- 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
Ebenezer Brewer’s partner wasn’t a whiner—more of a shouter; Jonathan Watson (nicknamed Jonah) was a bluff, rough-grained lumberman with a craggy, big-nosed face, and a booming voice fit for yelling “Timber!” He took Drake’s specifications for timber for an engine house and told his head sawyer that Drake wanted it for a derrick and that he was going to drill a hole through the rock and find a big body of oil even if it took a year. “I have no faith in the project myself,” Watson added.
Drake entered the Brewer, Watson bill for $36 on his expense sheet in writing as cramped as his budget, along with “Poor Tax, .16 … Tinker’s Bill, 1.25 … Trip to Erie for Pump, 6.63 … Carpenter on Engine House, $8 … Liddell Hershey & Co. on Engine, $100.”
The $100 was a down payment to the Erie firm for a Long John, the six-horsepower engine and stationary boiler recommended by saltmen and used on steamboats.
Even when all the machinery finally arrived, nobody knew how to operate it, but Drake was hopeful; he had been promised still another borer, due in September.
It was mid-November when Drake finally realized the third borer was as ephemeral as the others. He wrote his company directors sadly that the saltman Lewis Peterson had told him he’d have to give up until spring. With his engine sitting mute and swaddled inside its new home, Drake reported, “I set myself down very uneasy, to wait for Spring. … I never saw such winter weather as they have in that part of Penn.”
His neuralgia was bad, and his constant worries about enough money to finish the project were achingly real. By the time another April Fool’s Day had come—and that was technically the end of his contract —Drake was informing the Seneca Oil Company that at last he had a lead on a dependable man, a blacksmith who had often made tools and lent a hand on salt wells—but the directors no longer cared. Townsend must have been happier than ever that he had kept his banker’s reputation intact, but he sent Drake a few small token loans before he finally urged him to give up the whole scheme and come home. Of the lot, Drake was the only man who showed the single-minded passion and faith and curiosity that marks the real pioneer.
Later, the villagers said that Drake’s sweet-faced wife was his “good angel” during these times and that she kept buoying up the hope in the pain-racked body—“his staff and his light in adversity.” But it was the people of Titusville who gave practical comfort. Even if they couldn’t believe in the wild and woolly venture, they had come to have a rather exasperated affection for Drake. Jonah Watson looked sheepish when a mill hand saw him give Drake a credit slip for the gristmill to get a 100-pound bag of flour for his family. The lumberman muttered, “Anybody who has the nerve to go ahead under these circumstances deserves some help.”
Reuel Fletcher risked a good bit more than a bag of flour. He let Drake run up a bill of over $300 at the little store and went on believing loyally that his friend would succeed, but he was frankly puzzled as to what on earth anybody would do with a vast amount of oil, even if they ever got it out of the ground. In spite of that, he and the lanky young druggist, Peter Wilson, Drake’s only close friends, co-signed a personal loan of $500 for Drake at the Meadville bank that summer.
This time Drake took no chances of losing his borer en route. He sent a local teamster to fetch the blacksmith William Smith and his fifteen-year-old son, Sammy, from Salina, near Tarentum. Smith had agreed to work for $2.50 a day, with Sammy’s services thrown in. Drake had also arranged for Smith to make a complete set of drilling tools before he left his forge, at a total cost of $76.50, and these tools, weighing 100 pounds, were packed into the wagon along with Smith’s pretty eldest daughter, Margaret, who was wearing a new brown calico dress. She had promised to come and cook for her father and brother and keep house in the engine-house shanty.
On the blossoming May day when the wagonload pulled up before the Drakes’ little rented house (they had long since moved out of the hotel), Drake was too ill to take Smith to the well, but he sat up in bed talking feverishly to the blacksmith. Later he said thankfully, “I could not have suited myself better if I could have had a man made to order.” They must have made a strange twosome; Smith, called “Uncle Billy,” was a short, broad, hefty, laconic man who might have posed for Longfellow under a spreading chestnut. Whether or not he really believed in the project at first, he soon felt a protective devotion for Drake. When he was offered a smithy job in Franklin at four dollars a day, he told his son, “I can’t quit Drake now.”
From the time he arrived, things throbbed. The derrick went up one afternoon in early June. All the men at the Upper Mill, a few hundred feet away, came down with their pike poles to help raise the pine timber rigging, and they acted as if they were having a half-holiday. Pupils from the nearby one-room school-house wandered past and two twelve-year-olds stayed to join the fun. At least a dozen townspeople were there, including Reuel Fletcher. Square-faced, chunky Dr. Brewer handed out cigars to the spectators, saying jovially, “Have one on me. They didn’t cost me a cent. I traded oil stock for them.”