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History in the Hills: An early industrialist

I love to read about our local history, specifically the time when our area moved from rural to urban, or rather, industrial. I find it fascinating to see the huge technological shift from our agrarian society to a more industrial way of life. Thinking about my own generation and how we grew up versus that of my children is staggering, let alone my grandparents’ generation versus my children’s.

I think the most incredible generation for leaps in technological innovations would be that of the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. For me it is mind boggling to think that one could be born into an agrarian society with horse and buggy, oil lamps and outhouses and leave this world in a time of automobiles, electricity and television.

The industrial revolution, typically the topic one learns about in school, came about in the 19th century. With any momentous event in our history, there were good and bad outcomes as a result of the change. For us in our valley, industry came to dominate, thus largely replacing the rural way of life here. In Steubenville especially, industry came pretty early in the 19th century. The advent of the foundries, woolen factories and other manufactories propelled Steubenville to the forefront of progress at that time. Their neighbor across the river in Holliday’s Cove in Hancock County remained relatively rural in the 19th century. That is, until a man bought up most of the farms in the area with the dream of establishing an industry and a community.

No, it’s not who you think: E.T. Weir didn’t come to Weirton until 1909. The man who brought industry to Holliday’s Cove was Cyrus Ferguson.

Almost forgotten, Ferguson was responsible for most of our industry in Weirton. Without him, it is plausible that the officials of Weirton Steel would not have been able to purchase the ground for their new mills. Also, the workforce would not have been able to venture from Steubenville to staff the factories. Cyrus Ferguson is as important to our area as any of our early industrialists.

According to Jack Welch’s 1963 book “History of Hancock County,” Cyrus was born on Sept. 20, 1851, on what was then the David Campbell farm, about two miles east of Weirton on the brick road leading to Paris, Pa. His parents died when Cyrus was still young. In fact, his father went west in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. After the death of his parents, he spent most of his childhood working on various farms in Hancock County. In 1875 Cyrus married Mary Elizabeth Smith, and they went on to have six children. Early on, Cyrus opened a meat market in Wellsburg around 1883 and before long, in 1885, he moved his young family to McDonald, Pa., where he established a brick works and meat market in that city. He was also a founding member in 1892 of the Ferguson Hose Co., a group of volunteer firemen in McDonald. Around that same time, he entered the oil business in McDonald, which greatly increased his wealth.

In 1902 he returned to Holliday’s Cove and purchased 1,700 acres of land, most of modern downtown Weirton, and set up a homestead at the old Crawford mansion, located at the corner of Crawford and Pennsylvania avenues. The building was built in 1849 for the Crawford family and reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped enslaved persons on their route to freedom. According to Welch, “In 1907 Ferguson discovered and developed the prolific Holliday’s Cove oil pool, situated on both sides of the Panhandle railroad and just east of the Holliday’s Cove depot, extending for more than three miles to the top of the hill above Wheeling Junction. This deposit was one of the largest Bereagrit sand oil pools ever discovered in the world.”

In 1908 the Holliday’s Cove Oil pool produced more than 6,000 barrels of oil a day, but steadily declined as the year went on. According to Lewis Truax in his manuscript “My Life Story as I Have Seen Weirton Grow,” there was an oil boom here between 1885 and 1915.

“The Hudson brothers were very famous at that time because they had a great amount of oil well machinery and drilling equipment. That is why the road is called Hudson Hill Road because it goes through the Dave Hudson farm at the foot of the hill. The oil fields provided a very great amount of work for the farmers. A great many used their teams of horses for hauling the machinery and equipment to and from the wells.”

Truax remembers Cyrus’s oil derricks “around his farm two on the hillside above the high school stadium, (old Jimmy Carey Stadium downtown), two or three above the where the city building is now, where the old Atlantic Service station was.” Before that though, according to Mary Ferguson in her book, “The History of Holliday’s Cove,” “the first well drilled in the cove was on the banks of Harmon Creek above the old Cove Station. It was drilled with a spring pole using man power. They drilled some 300 feet but they struck only sand. No one knew at that time, that a depth of 1,500 feet was required to reach oil in this vicinity. A well came in on the Robert Patterson Place on the hill across from Three Springs Cemetery, on the present Woodland Estates, and it produced 60 barrels a day.”

Cyrus Ferguson took advantage of the discovery of oil and drilled his property from Weirton to Follansbee. Due to his successes, he became Holliday’s Cove’s first millionaire. Welch explained that in 1909, E.T. Weir bought 105 acres from Cyrus Ferguson in what would be known as North Weirton, the land that would become the Weirton Steel Co. Eventually Weir would purchase more than 1,200 acres from Ferguson. Cyrus, even after the sale to Weir, still held extensive holdings in the Weirton area but he didn’t just provide land for big industry.

“In 1912 he laid out his first allotment of 160 lots extending from Virginia Avenue to Purdys Alley and Main Street,” Welch added. “Mr. Ferguson threw his energy into the building of the valley, giving free factory sites to bring in Weirton’s industries, donating lots for the building of various schoolhouses and churches in Weirton and taking a leading part in securing improvement in the community.”

Ferguson was a principle in the construction of the Market Street Bridge in 1905, which linked Steubenville with West Virginia.

Later in his life, Cyrus relocated west to Colorado and Wyoming where he owned vast land holdings, perhaps to escape the industry he helped to create. In 1926, he died in Denver, and his remains were removed to Union Cemetery in Steubenville. His wife, Mary, died in 1940.

Ferguson was instrumental in bringing industry to our valley. It was a time when our rural past met with our industrial future. Today that discussion about the transition will be presented at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center from Jan. 31 through March 7 with an exhibit called “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” The Smithsonian exhibit sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council will focus on how rural West Virginia changed at the advent of the industry that came to our area. And Cyrus Ferguson made it all possible. Without him, the valley’s history would be drastically different.

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