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Jacob Jay Vandergrift    

JACOB JAY VANDERGRIFT. —There is probably no man whose name is so widely known and so intimately connected with the great petroleum and natural gas industries of Pennsylvania and the adjoining states as the subject of this sketch, who was not only one of the earliest pioneers in the petroleum business, but has continued to prosecute its various branches with uniform success to the present time. No one has contributed more than he to the development of this great industry, and he is to-day one of the most important characters in the oil country. He has attained this eminence not by any caprice of fortune, but by the force of his genius, energy, and perseverance, and above all, by the sterling qualities of his character and his upright and honorable dealings throughout a busy and active life.

Captain Vandergrift was born at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 10, 1827, the second child and eldest son of William K. and Sophia (Sarver) Vandergrift, the parents of both of whom were natives of Pennsylvania. His early life was passed in that city, and there he obtained his education at the public schools of the Second ward, of which James B. D. Meeds was principal, and under the tuition of “Squire” Thomas Steele. At the age of fifteen, choosing the path of life which naturally opened before him, he entered the steamboat service, then the principal means of intercommunication between Pittsburgh and the West. By intelligent application and faithful attention to duty he rose in ten years from the humble position of cabin boy to that of captain. During this period he introduced the method of towing coal barges that has since been employed in the river coal traffic, an innovation that attracted wide attention at the time and gave a great impetus to mining operations in the Pittsburgh coal field. When the civil war broke out he was still engaged in business on the river, principally in the transportation of oil, and was the owner of the steamboat Red Fox, which was chartered by the United States government and lost on the Ohio river near Cairo. At this time he was also concerned in oil ventures in West Virginia, but sustained severe losses in the destruction of his property by the Confederate forces. Through his connection with the transportation of oil from the Venango oil field he became interested in various producing and other enterprises which required frequent personal attention, and in 1863 he took up his residence at Oil City.

In the special work of petroleum production he was first associated with Daniel Bushnell, and was engaged for a brief period in the formation of oil companies. He was an active member of the firm of H. L. Taylor & Company, from which the Union Oil Company originated. As a member of the firm of Vandergrift & Forman, Vandergrift, Pitcairn & Company, and Vandergrift, Young & Company, his knowledge of the business, united with his irrepressible energy, finally led to the organization of the Forest Oil Company, of which he is president, and which has always held a foremost place among the large and successful oil companies. He also organized the United Oil and Gas Trust and the Washington Oil Company, of which he is president, and has been an active promoter of the Anchor Oil Company. The names of these companies and their success are an unqualified tribute to the peculiar ability which Captain Vandergrift contributed to their promotion and development.

While an enterprising and successful producer, it was left to Captain Vandergrift to develop the solution of the problem of oil transportation. At the inception of the oil business the methods employed were exceedingly primitive, barrels and bulk boats constituting the only means of shipment. The increasing production attracted railroads to the oil region, each hoping to secure a portion of the traffic, and, impelled by the same motive, Captain Vandergrift and others organized the Oil City and Pithole Railroad Company, of which the history is given in the chapter on “Internal Improvements,” in this work. In connection with George V. Forman and others he equipped a line of cars, the “Star Tank Line,” for transportation between Pithole City and Oil City, and constructed a pipe line, the “Star Pipe Line,” from West Pithole to Pithole. This was the first successful pipe line, and may be regarded as the real beginning of that gigantic system of oil transportation now carried on under the name of the National Transit Company. The development of the “lower oil country” opened a new field for pipe line extension, and, with Captain Vandergrift as the leading spirit, a number of lines were constructed in Venango, Armstrong, Butler, and Clarion counties, which were finally consolidated under the name of the United Pipe Lines of Vandergrift, Forman & Company. To Captain Vandergrift’ s business integrity and wise forethought are due not only the complete development of this mode of transportation, but the open and honest methods by which it has been conducted. Throughout its entire history he was president of the United Pipe Lines, and later of the United Pipe Lines division of the National Transit Company, which position he has but recently resigned.

The manufacturing industries incident to the oil business have also received a due share of Captain Vandergrift’s attention. He was the projector of the Imperial refinery, the largest enterprise of its kind ever attempted in the oil regions, as shown by its modern and complete equipment, its improved machinery, and a daily capacity of two thousand barrels. By its sale to the Standard Oil Company he became a stockholder in the latter, in which he was until recently an officer. His ability and experience have also contributed to the planting and development of the Oil City Boiler Works, the Pennsylvania Tube Works, and the Apollo Iron and Steel Company.
Any one thus interested in a special product and its industries must of necessity be identified with its finance. Captain Vandergrift founded the Oil City Trust Company, one of the most prosperous and successful banking institutions of western Pennsylvania. He also founded the Keystone Bank of Pittsburgh, having previously been a director in the Allegheny National Bank of that city. He was active in the organization of the Seaboard Bank of New York, of which he is at present a director, and held a similar position in the official board of the Argyle Savings Bank at Petrolia during its brief but successful history. At the formation of the Oil City Oil Exchange he became a large stockholder, and in great measure through his vigorous action the Pittsburgh Oil Exchange was established on a sound financial basis.

Since his removal to Pittsburgh in 1881, Captain Vandergrift has given a large share of his energies to the introduction of natural gas as a fuel. The Penn Fuel Company, the Bridgewater Gas Company, the Natural Gas Company of West Virginia, the Chartiers Natural Gas Company, the United Oil and Gas Trust, the Toledo Natural Gas Company, and the Fort Pitt Natural Gas Company were founded and incorporated under his guidance and general direction, and these enterprises, representing millions of capital, have performed an incalculable service in developing the fuel that has proven a veritable philosopher’s stone for the iron industries of western Pennsylvania.

To no single man identified with the production and application of petroleum and natural gas is greater credit due than to Captain Vandergrift. It has frequently been said of him that he was a pioneer of these industries, but, after all, that is scant praise to one who was indeed a pioneer with sufficient forethought to see the possibilities of his venture and sufficient courage to stand by those possibilities and follow his forethought to complete success. Captain Vandergrift was a pioneer and deserves all the laurels of a pioneer, and at the same time the story of his business life is but the history of the petroleum and natural gas industries. From the days of springpoles and bulk barges and pond freshets, through all the rapid changes of the most remarkable industrial development the world has ever seen, until to day, when thousands of derricks stand like ghosts in the moonlight, and thousands of pipe lines cover the ground like spider-webs, Captain Vandergrift has stood by and led the fortunes of the great oil industry. Never a day has his hand been off the wheel, and never an atom of his energy and ability has he begrudged to the favored and favoring pursuits of his life.
Captain Vandergrift never forgets. The past scenes of his life are dear to him still, and many a time he beguiles the hours for his friends, and is himself beguiled from weariness, as he casts the lead of his memory into the stream of his life and dwells with pleasure upon the “old days on the river” when life flowed as quietly as the Ohio, or met the dangers incident to a high flood of the Mississippi. He is never too busy to give a warm welcome and a cheery hour to an old comrade who shared the joys and trials of his boating days. Nor has he ever lost touch with men as men. Never has he felt that spirit that kills in too many successful men sympathy with the struggling or the unsuccessful. The trials and misfortunes of his own life, as well as its triumphs and successes, have been fountains of helpfulness, and many a cheering word and many a helpful hand does he give to those with whom he shared the past vicissitudes, and with whom he is ever ready to share the present blessings. With the conviction firmly rooted in his heart that wealth is the gift of God for high and noble use, he has never withheld his hand, and the public enterprises of religion and philanthropy, as well as the private necessities of poverty and misfortune, have always shared largely in his most generous and most unostentatious giving. In his private and social life, into the sacredness of which we may not intrude here, Captain Vandergrift is of the most genial and happy disposition. as hundreds of his friends can testify, and his home has always been a center of gladness and a source of joy. To look at the man and take the measure of his success reveals to us some of the characteristics and secrets of his life and career. His entire business life has been marked by the strictest integrity and honesty of both principle and practice. Doubtful plans and purposes have had no place in his policy, but to the least details of business his integrity and honesty have always descended. His instinctive love of fair play has always made him mindful of the rights and privileges of other men and has helped him, at the same time, to recognize and reward talent in others, and this power to discover talent has not only contributed to his own success, but has opened the way for very many others. His friends are as dear to him as his own life, and many a man has found an unexpected door opened before him, unlocked by the captain’s cherished memory of some act of friendship in the past. Coupled with these most noble traits of manhood he possesses a keen power of discernment and a large experimental knowledge of human nature. In addition to these qualities of heart and life, Captain Vandergrift has that mental grasp which foresees the possibilities and contingencies of his chosen business, takes in the details of every department of his work, and anticipates and meets contingency and possibility with matured and practical plans. Most of all, he has the courage of his convictions, and while he stands ever ready to yield his own opinion to a clearer light, his courage has carried him forward to that complete success which has thus far crowned his busy, honorable life. It is not given to every man to follow his own chosen path to wealth and prove himself even in that very path a public benefactor. But such has been Captain Vandergrift’ s experience. While yet in the vigor of life he gives his best energies and high talents to his business, gladly shares the joys and profits of it with his friends and the needy, and still sees the triumph of his life’s labor issue in the general good of the community and contribute to the comfort of mankind. The story of his life and labor is told wherever the flame of natural gas glows in the white heat of a furnace, wherever the yellow gleam of a petroleum lamp brightens and cheers a home.

History of Venango County, Pennsylvania : its past and present, including its aboriginal history, the French and British occupation of the country, its early settlement and subsequent growth, a description of its historic and interesting localities, its rich oil deposits and their development, sketches of its cities, boroughs, townships, and villages, neighborhood and family history, portraits and biographies of pioneers and representative citizens, statistics, etc., etc.
Chicago, Ill.: Brown, Runk & Co., 1890, pages 838-842.
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