- 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
I have submitted the lamp burning Petroleum to the inspection of the most experienced lampists who were accessible to me, and their testimony was, that the lamp burning this fluid gave as much light as any which they had seen, that the oil spent more economically, and the uniformity of the light was greater than in Camphene. … As this oil does not gum or become acid or rancid by exposure, it possesses in that, as well as in its wonderful resistance to extreme cold, important qualities for a lubricator. … In conclusion, gentlemen, it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your Company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive process they may manufacture very valuable products.
Silliman himself was so enthusiastic that he consented, briefly, to be president of the company. Since he was one of Yale’s most distinguished men, the citizens of New Haven were impressed. James Townsend, head of the City Savings Bank, slid suavely into the thick of Bissell’s stock tangle and eventually got a new company formed, the Seneca Oil Company, in his own state, taking over the same lease on the Brewer, Watson land, with Bissell and his partner still holding a majority share.
In the antimacassared parlor of the Tontine Hotel where he lived, Townsend talked of the new scheme to a fellow boarder —a courtly, frail-looking, 38-year-old widower, Edwin Drake. It is rather mystifying why a bank president should have persuaded an ailing conductor on the New Haven Railroad to invest what was probably his entire savings—$200—in the venture. “I bot by Townsend’s advice without investigating,” Drake wrote later, “and a few months afterwards when I did try to investigate I made up my mind my friend had pulled me in, in trying to get out himself.”
Professor Silliman had backed out hurriedly; he still thought the oil was valuable, but he must have analyzed the human element involved and found it had a more peculiar odor. What is even more mystifying, at least to laymen unused to the ways in which lambs are shorn and dubious stock deals are promoted, is that Drake was elected president of the company and given a startlingly large block of stock, then promptly relieved of most of it. Townsend, who wore high, stiff collars and kept his lips tight in public, later admitted that it hadn’t seemed proper for a banker to have his name attached openly to such a chancy venture, but he had been perfectly willing to own all the stock he could acquire cheaply, behind the scenes.
On the letterhead of the Seneca Oil Company, the innocent new president wrote out a memo disposing of his stock to the directors:
For value received I hereby sell transfer and convey to Asahel Pierpont—Thirty three hundred and thirty four shares of the Capital Stock of the Seneca Oil Company—Also Twenty-seven hundred and Eighty-three Shares of said Stock to James M. Townsend—Also Sixteen hundred and thirty two Shares of said Stock to E. B. Bowditch—Also Five Hundred and twenty one Shares of said Stock to Henry L. Pierpont now standing in my name upon the Books of said Company.
E. L. Drake
Drake was to go to Titusville and act as “general agent of this Company to raise & dispose of Oil with a Salery of One Thousand Dollars per Annum for one year from the date hereof.” In the minutes of that meeting on April i, 1858, it was also stated: “Voted that the Treas. be requested to procure without delay the sum of one thousand Dollars to be placed at the disposal of Said Drake to be used in conducting the operations of this Company.”
A man already too ill with neuralgia of the spine to walk up and down the aisles of a train collecting tickets was now going off hopefully to an obscure part of Pennsylvania, to run a hellish obstacle race over a course that had never been tried out before. The one thing he knew for certain was that it was a hard place to get to, because he had already made one quick survey trip, traveling free on his railroad pass. Now he was going to return with his new second wife, Laura, and his small daughter.
Round-cheeked, beaming Billy Robinson, proprietor of the American Hotel in the snug little valley village of Titusville, was rather impressed when large vellum envelopes arrived on three successive days addressed to a Colonel Edwin Drake, due to arrive with his family that week. Townsend, who must have had a brash streak of press agent under his sober banker’s garb, had pulled the title out of a hat to provide an air of solid worth to his agent.
Titusville had been founded in 1790 by Jonathan Titus, a civil engineer who had worked on surveys for the Holland Land Company and who had spotted the lovely three-mile-long valley lying between round-shouldered hills and taken a piece for a farm. Of the 300 people living there when Drake came, most were German, English, or Northern Irish immigrants. They were cautious, thrifty, and stubborn, and they paid grudging tribute to Drake’s own stubbornness in sticking to his project that next grueling year, even if they thought the idea of boring for oil was madness. At husking bees and church socials, the word went around that the Colonel was a nice hard-working gentleman and it was too bad he’d been sucked in by the “Fancy Stock Company” to come and do a fool’s errand. The poor man didn’t look fit; he was a bad color and spindly.