- 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
If Jonah Watson had stayed at the mill that first mad Monday and made a friendly deal with his tail sawyer, he might have done even better. But he had his mind’s eye on Ham McClintock’s farm, twelve miles down Oil Creek, where an oil spring even larger than the lumber mill’s had been a matter of general knowledge for years. Ham McClintock had often collected oil from the seepage for medicine. The only people who had been really interested in it were men like Timothy Alden, the president of Allegheny College in Meadville; he had delivered a paper in 1820 entitled “Antiquities and Curiosities of Western Pennsylvania,” in which he marveled over the old oil pits around McClintock’s spring, cribbed with logs and bordered by mounds of earth in which grew trees hundreds of years old. Alden concluded they must have been dug before the French, even before the Indians, perhaps even by the ancient Mound Builders. He had also suggested briskly, “By extending the operation, this oil might be collected so as to become a profitable article of commerce.”
Jonah Watson didn’t care who had cribbed the old pits, but now he too thought oil might be a profitable article of commerce. Before 9 A.M. he was already hitching his lathered horse by McClintock’s barn and urging the owner to lay down his haying pitchfork and listen.
Within an hour the lumberman had a lease on 300 acres, agreeing to give Ham McClintock a royalty of one-twelfth on whatever was dug up, such as salt marsh and other minerals, and even oil. Salt was mentioned to farmers so often that day they must have had a bewildered notion that everybody in Christendom wanted to be like Lot’s wife and turn into it. By nightfall Watson had leased land all the way to the mouth of the Creek, laying the groundwork for the world’s first oil fortune, and for a mansion boasting carved wooden mooseheads, a little garden fish pond 190 feet long, and twelve gardeners.
With booming good humor, Watson made several attempts to initiate Drake into this jolly sport of making a fortune. But Drake and money were forever at odds. Having brought on the deluge, he simply stepped aside and let it flow past. He bought a pair of loudchecked pantaloons, and a horse from a hard-up, newly shingled country doctor, Dr. Albert Egbert, who was scratching around desperately for $200 to pay down on a farm that turned out to be the most fabulous producer of the lot. At least Drake had the horse. And he didn’t neglect his company’s business. Although within a year there would be a dozen little makeshift refineries around Oil Creek, the nearest then was Sam Kier’s, in Pittsburgh. Drake arranged with Kier to buy the well’s first shipment of oil, at sixty cents a gallon. Then he took a day off and went fishing.
Forty-niners who had panned through the gold rush, and now swaggered to Oil Creek expecting a rather pantywaist operation with effete easterners and rubes, complained that conditions here were crazier than anything they had ever seen. One miner said that if a new well brought up huge gold nuggets, the owner would throw them back in and go on drilling for oil.
This fiercely concentrated frenzy was squeezed those first years into a greasy mud furrow not more than twenty miles long on Oil Creek. Rich men, poor men, speculators, thieves, all swarmed over the two little villages of Titusville and Cornplanter, situated at either end of this main furrow, which had suddenly become the most coveted land on earth.
Between the two towns, derricks went up everywhere. The once serene valley, with its few remote farms and thick timber, was parceled off in patches, a huge, vibrating crazy quilt, with the wooden structures stuck on like clothespins. Axes whanged; trees fell and were hauled off green to slap up into new houses and free-and-easies where gamblers and soiled doves were already setting up shop.
Saloonkeepers from frontier towns didn’t mind so much doing business in shanties, but mud and oil drove them crazy. Customers wore thigh-high boots that oozed oil at every step, and even when a man sat down, he left an oily imprint. The more genteel proprietors tried valiantly to keep up appearances; some of them wrapped the legs of the piano in old newspapers and rags to protect them from filthy boots.
Drillers’ apprentices—that is, tool dressers or “toolies”—wore railroad boots that cost $1.50 and could thump to a fiddle and foot a fast hoedown to “Chase The Squirrel” or “Money Musk.” Most of the toolies were as lively and agile as monkeys; one of their chores was to climb up to the top of a derrick to grease the crown pulley; and toolies rigged up the pennants that floated and flapped derisively from the derricks: Big Bologna, Old Misery, Scared Cat, The Vampire, Sleeping Beauty.