Sitting On A Gusher

Perhaps the most bizarre of all the great mineral booms of the nineteenth century took place not in a remote western wilderness, but in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, within easy reach of such well-established centers of population as New York and Pittsburgh. In this case the sought-after prize was not gold or silver but an infinitely more valuable substance, petroleum. If Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 strike was not as stupendous as the turn-of-the-century Spindletop gusher in Texas ( AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958), it was more significant. For the greasy liquid that bubbled to the surface one August day a hundred years ago launched an industry. The account of the first months of the Pennsylvania oil boom that follows is taken from Hildegarde Dolson’s The Great Oildorado, to be published later this month by Random House.


After his well came in, poor Edwin Drake got shoved aside in all the excitement and nearly lost in the rush. He was the hero, all right, but one of those heroes who seem to have been chosen in a game of blindfold, like Pin The Tail On The Donkey. It took an improbable trio of New Englanders—a hearty country doctor, a lawyer-promoter who looked like a Greenwich Village poet, and a banker with an undercoating of ballyhoo—to propel the ex-railroad conductor into his one larger-than-life act.

In fact, there are still factions who say that the other three men were the heroes. Since 1859, there have been so many fierce arguments that it seems only sensible to point out that nobody “discovered” oil. The truth is large enough—that Drake was probably the first man to carry through a practical method for drilling and pumping out of the earth mass quantities of the liquid wealth that had been collecting for a few million years, in the slow distillation of matter, animal, vegetable, or mineral. Job, in the Bible, sounds like the best prophet of the lot, with his talk of the rock that poured out “rivers of oil.”

In the seventeenth century British and French explorers in what is now western Pennsylvania and New York sent back eager accounts of the oil pools that looked like water and burned like brandy, but nobody seemed to care. Lewis Evans, drawing a map of the middle British colonies in America in 1755, carefully lettered Petroleum near the spot where Seneca and Cornplanter Indians spread blankets on the rainbowed oily surface of the creek, then wrung out the slippery liquid into earthenware vessels for liniment and medicine and to mix with their war paint for glistening, waterproof make-up. For his help in the Revolution, the great chief Cornplanter was given 300 acres in Venango County, Pennsylvania. The hillside settlement of shanties above Oil Creek was called Cornplanter long after the chief sold the land, in 1818, to two white settlers for $2,121. Later it became Oil City.

After making a survey of other Revolutionary land grants. General Benjamin Lincoln reported in 1785:

In the northern part of Pennsylvania, there is a creek called Oil Creek, which empties itself into the Allegheny River, issuing from a spring, on the top of which floats an oil, similar to what is called Barbadoes tar, and from which may be collected, by one man, several gallons in a day. The troops, in marching that way, halted at the spring, collected the oil, and bathed their joints with it. This gave them great relief, and freed them immediately from the rheumatic complaints with which many of them were affected. …

Settlers in western Pennsylvania had already discovered this from the Indians. Almost every household had a supply of “Seneca oil,” skimmed up wherever it appeared, and used to enliven the joints of humans and horses. In hot weather, farmers lathered their teams with it, because the oil reeked so hideously that even blowflies couldn’t stand the smell and stayed at a resentful distance.

[ Although the existence of oil in western Pennsylvania was a well-established fact, no one had yet proved that there was enough of it in the ground to warrant large-scale exploitation. By the mid-nineteenth century, scientists also had more than a hint of its effectiveness as a lubricant for machines and, at a time when the world’s supply of whale oil was rapidly diminishing, as a cheap illuminant. Even the drilling process had already been worked out by the men who tapped the earth for salt-water deposits; for the derrick and engine house of the brine-well operators was a familiar sight west of the Alleghenies. ]

In 1849, Ebenezer Brewer, senior partner in the Brewer, Watson lumber mill below Titusville, skimmed up five gallons from the seepage on his land bordering Oil Creek, and sent it by coach to his son Francis, a young doctor who was starting practice in northern Vermont. Perhaps he thought that even a green new doctor could do no harm with the homely remedy. Francis Brewer may have groaned, as sons have always groaned over family advice, but the greasy stuff proved to be exactly the sort of unpleasant medicine Vermonters were crazy about.