- Historic Sites
Sitting On A Gusher
How gullible Edwin L. Drake, an ailing ex-railroad conductor, brought about America’s first and gaudiest oil boom
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
To confuse outsiders even more, some of the newly rich farmers continued to live in their dilapidated cabins, with rags and quilts hung at the windows in place of panes, and a limp calico curtain partitioning off a sleeping cubicle from the sitting room-kitchen. They got up at dawn, as always, and ploughed and planted as if their lives still depended upon it.
One of them, old John Buchanan, complained to a newcomer that he had been taken advantage of by sharpers and left a pauper. His listener’s eyes misted in sympathy, and he pictured the poor old fellow trudging over the hill to the county almshouse, until Buchanan finished sadly, “So here I am a poor man-worth barely a hundred thousand.”
With a hundred wells drilled on his farm, and his royalty share of one fourth on each, he may soon have been complaining, “Worth barely half a million.”
The oil-seekers arrived in droves—as one farmer observed sardonically, they came “by rickety coach or rickety mare or on rickety legs.” They came by water, too. Steamers like the Allegheny Belle , chugging upriver from Pittsburgh, were loaded like cattle boats. A tiny steamer renamed the Petrolia, which was once accustomed to carrying a dozen farmers from Franklin up the six miles to Oil City, now carried at least a hundred passengers each trip. On deck, a dapper gambler would unroll a large piece of checkered red and black oilcloth, each square numbered, and in jolly tones would urge listeners to invest fifty cents in the great Havana lottery. For only fifty cents, you had ten throws of the dice, and if the numbers rolled matched the numbers on the oilcloth, you were $150 richer. It was understood, of course, that you would multiply this sum a thousandfold once you reached Oildom. The percentage of Havana lottery winners was even lower than Oil Creek’s.
If you covered the last lap to Titusville by stage-coach, you arrived sore and bruised and with your pantaloons muddy to the hip, what with leaping out along the way to help pry the vehicle out of sock-holes or push it up hills. When you finally staggered into a lobby and asked a hotel clerk for a room, and he said he would try to squeeze you in, you discovered he probably meant just that. Eyeing the snoring guests sprawled on the floor, he would push and nudge two recumbent bodies until a space was cleared; as one victim remarked, “We were hung two on a peg.” More fortunate arrivals paid a dollar to spend the night on a billiard table, or upright in a barber chair, or behind a counter wrapped in a buffalo robe.
Meals were even worse than sleeping accommodations. They were served in three or four shifts, and mobs of hungry men were always waiting outside the eating places. An observer wrote, “When you see a man who wouldn’t sell for half a million trying three times in vain to get at the table while a poor digger who happens to understand the ropes gets comfortably fed, you are apt to inquire What’s the use?” For all this discomfort and near-hunger, guests paid as much as four dollars a day. If anyone dared to complain, the clerk was likely to answer, “This is the oil country, you know.” It was a world so foreign that visitors spoke constantly of “returning to the states.”
No customs or castes were familiar. It was as if a portion of the earth had turned upside down to produce this bewildering new democracy, where no one could be judged by appearances. One critic remarked, “They don’t have time to be aristocrats. They don’t even have time to change their sheets.” Another wrote a few years later:
That individual right in front of you, this greasy specimen could by one stroke of his pen produce a paper of more value than all your worldly possessions, and that would be honored quickly by any great banking institution. That little man to the left, nearly over his boots in mud, with hands covered with “crude” from the barrels which he is filling, handles more money than you ever saw, and beneath that covering of dirt and oil on the hand which you would now scorn to grasp, there glitters a little sparkler that would delight Tiffany or dazzle the eyes of many a Flora McFlimsey of Madison Square. For the individual is the possessor of a piece of land nearby which monthly returns him an income larger than that received by the President of the United States each year.
[ Ironically, one person who did not profit from the remarkable growth of the oil industry in Pennsylvania was Edwin Drake. In matters of finance, the Colonel seemed forever inept. After four moderately prosperous years as an oil commission agent and justice of the peace in Titusville, he went to New York where he lost everything in an oil brokerage venture. In the spring of 1866, he wrote to an old friend, the Titusville druggist Peter Wilson: ]
If you have any of the milk of human kindness left in your bosom for me or my family send me some money. I am in want of it sadly and am sick …
In 1869, the Titusville Herald ran Drake’s obituary, copied from a New England paper, saying that he had died in an almshouse; weeks later the Titusville people learned that it was the wrong man. Sick and impoverished, Drake was living with his wife and four children in a borrowed seaside cottage near Long Branch, New Jersey. The dank, foggy cold had made his spinal neuralgia worse than ever; his wife was supporting the family by sewing, and they lived mostly on potatoes and salt.