- 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
Hardly able to walk, Drake went to New York one day in the fall of 1869 to look for work for himself and his twelve-year-old son. He had already been turned away at the Custom House when an old Titusville friend, Zeb Martin, saw him down by the wharves, limping along in the same long, black coat he’d worn ten years before. Martin took the gaunt, exhausted man into a restaurant for a good meal, gave him a twenty-dollar bill and promised to spread the word when he got home.
Back in Titusville, a committee of oil men collected some $3,000 in pledges overnight, but very little cash. Their campaign seemed to raise more arguments than , money: was Drake really the pioneer, the discoverer of oil? And if not, why did he deserve contributions? Even so, a modest amount—$4,833.53—was eventually forwarded, most of it to Mrs. Drake because people agreed that Drake himself could never handle money. Finally, in 1873, the state of Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500, “to the said E. L. Drake or to his widow in the event of the death of the said Drake.”
Early in 1880, Laura Drake wrote to the editor of the Titusville Herald from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:
He has not walked in seven years, nor used his hands to write in two years. … The last six weeks he has been confined entirely to his bed, with only slight hopes of his ever being better. He is a patient sufferer. … As he has had so many sleepless nights, he has taken an interest (until the past few weeks) in all the new developments of the age …
The obituary that appeared the same year was true at last. The Colonel was a much more impressive hero dead than alive.