Corry’s First Mayor.
By Beverley Bittner, From the autumn, 1979 issue of Reminiscence.
Many men and women walked across the pages of our history in the early days, leaving footprints for historians to ponder over for all time. Familiar names include: Michael Hare, Call and Rihue.
Nothing is known of Call and Rihue, while Hare was famed for his longevity and military exploits. Others include: Amos Heath, who came to our area in 1795; Alexander McDowell, who surveyed the area in 1799; and Amos Harrington, who purchased ninety-three acres from the Holland Land Company in 1858. One month later he sold sixty-six acres to Hiram Cory for $463.
Others who bought land from the Holland Land Company about that time were: Jedediah Mather, George Keppel, Darius Mead, Isaac Colegrove, and Alfred Gates.
And then there was the first mayor of Corry, W.H.L. Smith. He was described as “a large man, a lawyer by education, very positive and somewhat blunt in manners.” He came to Corry in 1861 as a representative of Samuel Downer.
Downer was a successful Boston businessman, intelligent, with a good grasp of politics and a sort of intuition into human nature. Historians say he spoke little but listened much. He showed little ego but was determined to get ahead in the world even as a young man.
In the 1830s Downer was a salesman of high quality whale oil for spindles used in New England textile mills. Industry was expanding. Downer hired two salesmen to help him, paying them fifty percent of their sales. He was soon wealthy and continued to expand his business interests. He began to use kerosene for spindle oil.
When Downer heard about the first successful oil well in Titusville in 1859, he got at idea. If he could build a refinery near the oil fields, he would possess an advantage over his rivals in the oil business.
Downer sent W.H.L. Smith to scout out the land. Corry was a junction of two railroads. Except for a few scattered farmhouses, the only building was a small, wedge-shaped ticket office and eating house near the tracks. All around was swamp covered with huge pine and hemlock trees.
In Downer’s name, Smith purchased fifty acres of land from Hiram Cory. The fifty acres was laid out in town lots, and by Fall 1861, a frame building had been erected as an office for the Downer Oil Refinery. The first refinery was known as ‘‘the Frenchman’s.” It would grow to become the largest in the world in its time.
By Summer 1862, the Downer and Kent Oil Works and several other factories were in business. The Boston House, Gilson Hotel and many private homes were under construction to accommodate the thousands of persons flocking to the city to work or speculate in get-rich-quick schemes. Money was plentiful and real estate sold readily. Fortunes were made and lost overnight.
An old history book describes the Corry scene in 1862:
“Corry is one of the wonders of the age in which we live – the creation of the combined effort of oil and steel. Some half dozen locomotives puffing and screaming, long trains of cars laden with oil, barrels standing along the tracks, one of the largest brick refineries, a large hotel, many houses give unmistakable evidence of a prosperous village where but a few months since stood the primeval forest.”
Smith lived in Corry until 1878. As a sign of the respect he enjoyed, he was elected the city’s first mayor in 1866. He served a one-year term.
“A fitting tribute,” said a historian, “after all, the city owes its existence to W.H.L. Smith.” That may be an overstatement, but Smith certainly played his part in the unfolding of Corry history.
Beverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.