History of the Titusville Iron Works

By Staff
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Titusville  Iron Works Co., Titusville, Pa., circa 1910.
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From left, John L. and James Curtis McKinney.
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An advertisement for the J.C. 2-cycle engine, available from 15 to 50 HP from Titusville Iron Works Co.

Titusville Iron Works Co., Titusville, Pa., built J.C. gas engines. Some other products the company built were Olin gas engines, Acme steam engines and boilers, Abel pumping powers, TICO pumping powers and gas separators, J.C. pumping powers, as well as tanks, smokestacks and pump jacks.

The namesake of the J.C. engine was James Curtis McKinney, a Titusville oil millionaire. J.C. and his older brother John L. McKinney were the sons of James and Lydia McKinney of Pittsfield, Pa. The McKinney brothers were not amateur businessmen and were successful oil barons at the time they purchased Titusville Iron Works. Their father was a well-to-do lumberman in Warren County. They learned business methods in boyhood and were fitted by habit and education to manage important enterprises. Their connection with the oil business dated back to the 1860s.

John L. McKinney

John, born 1842, had talent for business that displayed itself in his youth. At 16, he assumed charge of his Father’s accounts, superintending the sale of lumber and farm products for three years. At 19, in the fall of 1861, he drilled his first well, a dry hole south of Franklin, Pa. Two leases on Oil Creek fared better, and in the spring he purchased one-third of a drilling well and lease on the John McClintock farm near Rouseville, Pa. The well was spring-poled 300 feet; horse-power put it to 400, and an engine to 500, at which depth it flowed 600 barrels, lasting two years, lessening slowly and producing enough oil to enrich the owners. This financial windfall allowed John to purchase interests on the Cherry Run oil field that profited him $200,000. In 1864 he leased large tracts of land in Greene County and in 1865 he moved to Philadelphia. The crash of 1867 swept away much of John’s wealth and, in his own words, he began again at the top of the ground.

In 1868 and 1869, with his brother J.C., he drilled at Parker’s Landing in Pleasantville, Pa., operating constantly and managing an agency for the sale of Gibbs & Sterrett Machinery. Success crowded upon him in 1871 and 1873.

The association of McKinney Bros. & Galey was the leader of the Millerstown oil fields. John built an elegant home in Titusville and was an influential citizen of “the Queen City of Oil Dom” for many years. He was president of the Commercial Bank of Titusville and a heavy stockholder in many local industries. John J. McLaurin in his book Sketches in Crude Oil, published in 1898, describes John as “earnest and manly everywhere, steadfast in his friendships, true to his professions, liberal and honorable always.” (I have not as of the time of this writing been able to locate any information concerning the later years and obituary of John McKinney.)

James Curtis McKinney

J.C. was born Nov. 25, 1844, and was educated in the public schools in the vicinity of his father’s home and at the Waterford Academy in Erie County. In the spring of 1861, at the age of 17, he left the academy and engaged with the engineer corps of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. to survey lines southward on the Philadelphia and Erie Railroads. The survey ended at Franklin in 1863, so he left the corps and started a lumberyard at Oil City.

At the age of 19 he knew every branch of the lumber business thoroughly. The following spring, in 1864, J.C. extended his business by establishing another lumberyard at Franklin, where he made his home. On April 16, 1868, he married Agnes Elizabeth Moore of Franklin.

His first oil well was drilled at Foster in 1865 and produced moderately. Several further ventures between 1865 and 1870 included wells on Belle Island and in Pleasantville, and in partnership with his brother John in Franklin. The firm’s operations in Butler County required his personal attention, so he built a house and resided at Millerstown for several years. There, he worked zealously, purchasing blocks of land and drilling a legion of prolific wells.

The wealth gained from these ventures allowed J.C. to purchase and restore the Windsor mansion in Titusville in 1876, which he made his residence and one of the finest homes in the oil regions.

The knowledge stored up on Oil Creek and around Franklin and Pleasantville was of immense benefit to him and his brother. They kept pace with the trends and developments in the oil fields. In 1877, H.L. Taylor, John Satterfield, John Pitcairn and the McKinney brothers formed the partnership known as John L. McKinney & Co. It was controlled and managed by the McKinneys, until the sale of its interests to Standard Oil Co. John and J.C. sold their Ohio lands and wells in 1889 and their Pennsylvania oil properties in 1890, since which period they were associated with Standard Oil in one of its great producing branches, South-Penn Oil Co.

In 1889, J.C., along with John, was one of several investors who purchased Titusville Iron Works Co. The new owners greatly expanded the company and several new buildings were constructed. J.C. was president of the company from 1907 until 1916 when his son Louis took over.

At this time J.C. started another business venture that he pursued by the founding of a bank. In 1917 he founded Titusville Trust Co. and he devoted his last years to the success of this institution.

John Dillon Sr., owner of the Titusville Forge Co., who had been supplying the crankshafts for all of the Titusville Iron Works engines, purchased the company in 1919.

From 1908 until 1924, when John Dillon phased them out, thousands of J.C. gas engines were produced in sizes ranging from 15 to 30 HP, with a 60 HP engine added during the latter years for compressor station duty.

J.C.’s personal interests included a horse farm where he bred Percheron coach horses and thoroughbred racing horses. He was also involved in politics, where he was a successful Jeffersonian democrat turning down his party’s nomination for state treasurer in 1897, and also refusing to accept the nomination for congressman in 1898. He did run for and was elected mayor of Titusville for one term from 1906-1908. In 1920, he allied himself to the republican cause, being out of harmony with the Democratic Party under the then-existing administration. He continued to take an interest in politics until the time of his death.

J.C. also took an interest in good roads and the development of the nation’s highway system, which at the time was in its infancy. He was an advocate of the first brick pavement laid in Titusville; there was bitter opposition to the project, but J.C. insisted it be carried out and he won. So intense was the opposition that J.C. was hanged in effigy, an incident he often recalled with a smile. But he lived to see the day when the improvement was appreciated and also to see Titusville become one of the leading cities in western Pennsylvania, as far as street paving.

J.C. was a contributor to the early road projects in the vicinity of Titusville such as Route 205. On Jan. 11, 1924, he announced subscriptions in improvement of the route of $50,000 for himself, $10,000 for his wife and $5,000 for his son Louis. With these contributions, the improvement of the road was assured. There were many other subscriptions and support from the state and county, but J.C.’s gift furnished the necessary inspiration for the project. The road was finished early in November and was formally opened on Nov. 25, which was J.C.’s 80th birthday. He passed away on Dec. 7.

John McLaurin described the McKinney brothers in this way: “To the McKinneys, men of positive character and strict integrity, the Roman eulogy applies: ‘A pair of noble brothers.'”

Information for this brief review was gleaned from the memorial article in the Titusville Herald, Dec. 8, 1924, and also excerpts from Sketches in Crude Oil, by John J. McLaurin, published in 1898.

Thanks to Bill and Ed Kier of Goshen, Ohio, for their help with information on the article.

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