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More on the History of Olean

“Olean Point” was the first permanent settlement within the present limits of Cattaraugus County. In 1802 Benjamin Van Campen ventured into the area to survey the land for Adam Hoops. Based on his favorable report, Adam Hoops and David Heuston purchased 20,000 acres from the Holland Land Company. The land was chosen primarily for its timber and its proximity to the Allegheny River.

In 1804 Robert Hoops, a brother of Adam, came to the location as an agent for the lands. He erected a double log house on the banks of the river, the first permanent building in the settlement. When the village was first laid out, it was called Hamilton in honor of the popular statesman Alexander Hamilton, but the local designation of Olean Point was generally used. There never was any formal change of names, the substitution of one for the other being made by common custom and consent.

The first formal recognition of the name Olean was in 1823 when the name appeared on an official county map. The name of Olean is derived from the Latin word for oil. In the same year of Hoop’s land purchase, Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country.

Adam Hoops envisioned Olean as the gateway to the west via the Allegheny River. His enterprise did not prosper, however, and he was unable to complete his payments for the land. He lived the remainder of his life in poverty. Unfortunately, he never came to realize that he established a foothold in this wilderness that would eventually flourish.

Early settlers came from all walks of life. Some remained in the area while others moved west. Because of its resources, the lumbering, tanning and agricultural enterprises thrived. The Genesee Valley Canal construction began in 1836, connecting cities and villages of western New York to the Allegheny River, fulfilling Adam Hoop’s vision of Olean Point being a hub of navigation. The village was also the crossroads of railroad activity. The New York & Erie; Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia; Pittsburgh, Shawmut & Northern; and Olean, Bradford & Warren Railroads nourished the growing community. Industry was numerous and diverse.

Olean Industries

Conklin Wagon Works Manufactured every conceivable horse drawn wagon
Jewett & Keating Tannery
Smith & McClure Machine shop
Chamberlin & Sons Ditch digging & stump pulling equipment
Jacob Cross & Sons Wooden handles
Brickell Brothers & Co. Planing Mill
Charles Dotterweich Brewery
Isaac H. Woods Pottery
F. S. Martin Grist Mill
Acme Glass Works Glass bottles
Olean Glass Co. Commercial glass
Acme Mills Flour mill
Carley Heater Co. Bronze pumps & tanks and other equipment for tanners
Clark Brothers Co. Sawmill machinery originally and then oil field equipment
Close Cycle Co. Bicycles, automobiles
J.R. Droney Lumber Co. Lumber
Empire Mills Grinding meal & feed
Hall Bros. Sawmill
Luther Manufacturing Co. Machinery
Kinley & Sons Tannery
W.C.A. Quirins Co. Tannery
Tanners Shoe Stock Co. Shoes
Olean Light & Power Co. Electric power
J. C. Wilson Company Inventors & manufacturers of Venetian blinds
Olean Tile Co. Tile
AVB Co. Clay bricks

This is not a complete list of companies.

The Oil Excitement

Olean’s most celebrated industry was petroleum production. Oil was first discovered in North America in 1627, only 12 miles north of the city. It was originally used for medicinal potions, lubricants and as a replacement for whale oil as a heating fuel. From 1865-1930, Olean and its surrounding oil fields was the largest producer of oil in the world and there wasn’t anyone running a close second. The internal combustion engine in use at the turn of the century created an enormous demand for the refined petroleum product – gasoline.

Our surplus oil was transported via the first oil pipeline ever that ran from Olean to Beyonne, New Jersey. Standard oil of New Jersey financially supported the oil enterprise of the area and in return accrued an immense fortune. Though never becoming “Rich as the Rockefellers,” several prominent local entrepreneurs became wealthy in the glory years of the “black gold” boom. One out of four workers was directly or indirectly employed in the petroleum industry.

Oil, Olean’s namesake, gradually diminished after 1930, largely due to the discovery and production of the Oklahoma and Texas fields. The western oil was not as good a grade but it was much easier and cheaper to obtain due to the large, shallower pools. New York fields drilled through hundreds of feet of soil and rock to reach the oil sands. The new fields in the west were less than half as deep and weren’t hampered by rock formation. In 1954, the Socony Oil Company moved from Olean to Ferndale, Washington and an era of Olean history was over. There are still a small number of independent leases and there is still oil in the ground, but even the high price of current oil has not resurrected the excitement of another time.

“Little Chicago” Prohibition

In the middle of the 19th century, a movement began to prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The concerted efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Anti-Saloon League, the Prohibition Party and many others resulted in congress approving the 18th Amendment. The Valstead Act passed in 1919, put teeth in the legislation by defining the penalties for violations of prohibition. The production and distribution of liquor and beer was transferred from the legitimate tax paying business community to the illegitimate non-tax-paying underworld.

While prohibition did little to diminish the consumption of booze, it did have a devastating effect on the economy. Olean, located on a back road route between Chicago and New York City, was often frequented by famous mobsters of the era. Al Capone of Chicago, probably the most famous gang leader of the time, visited Olean in pursuance of his illegal endeavors. Olean, because of its association with mobsters and activities related to prohibition, became known as “Little Chicago”, Jack Dempsey, the Chief of Police, did not condone these thugs or their illegal activities. He did not aggressively pursue arrests, however, unless he had evidence the violator was responsible for a crime committed in his jurisdiction. As long as you kept your nose clean in the Olean City limits, it was a “safe haven”. Local stories relating to this period are numerous. Some are documented and some are legends.

Olean Today

Olean’s population today is only a fraction of what it was in the 1950s, but it remains the largest city in the county. It serves as the hub of retail and industrial activity and is presently pursuing new areas of growth. Olean celebrated its Bicentennial in 2004 and salutes the endeavors of the County’s Bicentennial in 2008.