Early Days of Greenbush

EARLY DAYS IN GREENBUSH: Interesting Story Recalling the days When Coal Oil Was Manufactured Near Avon


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This reliable scrap of history, by W. H. Rose, is taken from The Avon Sentinel:

Before the discovery of oil wells in Pennsylvania kerosene, or coal oil, as it was more commonly called, was manufactured from cannel coal in several different places in the United States, and was a very profitable business, as the product sold at a fancy price, never less than $1.00 per gallon and sometimes as high as $1.50. On account of the high price, the oil was but little used and its sale was principally confined to the larger cities. Veins of cannel coal were considered very valuable and were much sought after. In 1857 a large vein of this coal was discovered along the creek north of town by some miners from Pennsylvania who were working in the neighborhood. It had been seen by many persons before, but they supposed it to be slate stone, which it munch resembles. The news of the discovery spread rapidly, and attracted the notice of George R. Clark of Chicago, who formed a company of New York and Chicago capitalists, for the manufacture of oil, called the Avon Coal Oil Company. The capital stock was $50,000, which was afterwards increased. Mr. Clark, who was made superintendent of the company, came here and secured mining privileges and options on a large tract of land along the creek where the coal was discovered.

In the spring of 1858, a mine was opened under the direction of James Timmons as superintendent, and the company proceeded at once to erect works for the manufacture of oil. The site occupied by the works was near the southeast corner of the northeast quarter of section 13, in Greenbush township, now known as the Saunders farm. The entry to the mine started on the east side of the road and extended under the hill on which the Saunders house now stands. The entry was made large enough for mules to go in and haul out the cars of coal and extended under ground a distance of nearly 40 rods.

The apparatus employed for the manufacture of oil consisted of fifteen large cast-iron retorts, each with its cover weighing more than four tons. These retorts were set in a straight line on fire brick arches with furnaces under each and connected together by a large cast-iron pipe. Each retort held about three tons of coal, the oil being extracted by baking the coal until it became red hot, by which time the oil had passed off in smoke and gases, which were condensed by being passed through cold water, the oil running off in crude form. At first only crude oil was made, which was shipped in casks to a refinery in St. Louis. A ton of coal would make about 15 or 20 gallons of crude oil and it required about two days to work off a batch of coal. There was a certain amount of gas that could not be condensed and was allowed to escape through an iron pipe, and was kept constantly burning. At night the flames. would light up the surrounding country. Many small dwellings had been erected near the works for the accommodation of the miners and other workmen; and at night the little village, brilliantly illuminated, presented a beautiful picture. The coal or coke, after being taken from the retorts, was used for firing the furnaces, a small amount of bituminous coal being mixed with it.

The second year, a refinery was built near the other works. This was a large building, constructed of stone procured from quarries near by. After its completion the company did its own refining. The burning oil was much the same as the kerosene of the present day. In refining the crude oil many different products were obtained; namely, benzene, gasoline, kerosene, lubricating oil, paraffin, coal tar, and asphaltum.

When the works were in full operation, they furnished employment for nearly 100 men.The works, however, did not prove to be a financial success, for about this time oil wells were discovered in Pennsylvania, which reduced the price of oil to a figure much less than that for which it could be manufactured from coal. When it was found by the company that the works could no longer be carried on successfully, they were abandoned and a large number of debts contracted by the company were left unpaid. The works were finally sold at sheriff’s sale for the benefit of creditors. They fell into the hands of the Frost Manufacturing Company of Galesburg; and the outfit, comprising many carloads of old iron and machinery, was shipped to that city. The refinery building was used for a time by David Morse for a barn, but was finally torn down by Dr. Saunders and the stone used for different purposes. Some of them may be seen at the present time in a wall along the road in front of the Saunders house.

At the same time the Avon works were put in operation, similar works were constructed in Peoria county, and with like results. The work of mining the vein of cannel coal necessitated the removal of large quantities of fire clay underlying the coal. After the oil works had been in operation about a year, a large dump of clay had accumulated; and a company, composed of James McDougal, A. Horrocks, and George R. Clark, was formed for the purpose of manufacturing it into fire brick.The company erected quite extensive works on the land now owned by the James Mings estate, consisting of kilns, drying sheds, etc., and also installed the machinery necessary for grinding the clay. They manufactured a variety of wares, consisting of locomotive fire backs, cupola brick, flue tops and many different shapes of fire brick, nearly all of the product being shipped to Chicago.

But their venture, like the oil works, did not prove a success financially. The works finally passed into the hands of Jerome Goodspeed, then a prominent merchant in Avon. It proved a profitable investment for him. He ground the clay and shipped it to Chicago by the carload, where it found a ready sale. He continued the business until the dump was exhausted.


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