- 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
Young Dr. Brewer was so gratified he took a flask of the crude oil down to his old professor at Dartmouth, Dr. Dixi Crosby, who examined it and agreed it might be a pretty good thing. Four years later, the flask was still sitting on Crosby’s butternut desk when another graduate, George Bissell, a young lawyer, came back to Hanover for a visit. As he listened to Crosby talk about the interesting contents of the flask, he quivered like a bird dog who has caught the scent of new game. Bissell, in his early thirties, had already hurtled through several careers—as reporter, professor of Greek, high school principal—and had come most recently to law. He looked like a cartoon of a poet or an anarchist, with long black wind-tossed hair, a beard that looked pasted on, villainous scowling eyebrows, snapping dark eyes, and a hectic intensity. He and his partner in New York, Jonathan Eveleth, had spent little time practicing law but a great deal in promoting the laws of chance, handling stocks for such firms as the American and Foreign Iron Pavement Company.
Now they leapt into action and bought 100 acres of the Brewer, Watson lumber firm’s land, the acres that had an oil spring, on the east bank of the creek. They agreed to pay $5,000 eventually, but it was a nice Bissell touch to blow up this purchase price to $25,000 in the prospectus, which sounded more impressive. The company was capitalized grandly at a quarter of a million dollars on paper, and one share would sell at $25, if any buyers could be found. But even the most gullible refused to take a chance on anything so silly. Gold, yes. Or iron. But who wanted oil? Prospects for the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company looked dim. Villagers back in Titusville called it “The Fancy Stock Company.”
Old lumberman Ebenezer Brewer, having sent along the oil to dose patients, was outraged that his son seemed to have swallowed it the wrong way. He wrote him after hearing about the land deal:
I always told you that I had no confidence in the men from the very nature of the transaction and all that you would ever get would be what you received in the sale. … Now mark well what I tell you, it is for your interest alone that I now say it—you are associated with a set of sharpers and if they have not already ruined you, they will do so if you are foolish enough to let them do it.
A New York merchant whom Bissell and Eveleth had approached about buying stock wrote the Brewers: “From what little I have seen of them and their transactions I have no confidence in them as business men and would not trust them without security.”
The hectic, brilliant Bissell was shrewd enough to attach his kite to a solid base; he and Eveleth hired Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale, the leading chemist in the country, to analyze the oil and make a detailed report of its potentialities, especially for lighting. Silliman worked on this project for the next half year, completing it in April, 1855. By then Dr. Francis Brewer had left Vermont and medicine to become a partner in his father’s lumber firm. Brewer, Watson engaged a local man, Jacob Angier, to dig a series of trenches to collect the oil, which was already being used at the mill to lubricate the huge circular saw and to burn in lamps there.
At the impetuous Bissell’s urging, Dr. Brewer shipped three barrels of this oil via canal from Buffalo to New York. When a drayman brought the shipment to Bissell’s office on the corner of Broadway and Franklin Street, both lawyers were away, so he dumped it on the sidewalk out front and drove off. The law office was on the second floor; it was the tenants downstairs, the publishers and booksellers D. Appleton & Co., who were left with the barrels blocking their elegant doorway, oozing in the sun. They had just opened their elaborate new store on the first floor of the building with a display of rare books and fine prints that was attracting the carriage trade. The customers who came in past the barrels holding their noses finally goaded Mr. Appleton into action. He rushed out, imperiously summoned a passing dray, and yelled, “Take these away.” The driver obliged, so successfully that it took Bissell several weeks to locate the missing oil in a dock warehouse. He brought one barrel back to his second-floor office, as a sample for possible purchasers of stock, whereupon the publisher angrily approached the promoter. The oil had leaked through the newly decorated white ceiling below, and Appleton wanted damages. Yet Bissell had so little money that he had been unable to pay Professor Silliman. The Professor had cannily refused to hand over his lengthy, detailed analysis until he got his fee—$526.08—in full.
Bissell already had a hint from Silliman of the glowingly favorable results of the tests, and this spurred him into getting the money, or rather, persuading his partner to pay up out of his own skimpy pocket. The report was worth every penny. It gave the results of innumerable tests and comparisons, and a few sentences must have been enough to convince Bissell he could outshine Aladdin: