You may not know it now, but at one time, the small and quiet town of Cygnet in southern Wood County was a boisterous boom town of oil men and dreamers. A petroleum paradise as it enjoyed a geological location which had put it smack dab in the center of Northwest Ohio’s famous oil patch. It was the right place at the right time. For as Pennsylania’s oil pools had begun to dwindle, oil was disovered in 1886 in Wood County and Ohio’s oil fever became red hot. This multi-county deposit of black crude was the biggest oil patch in America. Speculation was rampant and everybody was trying to cash in to grab a piece of the “black gold” pie. Where farmers had grown wheat and corn, a new crop was growing. A crop of wooden oil derricks. Lots of them, by the hundreds, they towered above the fields of green and grain from Cygnet to Jerry City to other oil-rich burgs that don’t even exist anymore, except in the names of old roads and old maps. Oil Center, Wingston, Mermill, Bays. Galatea, Hammondsburg, and Mungen. Between 1895 and 1903, Ohio was the leading producer of crude oil in the nation, producing more than 380 million barrels of oil. It peaked in 1896 at 23.9 million barrels of oil. Northwest Ohio’s rich output of crude brought a a steady stream of new people to the area. “Boomers” were their nicknames as they sought out the hundreds if not thousands of jobs in the oil fields, on the rigs or in the refineries that also sprung up during the era.
Cygnet which had blossomed from a community of 50 to 6,000 almost over night, seemed to be at the epicenter of this explosion in growth. Sometimes literally. Nitroglycerin blasting accidents and tragedies were not uncommon. Several times during this era, homes were blown off their foundations and buildings reduced to rubble and splinters when the nitro shooters become a bit too aggressive, or careless. Fires were a nuisance and often deadly. The inherent dangers of pulling oil from the ground put scores of people into the ground, as fatalities in the oil patch were a commonplace fact of life. Explosions, accidents, flames and a few fights in the 13 saloons of Cygnet sent many men and women on a trip up the so called “golden staircase” to their ultimate reward. Like the time in 1902 when Yank Robinson and George Kersey had a duel to the death on Main Street with Bowie knives over a woman. They both died. But danger be damned, fortunes were being made and Cygnet grew into a center of commerce and industry. With several oil storage facilities in the area and control of the important “Buckeye Pipeline” which carried the crude liquid bounty to ports from Cleveland to Chicago, Cygnet was a name known far and wide, and the boomers kept coming with dreams in their heads and hope in the hearts.
But as the oil stopped flowing with abundance and sweeter crude deposits were discovered in Texas and Oklahoma, the glitter of Wood County’s “black gold” began to fade. By the 1920’s, Cygnet was sobering to reality that the best days might be behind them, although, Cygnet was still handling much of the Ohio basin crude oil that was still being extracted. Productive drilling in the region was still common through the 1930’s, although not nearly as prolific as in years prior. It was however, still the main hub for many of the pipeline companies and tank farms that took root in the region during the boom years. But the wild days were over. A once bustling community which had spread its wings wide and proud for many years, was now but a little swan, as its name implies, settling into a much quietier future. But one day in November of 1934, it awoke from its slumber. For on Thursday morning, November 15th, the whole town was shaken and taken hostage.
During the very wee hours of the morning, at least six bandits, perhaps eight, had slithered into town and as the 400 souls slept, the bandits set about the business of cutting all the phone lines in town. All 300. They thought. Once contact with the outside world was cut off, the Cygnet Savings Bank became their next target and at 3:10 in the morning, the solitude was cracked by the sound of the bank’s front door being ripped from its hinges. The noise awakened Caryl Schwyn, the President of the bank, who lived in an apartment above the bank. He ran to the telephone to call for help, only to discover the line was dead. At that point, Schwyn says a blast of nitroglcyren rocked the whole block. The first of seven nitro blasts the bandits would use to reduce the interior of the bank to shambles. Schwyn called for his maid, Julia, whose room was right above the safe. She said she thought the explosions were going to come right through the floor. She yelled down to the men below and said “Whose there?”. One of the bandits yelled back, “Shut up you nitwit.” Firing a shotgun at her to underscore his threat. It would not be the last shot fired.
The men, were promiscuous in their use of the their guns. Every citizen who even dared to come running to the bank or poked their head out of their homes, was fired at by the gang. It is said at least a 100 rounds were fired through the morning as everyone was holed up inside their houses, afraid to move. But Carl Schwyn, at 38 years of age, was not only the bank president, but owner of thousands of oil well leases in the area; and he was angry. Not just with this attack on his bank, but the huge personal stake he had in the financial interests of the town. Despite his wife’s opposition, he climbed out of a window and onto the roof of the bank building. The bandits saw him and fired. With bullets flying past him, wearing only his pajamas, he was able to crawl along the rooftop to a drugstore window, and the druggist led him then to the telephone exchange building next door. There, with the help of Miss Honor Hartigan, the operator, they managed to find one phone line of out 300, that the bandits had missed. It was the line to Bowling Green. That careless error by the bandits allowed them to make an emergency call to Bowling Green to the sheriff’s office to summon help. All the while, Schwyn was on the phone, he could hear even more blasts coming from the bank and more gunshots. The bandits had started firing at a local resident who had just driven to the telephone exchange. He wasn’t hit, but it was a close call, as numerous shots were fired around him. Minutes later, Sheriff Bruce Pratt rolled up, with a carload of deputies and red lights flashing against the dark sky. One the bandits yelled, ” Here comes the law”, and they fled the bank. Within minutes, they were gone, apparently, able to exit town on foot as easily as they were able to enter. In their wake, however they left behind The Cygnet Saving Bank building in shattered ruins. The seven nitro explosions were so strong, there were no windows left intact. The interior was in splinters. The one thing that did remain intact – was the vault. Damaged but unopened. They didn’t get inside. A good thing for this particular day was the “payday” for most of the workers of the Ohio Oil Company and the Imperial Pipeline Company in town. A big payroll of cash that was obviously the prize the bandits were trying to steal, but despite their best laid plans, they were forced to leave town empty handed. Toledo Police detective were brought in later in the day with fingerprint kits to see if they could identify the cuplrits, but found that they must have worn gloves because there were no prints found anywhere.
The search for the would-be safecrackers yielded few clues and a lot of theories. Then a month later, it appears this same “phone line gang” struck again. This time near Chillicothe in the tiny community Adelphi, Ohio, where once again they terrorized the townspeople with gunshots and explosives and cut all the phone wires. Once again, they pulled the same stunt, cutting phone lines and electric wires and placing their explosives on the vault at the Armstrong Bank. Unlike their experience in Cygnet, the nitro worked. They yeggs got inside the safe and took about $2,000 in cash. Police expressed confidence that these were the same men who siezed Cygnet in November. Then, two days later, the gang hit again. This time near Willard, Ohio in the little burg of North Fairfield. Same M.O. Early morning, half dozen miscreants cut all the phone lines then headed for the local bank where they set off some powerful explosion to get inside the bank and the bank’s vault. Another success, and from this vault, they managed to snag about $3,000 in bonds. The town of 400 people were terrorized and watched as the heavily armed gang piled into three cars and headed north out of town. This would not be their last attempt at such a brazen robbery. In Clermont County on January 10th, 1935, the bold gang of safe crackers snuck into the small town of Felicity, Ohio, population 700, and in the pre-dawn hours, severed the phone lines, took up positions around the bank and in the street to keep citizens away and then went to work. With no police department there, and no communication, they took their time blowing holes in the bank with powerful explosives. Once again, like in Cygnet, they couldn’t breach the big vault at the Citizens Bank. It held tight and protected the $7000 cash inside. The bandits, foiled again, were only able to grab a few hundred dollars from the smaller safes inside the bank before heading out of town. They were never heard from again. At least not using this particular style of robbery.
From this writer’s research, I was unable to find any reports of similar robberies in subsquent months and years. It would appear that this bank job in January of 1935 was the gang’s last. The November robbery at Cygnet being their first. So who were they? Police agencies in Ohio, say they were no fingerprints and that left detectives with few clues. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed, given the frequent use of nitroglycerin and bullets it’s a wonder no blood was left in their wake. What they did leave behind were four small towns in Ohio that had come mighty big stories to tell, and questions never answered.
One footnote to the Cygnet robbery that actually garnered as many national news articles as the robbery attempt itself was that when the phone lines were cut by the bandits, in the days that followed, the Cygnet telephone manager couldn’t find anyone to repair them. That’s because the day of the robbery was the first day of rabbit hunting season in Ohio, and all of the available repairmen had gone hunting.