St. Petersburg Borough (Chap. 69)


edited by A. J. Davis, 1887



By C. F. McNutt.

transcribed by
Jae Brown

THE land now included within the limits of the borough of St. Petersburg, in Clarion county, Pennsylvania, was granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by letters patent under the great seal of the State, in the year 1794 to Jared Ingersoll, John Adlum, Alexander James Dallas, Charles Swift, and Benjamin Chew.  They afterward sold it to Richard Peters, of Philadelphia.  He sold it to Daniel Ashbaugh, Daniel Snyder, and Mr. Moyer.  By and by the place had several dwellings, and began to have the appearance of a village.  It was then called Petersburg, in honor of judge Peters, former owner of the land.  This name it retained until the post-office was established in 1862, when it was changed to St. Petersburg, to distinguish it from another post-office in the State.  The village is situated on the P. and W. railroad, about two miles east of Foxburg, and was a part of Richland township until February, 1872, when by a decree of the Court of Clarion county, it became a borough.  The court appointed Barney Vensel, judge, and Nelson Vensel and Daniel Whitling, inspectors, to hold the first election in the borough on the 23d day of February, 1872.  The following borough officers were elected at that time: Burgess, Barney Vensel; councilmen, Nelson Vensel, G. H. Furrel, Joel Fink, Daniel Whitling, and Charles Wilton; school directors, Elias Ritts, M. C. Booth, Joel Fink, D. S. Herron, and Mr. Dittman; justices of the peace, William Steffe and C. Reichard; poor overseers, J. Johnson and Mr. Wilcox; constable, Charles Sipler; judge of election, Till Jackson.  D. S. Herron, Joel Fink, and C. Wilton drafted the borough ordinances.

First Settlers. -- The first settler in what is now included within the limits of St. Petersburg borough, was Daniel Snyder, who came from Westmoreland county and built a log house in the northeastern part of the borough in 1820.  He followed farming here until 1843, when he sold his place to Henry Steiner, who afterwards sold it to John Boam.  Philip Foust bought it from Boam in 1847.  Daniel Ashbaugh and Mr. Moyer settled near here soon after Mr. Snyder came.

In 1836 Charles Sipler came from Allentown and settled where Fox's mansion now stands, and in 1843 came to St. Petersburg, where he still lives.  He is a stone mason by trade, but also followed farming and lumbering during part of his time.

His mother, Catharine Sipler, bought four acres of land in what is now the borough, and erected thereon the first hotel in the town, in 1844.  It was built ,on the present site of the St. Petersburg House. During the same year Samuel Laughner, a carpenter, came to the town, but moved to Salem township in a few years.  Charles Ritts also came to the borough that year, built a log house, cleared some land, and afterwards engaged in farming.

Lewis Collner was born at Eltman, Germany, in 1811, and there in his youth worked at the shoemaker trade for forty cents a week.  At the age of twenty-six he started to America with his kit of tools on his back, walking six hundred miles to the seaport on the Mediterranean.  When he arrived in New York with scarcely enough money to pay one night's lodging, he commenced work at his trade at fifteen dollars a month, and soon afterwards started West, arriving at St. Petersburg September 10, 1837, where he has lived and been an influential citizen ever since.  In 1849 he built a stone house, with dwelling and store-room combined.  His was the second store in the place.  The building was destroyed by fire in 1873.  During the same year, the brick store now owned by his boys, was built.  He had seven sons, all of whom are living at present in St. Petersburg, except William F., who was elected sheriff of Clarion county in 1879, and prothonotary in 1884.  Mr. Collner owned several farms in the vicinity, and during the excitement operated extensively in the oil business.  He has been quite successful financially.

John Vensel, with his family, which then and afterwards included Nelson, Charley, Hannah (Ashbaugh), Amanda, Albert, John, jr., Phoebe, Agnes, and Washington, came to Petersburg, erected buildings and started the first store in that place in 1848.  His brother, Barney, became a clerk in the store in 1850, and subsequently became owner of it.  Barney Vensel was the first postmaster in St. Petersburg; was elected county treasurer in 1870, and a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1884; also has filled various borough offices, and was engaged extensively in the oil business during the excitement.

Peter Jackson came from Berks county, Pa., to Petersburg on December 10, 1836.  He cleared thirty acres in part of the borough where Joel Fink now lives; was superintendent of the Sunday-school from 1851 to 1873, and was nineteen years an elder of the German Reformed Church of  St. Petersburg. He organized and superintended the first Sunday-school in his village.  Mr. Jackson kept a correct record of the dead buried in the Union grave-yard until 1883.  His record shows that the first person interred there was a child in 1811, and from that time until 1883 eleven hundred persons have been buried therein.
Daniel Whitling came to Petersburg in 1858, and started, the same year, the first jewelry store in the town.  He has been engaged in that business ever since.  At the time be started his store there were twenty-eight houses in the village.

Oil Movements. -- In 1871 the first oil well in this vicinity was drilled at Antwerp by Hughlings & Co.  It produced three hundred barrels per day.  On hearing this report people flocked to St. Petersburg from all directions, swelling the town to overflowing.  Building was commenced extensively, and on a more substantial plan than in most oil towns.  The first well in the borough was drilled within the limits of the race course by Alonzo Goss and Tip Johnston in 1871.  It produced about twenty barrels per day.  Near the same time another well was drilled below the railroad depot, but not much oil was found in it, still drilling and testing was continued.  The surrounding territory proved to be more productive than that included in the borough.  The greatest producing well in the borough yielded eighty barrels per day.  It was located beside the school building.

There were two boiler-houses erected, and also numerous stores, saloons, boarding-houses, etc., kept in active operation for a few years, but many of them have since been abandoned.  There were two papers printed here during the excitement, The Progress, edited by M. Goughler & Bro., and the Daily Press, edited by Mr. Tozer.  Water works were completed in 1873, and a fire company had been organized a short time before.  The outfit was found to be incomplete without a lock-up for the "tuffs."  Accordingly one was built, and many a straggler got his lodging there and paid his bill in the morning.  The first victim was R. Houston, the man who built it.  Oil was then selling at about four dollars per barrel, with fluctuations.  Common day laborers received three and four dollars per day.  Drillers and mechanics received from four to six dollars per day for their services.  Money was plenty, and business was booming.  In 1873 the town reached its maximum in population, containing between four thousand and five thousand inhabitants, about four times the present population.

Fires. -- The first fire occurred October 10, 1872, at eight o'clock in the morning.  It broke out at the east end of the town at the house of Mr. Patton, who had rented it to four families.  There were nine houses burned, two torn down, and one rolled over the hill.

The second fire broke out at the west end of the town, at half past six o'clock on the evening of February 21, 1873, starting in Fred Hepp's saloon, adjoining the opera house.  In an instant the entire building was in flames, which shot high into the air, enveloping the opera house in a sheet of fire from end to end.  The European House adjoining it took fire, also the Boston clothing house, Hall's restaurant, Seymour & Taylor's hardware store, Mat Colwell's billiard room, William Richard's barber shop, Michalisky's dry goods store, Wilson's dry goods store, Jamestown clothing store, Mr. Ritt's dwelling, Johringer's jewelry store, Wilcox & Butt's furniture store, J. H. Welsh's wholesale liquor store, post-office, and Smith Cook's new residence.  On the opposite side of the street the fire commenced with the Savings Bank, spreading eastward to Barney Vensel's office and residence, thence to the store of R. W. De Haven, and to St. Petersburg Hotel, then jumped across a wide street and caught Lewis Collner's residence, then leaped two hundred feet to D. Herron's office, taking the entire row of buildings to the Progress office.  By the noble efforts of the fire department, and the aid of thousands of people who flocked from Antwerp, Turkey City, Richmond, and Foxburg, the fire was extinguished, but not until it had destroyed nearly the entire business part of the town, together with many fine residences.  In all about forty houses were destroyed.  The loss amounted to $200,000.  The burnt portion of the town was rapidly rebuilt.  So great was the business activity that new lumber was hauled upon the dying embers.

Another fire occurred in April, 1881.  Several temporary houses, most of them vacant, were burned, but as no important buildings were included, the loss was consequently not heavy.

In May, 1884, the small school-house and the Presbyterian Church were burned.  They were not rebuilt.

Bank. -- St. Petersburg Savings Bank, the first and only one in the borough, was established in February, 1872.  Hon. John W. Hammond, of Erie, was president; Hon. John Fertig, of Titusville, was vice-president; and Chas. Horton, of North East, was cashier.  Horton died in July, 1873, at which time John V. Ritts, was made cashier, and has held the position ever since.  Hammond died in 1880, and Elias Ritts became president, which position he still holds.  The bank was burned in the big fire of 1873, and immediately rebuilt on the same location. During the palmy days of the oil excitement, this bank did a large and profitable business; their deposits ranging over $700,000 for a time, and their journal often footing over $1,000,000 daily. During the financial panic of 1884, when the Marine Bank of New York, Penn Bank of Pittsburgh, and many others failed completely, this bank suspended for about sixty days.  The stockholders arranged with the creditors, and at the expiration of that time re-opened the doors, and have since been doing a regular banking business.

Hotels. -- There were several hotels in St. Petersburg at the time of the oil excitement, but for these pages, only the two existing at present will be detailed.

As has already been referred to, Mrs. Catharine Sipler built on the present site of St. Petersburg House, the first hotel in the town, in 1844.  She sold it to Barney Vensel in 1855.  It afterwards became the property of William Goughler, who sold it to Daniel Whitling, in 1870.  During the same summer Mr. Whitling sold it to Balliard & Dutt.  Balliard died soon afterward, and Dutt became sole owner. The old one being burned in 1873, he erected the building that is there now in 1874, and subsequently sold it to Aikens & Myers.  Later Mr. Aikens became sole owner, and in 1885 sold it to Samuel Bostaph, in whose possession it remains at present.  As it passed through the hands of the different owners, important additions and improvements have been made from time to time.

The Adams House took its name from Charles Adams, the owner, who first used the building for a hotel.  He sold it to Blakeslee Brothers in 1871, and they afterwards sold it to King & Myers.  Prior to the fire of 1873, in which it was consumed, King became sole owner.  After the fire he built on the same location a one-story house, and raised it another story in 1875.  John Farr bought it at sheriff's sale in 1880, and sold it in 1886, to Charles Crossgrove, the present owner and landlord.

Schools. -- The first school-house in St. Petersburg was built of stone, in 1846, and stood on the present site of the Lutheran Church.  However, school had been kept for two or three years immediately preceding this in a log house built by Charles Sipler, for a dwelling.  It stood where Myers's store now stands.  Reuben Delo and Charles Haas were the teachers therein.  The second house was built on Church street north of the present building in 1859.  A second room was added thereto in 1873, and both were burned in the spring of 1875.  During the ensuing summer the present building containing four rooms was erected.  In 1874 a school-house was built in the west end of the town, but was moved alongside the Presbyterian Church, near the large school-building, in 1881, and used as room No. 5, for the advanced grade.  It was burned in May, 1884.

For several years select schools have been taught here during the summer vacations, usually under the supervision of the winter-term principals.  Much excellent and thorough work has been done, and the schools have reached a high degree of proficiency.  Part of their success is due to the efforts of Dr. I. J. Wireback, a citizen and director, who has taken an active interest in their welfare.  He delights in the study of mathematics, and has done much toward  cultivating in the school a taste for his favorite study.  Other citizens and directors have also been quite active in the interests of the schools.

Churches. -- When Judge Peters sold his tract of land in what is now the borough, he gave a portion of it to the German Reformed and Lutheran Churches, for the sum of one dollar.  The graveyard is included in this tract.  The German Reformed and Lutherans built a union church on their property in 1835.

The Reformed congregation of Petersburg was organized in 1835 by Rev. George Koch.  After a time, there being some dissatisfaction in the union, the Reforms withdrew, and built a stone church in 1854.  This building becoming somewhat dilapidated, it was torn down and the present brick building was erected in 1877.  After Rev. Koch died, Rev. H. Hoffman, was pastor during 1846-55; L. D. Leberman 1856-58; J. S. Shade, 1858-65; D. O. Shoemaker, 1865-73; when the charge was divided into Beaver and St. Petersburg.  Of the latter charge Rev. D. W. Wolf was pastor during 1873-76; W. C. Shallenbarger, 1876-83; and S. J. Beam, since March, 1885.

The Lutheran congregation at St. Petersburg was organized in 1838 by Rev. George Ehrenfelt.  They used the union church as a house of worship until 1873, when they erected the building occupied at present.  Their pastors were Revs. J. B. Fox, Kline, and Titzell.

The Methodist congregation was organized in 1872 by Rev. Fay.  Their building was erected soon afterwards.  Among their prominent workers are Welman, Murphy, Fritz, and others.

The Catholic congregation at St. Petersburg was organized by Father J. P. Smith, and their church was built in 1877.  Father J. P. Smith, of Emlenton, is their present pastor.

The Presbyterian congregation built a church in 1876 on the site of the school-house that had been burned.  This church building was consumed by fire, May 1, 1884, and not rebuilt.

Miss Alice E. Allen, Charles Sipler, M. E. Lougnaker, and Peter Jackson, assisted courteously in obtaining data relating to the history of St. Petersburg.

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