The morning of February 17th, 1936, has dawned along the Delaware Valley with relatively mild temperatures as several hundred people make their way along State Route Three-A below Cochecton to witness the highly anticipated event that is to usher out the end of an era.
For fifty-six years, the one hundred and twenty-five foot chimney has towered high above the surrounding landscape; a well-known landmark that had become a highly familiar beacon to river rafts-men, railroaders and highway travelers as they passed through this section of the valley.
The large brick chimney had once belched the exhaust from the eight coal-burning boilers that powered the pumps to push crude oil through four six-inch pipes, part of the Standard Oil Company’s pipeline that fed crude oil from the western Pennsylvania oil fields to the refineries at Bayonne, New Jersey. Since the closing of this operation eleven years earlier, the pumping station at Cochecton has stood idle, the chimney deteriorating into a state of disrepair. With its location being in close proximity to the nearby tracks of the Erie Railroad, the concern of it haphazardly tumbling onto the rails, or worse upon a passing train, has warranted the chimney’s controlled
demolition, set for this February morning….
In an effort to minimize the cost involved with transporting crude oil from the recently discovered oil fields of western New York and Pennsylvania, John Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, during the year of 1879, envisioned establishing a pipe line that would transport crude oil from the operating wells to oil refineries located along the tidewaters of New Jersey, a distance of over three hundred miles, eliminating the extra handling and exuberant rates charged by the railroad company. The proposed pipeline would traverse the Southern Tier portion of New York State, enter the Delaware River valley at Deposit and wind its way along the valley’s hillsides through Delaware and Sullivan counties, roughly following along the route of the Erie Railroad, the railroad company being vital in transporting the material needed for the pipeline’s construction. To ensure the continuous flow of oil over higher elevations along the route, pumping stations would be located approximately every thirty miles. One mile below the little river community of Cochecton, where the mountain stream of Mitchell Creek enters the Delaware River valley, on the lands purchased from the John M Tyler estate, the pumping station was proposed. From here, the large steam-driven pumps would push the oil inland from the Delaware Valley, onto the highlands of interior Sullivan County, by-passing the rugged terrain that the lower portion of the Delaware River passes through above Port Jervis. The pipeline would then descend from these highlands into the Neversink Valley, thirty-one miles away, down onto the valley’s floor where the next pumping station, located at Huguenot, would then continue to push the oil over the Shawankunk Mountain….
The old pumping station property has recently been purchased by Doctor T R Bradley, from Connecticut. Though not in use for the past dozen years, the last building standing was an imposing and impressive structure.
Over four stories in height, the walls of the pump house were totally constructed by brick, the girders and beams made of iron, and the roof of sheet
metal, making the structure fully fireproof. Where the exterior walls met the roof, the brickwork presented a decorative design. Arches graced the appearance of all the windows and entryways, while the windowsills were made of massive pieces of bluestone. A short distance away, behind where the boiler and coal house once stood, the now solitary chimney looms high into the air. To support this height, the smoke-stack’s base measures twelve foot by twelve foot. This massive base is fully needed to support the thirty-seven carloads of brick and untold amount of mortar incorporated into the chimney’s construction….
Throughout the summer and fall of 1880, gangs of men working on the construction of the oil pipeline invaded the western and southern portions of Sullivan County. These work crews, arriving from the upstate oilfield territories on the Eire Railroad, came in waves. First, a gang of twenty-five men armed with double-bladed axes and bush-hooks cut a swath through the trees and brush of forests and fields one rod in width, wide enough to allow teams to haul the pipes along the route. Following close behind was the gang of “grubbers” and “diggers” who were responsible for uprooting obstacles and digging the trench along the sections where the pipe was to be buried. Where the pipeline’s route traversed cultivated fields, the pipe needed to be buried deep enough so as not to be disturbed by the farmer’s plow. However, where the pipeline route sliced through the forests, the pipe was laid on top of the ground. The preparatory work progressed rapidly, the workers often clearing the route as far as two miles a day.
Railroad towns along the Erie’s Delaware Division quickly prospered with the activity.
In early September, sixty men hired-on by the oil company arrived at Callicoon Depot taking up quarters at the Minard House. A like number of workers filled up Dewitt Knapp’s hotel at Cochecton. Railroad yard sidings were stockpiled
with carload after carload of pipe, along with poles and wire needed for the telegraph line designed to follow the pipeline route. Local farmers with their teams went to work for the oil company, drawing the material all along the line, earning as much as four dollars a day. Contracts were signed with farmers and lumbermen for furnishing twenty-two foot long chestnut poles needed for the telegraph line, at a rate of one dollar per pole delivered and ready to be set.
Even with the sudden influx of such a large number of pipeline workers, relatively few problems were reported by local residents, aside from the occasional brawl or petty thievery. C A Hauser’s hotel at Cochecton was the scene of one of the more serious fracases when separate gangs of pipeline workers held a “reception” resulting in the hotel’s barroom being in need of repairs. At Cochecton Center, two pipeline workers were helping themselves to the apples in Peter Bower’s orchard. When confronted by Peter’s son, William, the men refused to leave the orchard and continued to gather apples, ridiculing and threatening the boy. The apple thieves soon learned a painful lesson when William returned, now brandishing a shotgun. The men, seeing their predicament, quickly turned tail to make their escape but not soon enough as William let loose with a single blast, pelting the legs and backsides of the thieves with buckshot. Though the men threatened retaliation, they scrambled onto the highway and hobbled down the road. Nothing more was made about the incident, the apple-thieves apparently were satisfied enough in plucking only one charge of buckshot from their hides….
For the past three days, Fred Cottrell,
the contractor from Honesdale, along with two assistants, has carefully prepared the site for the chimney’s fall. Well experienced within this line of work, Cottrell has had much experience in bringing down such structures.
However, the Cochecton chimney’s demolition poses particular problems due to its location. To the west lie the railroad tracks and Western Union’s telegraph line. To the east is the new State Highway. North of the smokestack stands the remaining structure of the pumping station, the old pump house, while to the south are a barn and smaller buildings scattered about, leaving little space remaining where the tall structure can safely fall to the ground.
Any error in calculations in felling the chimney could result in costly property damage.
Cottrell’s men began the project by undermining the chimney’s footing. Setting off small explosive charges to loosen the strata, dirt and stone were blasted out from beneath the base. The
excavated section was then replaced by a pier made of wooden cribbing, supporting the weight of the smokestack. Next, sections of bricks were carefully removed from the structure, the holes refilled with blocks of wood. All the wood blocking and cribbing was then soaked in kerosene and oil. Three sticks of dynamite were then positioned beneath the weakened base, the detonating wire leading to where the charge would be set off at the Mitchell Creek sluiceway underneath the nearby State Highway. Cottrell and his men were now prepared for the final act, with the hopes that all would go according to plan….
By September, work began in earnest on assembling the pipeline through Sullivan County as twenty-five carloads of pipe lay at the Callicoon Depot yards, with more on the way. The oil company pipe-layers worked their way down from Hancock, piecing together the pipes along the way, entering the county on the highlands of Cherry Ridge, overlooking the valley of the Basket Creek. Each length of pipe was six inches in diameter, with a coarse thread cut on the outside of one end, and on the inside of the other. After the lengths of pipe were laid out along the route, it was inspected to see that the threads were not damaged in transporting the pipes. If a flaw was found, a workman took a file to straighten and correct the damaged thread. Workmen then held one end of the pipe against the pipeline already coupled together. At the opposite end, a jack was used to hoist that section of pipe so it formed a straight line with the assembled pipeline, assuring that the threads would catch correctly. Then sixteen men grabbed the pipe with pincers, tools similar to the cant hooks used to maneuver logs by lumberman, turning the pipe until it was completely screwed onto the main line.
The telegraph wires erected along the route served two purposes. First, a telegraph operator traveled along with the gang of pipe-layers. If men or equipment were needed along the route while the work was in progress, the operator would climb the telegraph pole, attach his battery and clickity-click his message over the wires to the nearest pipeline headquarters. After the project was completed and crude oil began flowing through the pipeline, the telegraph wires were used by pipeline walkers for reporting any problems that were found along the line.
The pipeline route traversed the interior Delaware highlands of the towns of Fremont, Delaware and Cochecton, its route being roughly parallel with the winding course of the Delaware River, crossing the tributaries of Basket Creek, Hankins Creek and Callicoon Creek. The pipeline then reentered the valley of the Delaware River below the village of Old Cochecton, where the pumping
station was to be located. By the end of September, bricklayers, pipe-fitters and laborers arrived at Cochecton to commence work on the station. This influx of over fifty men, coupled with the gang of men already working on the pipeline itself, filled the local hotels, or for that matter any residence capable of providing room and board, with steady boarders. Joseph Page’s farmhouse, situated immediately next to the site of the station, was altered to accommodate thirty of the laborers.
Throughout the fall, the once-vacant lot amidst the farms and woodlands of this rural valley began to take on a more urban, industrial appearance. Two large brick buildings dominated the landscape. The long, shed-like building was the power plant, housing eight, coal-fired boilers, along with the supply of coal. The boilers were exhausted by the tall smokestack attached to the rear of the structure. On the opposite side of the brook that ran through the center of the site, the large L-shaped building housed the massive pumps used to push the crude oil through the pipeline toward the next pump station at Huguenot. Oil pushed down from the Hancock station was fed into a large receiving tank, located across the highway from the plant. Ninety feet in diameter, the tank was made of sheet iron plates, riveted together and had a holding capacity of up to 3,500 gallons. Work was pushed forward at the pump station site despite the harsh winter weather until its completion during the spring of 1881. By now, work on the pipeline also was completed along the lower section of Sullivan County to Orange County, setting the stage for the Standard Oil Company to begin operations pumping oil from Olean to Otisville….
Careful preparations were made by the railroad and telegraph companies to coordinate their schedules with the upcoming demolition of the old pump station chimney. Any slight deviation from the projected fall zone could create problems to both companies so each had crews on hand this morning in case quick repairs were needed to be made. Western Union estimates that any disruption in service upon their trans-continental telegraph lines would result in loses amounting to
$35,000 for each minute service is interrupted. The Erie Railroad has similar concerns, making a careful check on its train schedule to insure no train would be passing through at the time of the chimney’s fall and, in case of any track damage, all trains would be stopped well before coming onto the site. After the passage of the 10:30 fast freight, the time was now at hand for Cottrell and his men to bring down the structure.
Positioned a mere one hundred feet away from the chimney, seeking protection from the blast within the highway culvert, the explosives operator begins the plan’s first step by firing the three sticks of dynamite placed underneath the propped-up chimney base, resulting in a fierce explosion. However, when the cloud of dirt and debris begins to settle and the smoke finally clears
away, the chimney still remains intact. Unsure of the meaning of this, word passes through the horde of spectators gathered nearby that perhaps the Honesdale contractor has met his match and that the old chimney will be too defiant to succumb to demolition so easily….
As might have been expected, the method of transporting crude oil through the pipeline was initially besieged with problems. Above Hancock, during late November of 1880, the oil company set out to test a twenty mile section by running the pipes full with water and test for leaks. An unexpected cold spell settled down from the north, freezing the water solid within the pipes. Though a thaw eventually warmed-up the affected section allowing the company to drain the pipeline, residents along the pipeline’s route became concerned about the damage the freeze-up may have caused.
With the coming of winter, the frozen ground kept the grubbers from digging a ditch to bury the pipe, with long sections of the pipeline lying on top of the ground. Further testing of the pipeline in the middle of December, this time with crude oil, found that the pressurized liquid somehow moved sections of the line, as much as two feet in places Where the line crossed the Basket Creek, in the Town of Fremont, the movement caused pipes to separate, the results being over three hundred barrels of oil flowing into the creek and down to the Delaware River, which according to the Fremont correspondent for the Sullivan County Republican “creating a perfume that was not very pleasant.”
At Deposit, a drain plug worked its way loose from a pipe in the line, allowing crude to flow over the ground for twenty-four hour before it was discovered. The leak had occurred soon after the line walker had passed through, and was not discovered until the next day’s line walker’s passage. The flood of oil spilled onto the fields of the Van Curen farm, where farmer Van Curen had to plow ditches to keep the oil from flooding his buildings. Into the headwaters of a little creek it flowed, the oil-laced water filling the reservoir that supplied water for the Erie’s depot, the Western Hotel and all the families in that section of the village. Private wells were also spoiled as the oil seeped
down into the soil.
With the pipeline not expected to be finished until the following summer, oil flowed during the winter and early spring of 1881 from the oilfields to the receiving tanks at the Hancock pump station, where it was then transferred onto tank cars and rode the rest of its journey to New Jersey over the Erie Railroad. Locomotives would pick up forty-five fully loaded cars at the Hancock station. Due to the possibility that sparks shooting out of the smokestacks of the coal-burning
engines would set off a fire upon one of the oil-filled tank cars, five freight cars were immediately placed behind the engine, ahead of the tankers holding the oil. And the threat was real. In May of 1883, along the line of the Erie Railroad at Howells, Orange County, a tanker car laden with oil took on a spark and was set afire. Eventually, twenty oil cars burned in the resulting spectacular conflagration.
Railroad mishaps, not unusual during normal railroading operations, potentially yielded more serious consequences with the transportation of oil over the rails. By April of 1881, just before the Sullivan County portion of the pipeline was in operation, one hundred and twenty oil cars were being loaded each day onto the Erie Railroad at Hancock. On April 27th, as an oil train was heading
south along the Delaware River at Page’s Cove, below Cochecton, one of the wheels of a car’s truck broke, derailing a portion of the train. Fourteen cars were thrown down over the embankment into the Delaware, spewing the contents from the overturned cars into the river’s current. The oil sheen flowed along the surface of the river until it reached Big Eddy, where it began to accumulate on
top of the eddy’s placid flow. Eventually, the oil became one-half inch thick over the entire length of the eddy.
Sections of the pipeline that were not buried underground, but laid upon the surface, invited mischief. Towards the end of March, 1897, with the pipeline now fully in operation, a leak was discovered along the line by a line walker passing through the Town of Highland, just above Eldred. Telegraphing immediately back to the Cochecton pump station, the pumps were turned off, but not before some three thousand barrels of oil had escaped, winding up in the brook that fed the
large mill pond. The oil accumulated on the pond’s surface to a considerable depth and was dispersed by oil company officials by setting the pond on fire.
Investigating along the pipeline as to the cause of the leak, it was discovered by officials that a hole had been punctured in the pipe, presumably by a bullet fired from a rifle of some miscreant for sport or perhaps revenge….
Though the old pump station chimney remains standing, the blast excavated the remaining material beneath its base. The wooden pier and the wooden blocks were now solely responsible for the chimney’s upright position as Cottrell and his men continue with the second phase of their job. Since the wood has previously been drenched with oil and kerosene, Cottrell now approaches the precariously balanced smokestack and ignites the oil-soaked wood. The blaze resulting from the oil-induced fires begins to spew out plumes of black smoke as the growing fires slowly burn
through the wooden supports. In a few minutes the smoke finds its way into the flue and rises up the stack. The chimney, now in its final moments, once again performs its original purpose as smoke begins to pour out from the top as if purposely mocking those set out to destroy it. But the fires are unrelenting. Slowly the stack begins to lean as the wooden blocks and pier begin to disintegrate into ash by the flames. Finally, unable to support itself, the chimney is pulled down to the ground by its own weight, neatly toppling into a pile of brick and mortar. Much to the relief of the workers and all the officials on the site, the chimney has fallen onto the precise predicted spot. Except for a fine coating of mortar dust resulting from rising dust cloud, the old chimney from the
Cochecton oil pump station has been turned into a pile of rubble with no surrounding damage whatsoever, thanks to the expert planning of Fred Cottrell.
The oil pipeline from the western New York and Pennsylvania oilfields to New Jersey has proven, in spite of early setbacks, a successful venture for Standard Oil Company. Within a year of laying the initial pipeline, work began on laying a second pipeline over the same route. Eventually, four pipelines followed the original course. It was intended to operate for fifteen years, but with the later discovery of new oil fields in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the Midwest, the line continued pumping oil to the New Jersey refineries until 1925. The total capacity of the system was over fifty thousand barrels of oil a day. After the cessation of operations, the pipeline sat idle for four years until 1929, Columbia Gas & Electric Corporation, considered the second largest gas
concern in the world, took over the abandoned route, refitting the lines to carry natural gas.
The Cochecton pump station ceased operations in 1925. When in operation, as many as twenty men were needed to operate the boilers and pumps. With the plant’s closure, large piles of coal on the site were left behind by the oil company. Nearby residents, as well as many folks who traveled from all sections throughout the county, took advantage of stocking up on their coal supply for the
approaching winter by raiding these piles Most of the plant itself was dismantled during the summer of 1926. All of the steel, sheet and scrap metal were scavenged, leaving behind the brick shell of walls from the pump station building and the one hundred and twenty-five foot chimney, the latter destined for one final dramatic moment before being written into the pages of Sullivan
This story of pumping crude oil through this nation’s first major oil pipeline and the Cochecton pump station is now one hundred and thirty years old. Though the project was abandoned forty-five years after its inception, a period still considered long ago by most historical standards, it is nevertheless very much related to current issues publicly debated throughout Sullivan
County. Today, vestiges of the original pipeline route can be traced throughout the county. At
Cochecton, all that is left of the oil pump station are the remnants of brick walls that once housed the massive oil pumps, the site of the boiler house and chimney long abandoned and now overgrown with brush and trees. Over the years, Mitchell Brook has sliced through the site, undermining the remaining foundation and baring some of the original pipes remnants along the brook’s eroded banks.
Now delegated to ruins, stripped of all things of value and vandalized, the pump station remains now stand in mute witness to these long-ago stories, and a reminder that our present is very much part of our past; and that the past can be the key to our future.