Sunday, May 14, 2017

Peter Cornen: 
Oil in Them Thar Hills?
Oil wells on our ridges? If Peter Cornen had had his way more than a century ago, Ridgefield might have become a town dotted with derricks pumping black gold.
One of Ridgefield’s few millionaires in the 1800s, Cornen knew oil. He had made a fortune wildcatting in the western Pennsylvania oil fields where he and his Ridgefield partner, Henry I.
Beers, drilled one of the first hugely successful wells.
And he was certain Ridgefield was a gold mine of oil.
Peter P. Cornen was a storybook example of an adventurous, 19th Century, self-made man. Born in 1815 in New York City to a working-class family, Cornen attended city schools and started his career as a shipbuilder. By the 1840s he owned a Manhattan ship chandlery, a store that sold nautical items for vessels large and small, and had married Lydia Beers, a farmer’s daughter from Ridgefield. 
As a teenager in the 1840s, Lydia’s brother, Henry, went to work for Cornen. When the Gold Rush erupted in 1848, Cornen, then 33, decided that a life of adventure in and around the gold fields sounded more exciting — and profitable — than being a merchant in Manhattan. He sailed for California to make his fortune,  according to The Ridgefield Press, “round the Horn to San Francisco.” 
But it wasn’t gold that brought him success among the 49ers. For three years he “engaged in mercantile pursuits, his energy, perseverance and keen business foresight adding greatly to his accumulations, so that he ranked with the moneyed men of those days,” The Press  said. 
Soon after Cornen got established in California, he sent a message to Henry Beers, who was running his New York store, telling him to sell the business and urging he come to California. Beers did just that and he, too, made out well in retailing and real estate.
However, by the late 1850s, both men were back East, operating real estate and investment companies in New York. (Cornen sold Cornelius Vanderbilt much of the land on which Grand Central Terminal was built.) In the early 1860s, word was arriving of  new “gold,” this one liquid, in the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania. Back then, oil was in growing demand for producing lamp and stove fuels, lubricants and such (the first modern internal combustion engine was yet to be made). 
Cornen and Beers got together in 1862 and decided to give oil a try, becoming among the first wildcatters in America.
They spent time exploring the area around Oil City, Pa., and finally bought the Smith farm on the Cherry Run, about a mile north of Rouseville. “It was a common saying around Oil City at that time that ‘Those crazy Yankees will never get oil because they are going away from Oil Creek,’” said a local newspaper’s historian in 1922. The “Yankees” proved the locals wrong and drilled what some have called the first really successful well in the Pennsylvania fields. And they called it “Yankee.”
     In his 1893 book, “Sketches in Crude-Oil,” John P. McLaurin aid Yankee flowed “like Mount Vesuvius spilling lava.”  Later other wells on the farm, bearing such names as Auburn, Gromiger, Cattaraugus, Aazin, and Fry, added to the output. Cornen and Beers had paid $3,500 for the 50-acre farm (that had some years earlier been sold for “a yoke of oxen”); by the mid-1860s, they had turned down an offer of $4 million ($64 million in today’s dollars) for the property.
     Cornen eventually returned to New York business world and was prominent in financial circles. He “made and lost several fortunes,” a Press feature said in 1887. The Panic of 1873   “swallowed a great share of his large fortune,” The Press later said. “Thereafter he engaged in enterprises on a smaller scale, including real estate here and there, but remained a wealthy man all his life. “Those who know him well say that in spite of reverses, he is still able to draw his check for half a million dollars, and as he is a man of quiet tastes, this sum will probably be sufficient to keep the wolf from his door as long as he lives,” The Press said in 1887.
Drawn by his wife’s roots in the town, Cornen had come to Ridgefield in 1854 and built a Spanish-style house on the corner of Danbury and Farmingville Roads. He eventually amassed hundreds of acres surrounding it and was much praised for planting scores of maples along Danbury Road, which became informally known as Cornen Avenue.  
Peter’s son, Cyrus A. Cornen Sr., lived there, describing it in 1911 as “a house large enough for a moderate-sized hotel, with 11 feet 6 inches ceilings on the first floor with 11 windows, each of which can be made a door if you wish it; with cultivated sugar maples of some 45 years’ growth on either side of a wide highway for over three quarters of a mile and … a cultivated sugar maple orchard of some 250 trees of the same growth.” The estate included “a trout stream running through
this 300-acre property where my two sons from the banks of this same property last season caught six trout that weighed seven pounds and seven ounces.”
Because of a great fear of fire,  Peter Cornen had lined the insides of the walls of his house with brick for better protection. The house eventually became part the Outpost Nurseries property in the 1930’s and, having fallen into disuse, was torn down about 1942.  (Karl S. Nash, publisher of the Ridgefield Press, said the house-wreckers had no idea that the walls were brick-filled when they started dismantling the building, a project that consequently took much longer than expected.)  
In 1976, the Ridgefield Savings Bank – which Cornen had helped establish – purchased the site of this house and some years later, built its headquarters there. 
In 1887, The New York Times carried a story reporting that “Ridgefield, the home of Gov. Lounsbury and a favorite summer resort for wealthy New-Yorkers, is agitated over discoveries and statements made by Peter P. Cornen, a wealthy citizen, who has had years of experience in the Pennsylvania oil fields and who, after months of prospecting, is led to believe that the little town is situated over an oil field of considerable magnitude.”
The Times said that Cornen was “so positive that oil can be had in Ridgefield by simply boring in the earth for it that he is willing and even anxious to be one of a company to erect the necessary machinery and sink a well. A score or more of the wealthiest citizens are deeply interested….”
Cornen based his views on what today would be some pretty weird science. The Press said he cited  “the volcanic formation of the country, and then he notes the abundance of oil producing trees and plants. Butternut, hickory and walnut trees fill the forest, and their fruit, as we all know, abounds in oil. As no traces of oil have ever been found in raindrops, it is plain that the oils of the walnut, the butternut and the hickory nut are drawn from the soil, and if there is oil in the soil, it can probably be gotten out.”
But what probably really sparked his interest in prospecting was his friend, Aaron W. Lee, who had a big farm in Farmingville.  “Two years ago,” The Press said, “Aaron Lee dug a well near his barn to supply water for his stock. Water was found at the depth of about eight or ten feet, but the cattle would not drink it. It had an oily appearance and a disagreeable smell. Mr. Cornen says the well diggers encountered a small pocket of natural gas, and that where there is gas, there is oil.”
Cornen proposed organizing a joint stock company, the Ridgefield Oil and Gas Heating and Lighting Company, to do the drilling, requiring a shaft some 2,000 feet deep.
Cornen, the Press added, “very truly says that no man can look at the earth and tell what lies beneath, but from what he knows about Ridgefield and the country for ten miles around, he is satisfied that oil can be found there in paying quantities.”
A Cornen fan, Press Editor E.C. Bross added, “There are those who fear that the discovery of oil will forever ruin Ridgefield as a fashionable summer resort, but the operators have made a solemn promise to locate the wells at such a distance from the fashionable center that the clothing of the summer resident shall not be soiled nor her delicate nostrils be in the least offended.”
Articles of incorporation were approved at a meeting Nov. 20, 1887. The committee of backers read like a who’s who of Ridgefield businessmen and included L. H. Bailey, owner of the Bailey Inn and developer of Bailey Avenue; Hiram K. Scott, who owned the predecessor of Bissell’s Pharmacy and was town clerk and probate judge; D. Smith Sholes, wealthy Main Street merchant; Isaac Osborne, who operated what’s now Ridgefield Supply; and Aaron Lee, Farmingville farmer and first selectman. 
However, by March 1888, The Press was reporting that “a New York paper this week prints the localities where natural gas is found, but makes no mention of Ridgefield.”   And after that, mention of the oil drilling scheme dried up in the newspaper and by March 1891, Cornen had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Two years later he was dead.
If exploratory drilling ever took place, it was undoubtedly unsuccessful. But it’s also possible that people concerned about the effects of having oil fields in Ridgefield — which had been promoting its clean, quiet, and unpolluted hills as a refuge from the dirty, noisy, and noxious city — may have quietly gained an upper hand and quashed the project. 
Perhaps, too, folks decided that Cornen was a bit too odd to trust. He was, after all, “a man of marked eccentricities,” said his nationally published obituary. “Whether upon stock exchange or in the legislature, he appeared in clothes which had seen years of service. When he had millions invested in railroads, he preferred to walk rather than ride in the cars, and frequently tramped nine miles from Ridgefield to Danbury.”
On other fronts, Cornen was an active participant in the Ridgefield community. A Democrat, he served as a state senator in 1867 and in 1871 he was elected to the House of Representatives. That fall he was elected first selectman and served one term. 
Cornen was one of the original directors of the Ridgefield and New York Railroad Company, which had proposed and started building a rail line from Titicus into Westchester County to meet the main line at Port Chester. That plan was abandoned after the Danbury and Norwalk Rail Road built the branch line into town in 1870. 
A more successful venture was his participation in the founding in 1871 of the Ridgefield Savings Bank, which today has grown into the large Fairfield County Bank.
He was also a member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Odd Fellows Lodge. 
Cornen died in 1893 at the age of 79 and is buried in Ridgefield Cemetery in a gated family
plot over which looms perhaps the tallest gravestone in town.
At his death The Press said: “Mr. Cornen, in business, through often indulging in transactions involving millions, was governed by none but the most honorable motives. His judgment was considered sound and his opinion once given was seldom erroneous.” The obituary never mentioned the oil scheme that was big news only six years earlier.

Perhaps “an oil field of considerable magnitude” does exist beneath Ridgefield, but it’s pretty certain it will remain there, untapped.

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