Oil Creek. It is the kind of town that makes people feel either very safe or very claustrophobic. It is completely enclosed by mountains, far from the superhighways, off the beaten path, forgotten. The two closest cities, Pittsburgh and Erie, are several hours away by car.
Oil City is a conservative town. Even the blue-collar workers vote Republican. The big issue is gun control — a popular local bumper sticker: GOD, GUNS, GUTS MADE THIS COUNTRY GREAT. The most important big event each year is the opening of deer season: schools let out, hunters swarm over the hills and each deer-kill is duly recorded in the local paper. Consequently, Oil City is armed to the teeth and isolated, a garrison of sorts where new ideas tend to dribble in slowly through the mountains. The trappings of 1960s America didn’t arrive until the early 1970s when the Holiday Inn came to town, McDonald’s announced it would build a hamburger stand (joining Kentucky Fried Chicken as the only fast-food franchises in the area), and people began to notice young Tim O’Hara walking around with his long hair.
Oil City’s population had shriveled from approximately 26,000 to 15,000 over the past 50 years and the O’Hara fortune shriveled at the same time. The family lost their last vestiges of wealth when the stock market crashed in 1929. By the time Timothy O’Hara Jr. was born in 1952, the family legacy was a fairy tale. His father, Tim Sr., was a wire editor at the News-Herald over in Franklin. His mother was a fourth-grade teacher. They were placid, refined people who seemed to live their lives stunned by the sudden absence of money.
The chances are that Tim would have gotten into trouble in any case. He was big and goofy, with feet so large he had to order his sneakers special. He had a voice that seemed permanently trapped between adolescence and adulthood, a squeaky voice that was always cracking and was easily mimicked by friends. He was the wise guy in his class: always playing practical jokes, always giggling. He was, for example, the kid who got caught for drawing a picture of a nude woman in a girl’s notebook. His years at Venango Christian High School were like that, more puckish than rebellious, full of bush-league escapades which finally led to his being kicked out for cursing. He finished at Oil City High School and graduated into hanging out along a stretch of Central Avenue that was known in the early 1970s as the Scene.
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