- 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
Inside the twelve-foot-square base of the derrick, the engine-propelled walking beam, like a giant jerky grasshopper, sent the drilling tools down and up. But the soft earth still kept caving in. Drake, watching, got the one brilliant, inventive idea that none of his detractors can take away from him. He went off to Erie again, got fifty feet of cast-iron pipe, in sections, and had the jointed pipe driven down through sand and clay till it hit rock at 32 feet. Then the drilling went on steadily, three feet a day.
On a brilliant Saturday afternoon, August 27, at 69 feet down, the drill suddenly dropped six inches into a crevice. Uncle Billy fished it out, wiped it off carefully, and knocked off for the Sabbath. But Monday seemed a long way off, and on Sunday Smith was back at the well, peering down the pipe, wondering if he really saw something glistening on the surface below. He grabbed a leftover end of pipe, plugged it up like a dipper, and thrust it down on a stick. It came back up filled to the brim with oil. A wild shout brought several mill hands running. Young Sammy raced off to town to notify Colonel Drake.
The whole village was buzzing; even townsmen who still couldn’t imagine what might come of the find were eager to see it. A man from the nearby town of Franklin, on the Allegheny River, who visited Drake’s well the following day, joining the eager crowds streaming in on every road in wagons, on horseback, and on foot, reported, “It comes out a flowing dark grease with a heavy white froth.”
By then, the few pine barrels Drake had provided were already full. Drake took Margaret Smith’s washtub from the engine-house shanty (she complained later she never could get it clean after that), then commandeered old whiskey barrels and sperm oil containers. And still Uncle Billy kept pumping and the oil kept coming; so did the crowds.
In New York, George Bissell, the bouncing promoter, received the word by telegraph from Dr. Brewer, who was already regretting the stock he had traded for cigars and was ready to buy it back. Bissell, in turn, rushed around the city buying up all the shares of the Seneca Oil Company he could get his hands on. Four days later he was in Titusville to grab leases. But already the rush was on.
One of the deals Bissell panted over that fall was the lease of the Story Farm on lower Oil Creek. He persuaded the owner all right, but the farmer’s dumpy little wife was unexpectedly stubborn. Whatever her reason for balkiness, even Bissell’s hair-tossing eloquence couldn’t budge her. When Bissell went back the next day, he found that a wily agent for a group of Pittsburgh men had been there before him. The agent had offered the Storys $40,000, and when Mrs. Story still placidly refused to sign, he had won her over by writing into the contract, “And for Mrs. Story, one new silk dress.” The stockholders of that Pittsburgh company, including a young steel man, Andrew Carnegie, made enough to pay for Mrs. Story’s silk dress—even if it had been studded with diamonds.
But before the Pittsburghers sent in their silken-tongued agent, the local men were on to a good thing. At seven thirty on the Monday morning after Uncle Billy hauled up the first big dipperful of oil, Jonah Watson rode up to the mill on horseback and called his head sawyer, William Kirkpatrick, outside. This was the same sawyer he’d told, “I don’t have any faith in Drake’s project myself.” Now he explained with a straight face that some urgent business had come up and that he had to be gone for a few days. Would Kirkpatrick look after things? Then he went galloping off like a Paul Revere, but not to warn the inhabitants; he meant to lease their land before they knew what was under it.
The head sawyer looked thoughtfully at his vanishing employer, then called the tail sawyer, a lusty, loud-voiced, bull-necked young fellow named James Tarr, and told him to look after the mill. Then he too leapt onto a horse and went off to get two leases of his own by sundown.
The tail sawyer, James Tarr, went back into the mill and cheerfully oiled the circular saw. He owned 200 acres on the creek, so poor for farming that he’d taken the job at the mill to help eke out a living for himself and his wife and child. Within three years, he would take out the equivalent of two million dollars worth of oil, from his own wells, and at the most conservative estimate, earn another million in royalties. When he took his daughter to a fancy finishing school to enroll her, and the headmistress murmured that she was afraid the girl didn’t have the capacity, James Tarr pulled out a roll of bills as thick as his neck, and roared, “Then buy her some.”