- 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
The meals at the American Hotel, where Drake paid $6.50 a week room and board, for himself, his wife and daughter were generously designed to fatten almost anybody: smoked pork and johnnycake, mutton, and mashed turnips, pie three times a day. On the wide, shady front porch, wicker rockers creaked companionably behind broad white pillars, while the guests exchanged stories. Visiting lumbermen always called the American Hotel “the tavern.” The proprietor, Billy Robinson, was a hearty host who would referee the young mill hands’ impromptu wrestling matches on his taproom floor, or preside genially over a round of tall tales. There was one other hotel, the Eagle, a general store, and a gristmill. An ambitious German immigrant had opened a butcher shop which failed miserably, because almost every man in the area cured his own meat. The only other store was Peter Wilson’s —“Dealers in Drugs, Medicines, and Chemicals, Paints, Oils and Varnishes, Pure Wines and Liquors for Medicinal Use.” The main street was a stretch of sticky yellow clay.
Drake soon adopted the natives’ clumping high boots, but the rest of him looked forever foreign. He dressed in the somber black of a deacon, and his long, thin legs and the overcoat that reached almost to the ground made him look much taller than his five feet nine and a half inches. His beard was silky and dark; his thin face, strengthened and whittled by suffering, and his enormous, deep-socketed black eyes, gave him an ascetic look. But the men soon discovered that Drake could tell a good story and enjoyed a nip of whiskey and a skinny long Pittsburgh stogie when they sat around the fat-bellied coal stove in Reuel Fletcher’s store, or played pinochle on an overturned barrel. Drake had a New Englander’s twangy humor and deliberate way of speech. He had gone to public school in Castleton, Vermont, worked on an uncle’s farm in Michigan, been a hotel clerk and a clerk in a dry goods store, an express agent, and then a conductor on the New York, New Haven Railroad at $75 a month.
He thought the oil spring on a small, barren, artificial island created by the mill flow was “a rusty, disgusting looking pool.” He insisted later, resentfully, that neither Bissell nor anyone else had told him how to get petroleum in quantities out of the ground and that he had to try whatever came to mind. Hiring local workmen to dig around the seepage seemed a logical start, but even that wasn’t simple. He could get plenty of men, but a mill hand remembered Drake saying incredulously, “You don’t mean to say I cannot get picks and shovels in this town?”
The storekeeper, Reuel Fletcher, had the answer to this and a dozen other dilemmas. He was a kind, sensible man, cheerfully and warmly helpful in the best cracker-barrel tradition, and even if he didn’t carry picks and shovels, he was quick to offer the loan of his horse so that Drake could ride off and buy from Fletcher’s nearest rival at Hydetown. Drake got a pick there, in the tumble-down log cabin store kept by Charles Hyde.
All that summer he kept borrowing Fletcher’s handsome bay horse and rig to ride off in all directions, assembling tools and machinery. He made longer trips by stagecoach to Erie, to Pittsburgh, and to Tarentum, where he consulted owners of salt wells and hired a borer who promised to arrive in July but never turned up. Drake, who had been frightened by tales of the salty thirst of borers, had told the man sternly he would receive only board and tobacco, but no cash wages, until he’d drilled a hole 1,000 feet down. No salt well had ever been dug anywhere near that deep, and certainly never under such Spartan conditions.
This probably clinched the driller’s suspicion that Drake was crazy, and he told friends he had promised to work for the lunatic just to shut him up and get rid of him. A second borer had good intentions but itching feet; Drake traced him to Pittsburgh and learned he had headed west.
The workmen Drake had hired, at a dollar a day, dug trenches and finally a hole, but Drake wrote the directors of his company:
In sinking our well last week we struck a large vein of oil but the same thrust of the spade opened a vein of water that drove the men out of the well and I shall not try to dig by hand any more as I am satisfied that boring is the cheapest. … I have contracted for an engine to be ready for boring by the first of Sept. The engine will cost five hundred dollars in Erie which is about one hundred dollars less than the same or one like it would cost at the East. … Now I think you had better make a loan of $1000 and place it in bank there where I can get it as I need it Sc I assure you there is no risk whatever for I have got as far with five hundred dollars as any other company have with five thousand and further than some have with ten thousand dollars. … Money is very scarce here. The lumbermen could not sell their lumber for cash this summer and the people all depend upon the lumber trade, so money is as tight here as it was in New York last fall. The old lumber company begin to think they did not retain the best of the property when they sold out the oil springs. Old Mr. Brewer is here now and says he is sorry they sold that piece of land or gave that lease; but let them whine …