Local historian Keith Johnson recalls the amazing story of a man born in a Preston slum who quit his hometown for a new life in America and rose to become a multi-millionaire oil baron
Exactly 125 years ago in January 1893, a telegram was received at the Lancashire Evening Post offices from Cleveland, Ohio, informing the people of Preston that John Huntington (pictured inset), who had been travelling on the Continent with his wife, had been struck down by pneumonia, dying in Germany.
The news that a true working class hero had passed away was received with sadness in Preston.
After all, the life of a man who had gone from a Preston cotton outcast to oil multi-millionaire had certainly captured the imagination of folk back home.
His story began during the latter part of 1853 and the early part of 1854 when Preston was in the throes of a bitter strike in the cotton industry.
It became known as the ‘Great Lockout’ as the workers attempted to claw back a ‘Ten Per Cent’ reduction in wages. The factory gates were eventually locked by the cotton masters and, after seven long months, the reluctant and hungry workers were forced back.
Among those representing the operatives was 20-year-old John Huntington, son of a professor of mathematics from Ormskirk.
A well-educated Preston-born lad, who worked in Seed’s Mill in Ribbleton, he had tried to put forward the case for the operatives but when it was all over the factory gates were shut to him.
Having married a young local weaver called Jane Beck in 1852, he found a shake of the head greeted his request for employment as he went from mill to mill. His meagre savings were soon eaten up and, branded an outcast by the tightly knit cotton masters, he was forced to consider a new life to support his young wife and child.
He resolved to try his luck in America and, going to Liverpool alone, he obtained a working passage on a cargo boat bound for New York.
Alas, the boat’s departure was delayed and he was forced to return home to his family. That night in August 1854, when friends became aware of the family’s plight, they arranged a collection and within days there was enough money to pay the passage of the whole family.
Within days the Huntington family had set sail on a cargo boat and, after being tossed up and down on the ocean for eight weeks, they landed in New York.
Once they had disembarked they had a journey of 600 miles ahead of them to their intended destination: a farming settlement at Lake Erie, Cleveland. They made the westward journey by railroad and arrived on a dark night at a log cabin station by the lakeside.
They were anxious times for a young couple whose only worldly possessions were in a green painted box tied with bed cord. Fortunately, a kindly gentleman from Bolton who ran a settlement soon befriended them. The family were made welcome and John Huntington’s skill as a clock mender and cleaner soon gained him work and later he had gained a contract to put the roof on a new school building.
He soon became established as a contractor with plenty of work coming his way and, a few years later, he was fortunate, along with a chemist friend, to discover an oil-rich field.
The old German settler who owned it, keeping pigs and poultry on it, agreed to sell them the holding and so began John Huntington’s road to fame and fortune.
Business began in a small way, but soon improved thanks to his inventiveness with regards to refining oil and he was soon in partnership with Clark, Payne and Company oil refiners.
Other improvements followed to the furnaces and barrel production, thanks to his imaginative designs, and soon the company was outstripping all competitors, eventually taking over a number of refineries in the area to form the Standard Oil Company.
This company would go to on to be the greatest and wealthiest oil company in the world and John Huntington became a millionaire several times over.
He became a citizen of the USA and was elected a member of the city council of Cleveland. In all, he was a prominent member of the city council for 13 years and was involved in projects such as bridge building, sewer construction and water mains.
In 1877 he made a visit to Preston and renewed his
acquaintance with some of his former friends and the story of his meteoric rise gladdened the hearts of those who had felt sorrow at his departure. His next visit was in Guild Year 1882.
On this occasion he
returned with the sad news that his beloved wife, who had borne him seven children, had just died.
While in the town he arranged to supply a baptistery for St Paul’s Church. In 1886 he engaged successfully in lake shipping and became part owner of a fleet of vessels and his interest in the Cleveland Stone Company led to him becoming its vice-president.
A few years after his wife’s death he married again, his bride being Marietta Goodwin. She was a good companion and accompanied him on his travels.
These travels included a four-year tour of Europe, during which he was fighting a physical ailment.
While in Europe he had arranged for a magnificent yacht to be built in New York. The cost was enormous but it was to enable him to realise a cherished dream.
His heart was set on crossing the Atlantic in his yacht with the star spangled flag of America flying at the masts, alongside the Union Jack. The journey was to end by sailing up the Ribble into the new Preston dock.
Sadly, he never saw his ship, much less accomplished the purpose on which his heart was set. In his 61st year Huntington had seemed in high spirits as he began his journey back to America from Europe.
But while the couple were in Dresden, in Germany, he was stricken with pneumonia and died.
His body was eventually shipped to New York via Southampton and then taken by train to Cleveland. He was buried in the Lake View Cemetery, about six miles from the city of Cleveland, close to the tomb of his bosom friend, the assassinated President Garfield.
Throughout his life he had been ever mindful of the poor and interested in benevolent enterprises of every kind.
It was said the gifts made during his lifetime exceeded £500,000 and his generosity led to the construction of Huntington Art Gallery, Library and Museum in Wade Park, Cleveland.
In 1911 when the United States Supreme Court ordered the Standard Oil Company to be broken up into 33 subsidiaries the Cleveland institutions which had benefited from his generosity were rewarded even further thanks to the enhanced value of Standard Oil shares.
Such is the story of the man born amid the poverty of Everton Gardens, in the heart of industrial Preston, who was compelled to sail from Liverpool to New York in a trading vessel, and who now lies surrounded by the illustrious dead of America.
Truly a working class hero of Preston.