Sitting On A Gusher

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The serene little village of Titusville now looked as if some shanty town had been wrenched up in a hurricane and flung down helter-skelter among prim white clapboard houses. Along narrow plank sidewalks in a sea of sucking mire, land sharks lurked in offices that didn’t yet have a roof, and seldom a solid floor for their high-sounding propositions. Boomers, the shady speculators who moved in to make a fast killing, needed only a handful of blank leases and revenue stamps, and were prepared to sell to the unsuspecting one-sixteenth, or even a sixteenth of a sixteenth, of the greatest money-maker since Croesus. On paper, everything looked foolproof. Nobody had yet discovered that one out of every three wells were “dusters”—that is, dry.

Every newcomer, whether honest buyer or boomer, seemed to bulge with maps purporting to show just which choice leases were still available. Some of the maps were the accurate work of civil engineers sent out by responsible companies. Others were exquisitely water-colored fantasies. Tinted stock certificates marked “$10 a share of property” were careful not to say what property. The filled-in stubs of an old stockbook of this kind show that a sucker who bought, say, $150 worth of these pieces of paper one day often rushed back to buy another $200 worth the next. The fear of being gulled wasn’t so acute as the fear of being left behind.

By the summer of 1860, there were 600 companies incorporated in Pennsylvania alone, and probably four-fifths of these were phonies. During the peak of the boom a few years later, a Boston paper ran a straight-faced announcement of the prospectus for a new company:

THE MUNCHAUSEN PHILOSOPHER’S STONE AND GULL CREEK GRAND CONSOLIDATED OIL COMPANY

Capitalized at $4,000,000,000 with a working capital of $37.50

Wells produce not just oil, but cod liver oil, quinine, ale, and the milk of human kindness. Last Wednesday at 2 P.M. … struck a large vein of quinine. This is generally administered without charge to any of the stockholders seized with fever, or shaky about the value of their shares.

 

The farmers on Oil Creek were almost the only people involved who didn’t need quinine. From the start they fared remarkably well against boomers, city financiers, and local tycoons like Jonah Watson. Most of their land along Oil Creek was already leased on a royalty basis, rather than sold outright, and those who weren’t satisfied with the original deal had a forth-right way of airing their grievances. The second lease Jonah Watson negotiated was on John Rynd’s farm, and if he congratulated himself on his initial shrewdness in granting a royalty of only one-twelfth, he must have been staggered to read the large public notice which appeared in the Venango Spectator some months later:

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT OIL LAND

Whereas on the 1st of September 1859, certain parties by misrepresentation procured from the subscriber a lease for his land on Oil Creek, in the county of Venango. Therefore he hereby notifies all whom it may concern that as said interest of lease was procured as above states, he is determined that the said lessees or their under lessees shall never take possession of one foot of said land or operate for oil or salt under said contract. Upon this all may depend.

December 21, 1859

JOHN RYND

John Rynd was the grandson of an Irish woolen factor, and he still owned the 300 acres his grandfather had bought from the Holland Land Company in 1800. He also owned a loaded Irish temper, and a shotgun; within three weeks, Jonah Watson gave in. The lease with John Rynd was changed to give the farmer royalties of one-fourth on oil. Salt wasn’t mentioned.

Ham McClintock, the farmer whom Watson had approached first of all, also did well for himself. Watson subleased large chunks of this land, and in turn each lessee subleased part of his piece to raise money to put down a well. Ham McClintock didn’t bother putting down many wells; he let others take the risk and pay him royalties. He simply placed mattresses all over the floor of his house, five to each room, to bed down these benighted souls. For 75 cents they could sleep in the hayloft without a blanket. There were sixty wells going down on his place, and McClintock always had plenty of paying guests. He was still so conditioned by his lean farming days that a charge of three dollars a week for board (at a time when eggs were eight cents a dozen) seemed suitably steep. One guest later remarked that when a farmer’s daughter waited on you at McClintockville, you were never sure whether she was a milkmaid or an oil heiress or both.

 

One day a waif of fourteen, whose tattered, patched pants were held up precariously by a single frayed suspender, poled a visitor across Oil Creek on a raft; the newcomer was so paternally moved by the boy’s apparent poverty that he gave him a nickel tip and a kindly pat on the head. He was somewhat discomfited to learn that the waif was a brand-new oil heir.