- 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
Toolies made two to three dollars a day for a twelve-hour shift and spent it freely. To accommodate both day and night shifts, saloons kept jumping around the clock, and there were always women handy, in what one preacher called “suspicious houses.” Raftsmen who had prided themselves on their toughness found the oil-hauling teamsters even tougher, and more numerous. For years, raftsmen running logs downstream to Pittsburgh had stopped overnight at the riverside Moran House at Cornplanter. In logging season the rafts tied up there stretched a half-mile above and below Moran’s while the pilots and raftsmen rollicked inside to their favorite tune, “Hell on the Wabash.” Now their main cargo was oil, but there were few enough of them compared to the teamsters whose numbers swelled to 4,000. Day after day, wagons loaded with oil barrels stretched in an endless chain along the quagmire roads from the wells to the nearest railroad depots, Garland and Union, about 20 miles from Titusville, or Corry, 27 miles, or to the waiting barges at Cornplanter. Every piece of equipment and stick of furniture, the coal for engines, and even the engines themselves, had to be hauled in to Oil Creek by teams, through the mud that was
There’s a story about a stranger who was slogging along and kicked what seemed to be a man’s hat lying in the mud. From the depths a voice came angrily: “Say, that’s my head in that hat. Don’t you kick it again.”
The traveler peered down, horrified. “You’ll be buried alive,” he screeched.
“Never you mind, stranger. I’ve got a good mule under me, and he’s got to the second sand rock.”
It was a custom of many teamsters to carry a keg of beer along, and when their wagon wheels sank to the hub, they wet their out-size vocal chords between cursing the poor struggling horses. Teamsters had an awesome vocabulary, “blasphemous, brimstone-tongued,” and they were the meanest fighters around. In saloon brawls, a teamster often bit off an opponent’s nose, “a portion of the upper lip,” or a chunk of ear. This disgusted and baffled the transplanted westerners: imagine biting a man instead of shooting him neatly.
The teamsters who stuck it out grew arrogant with power. During their heyday they had well-owners over the barrel, and they gouged exorbitant fees. Once, a group of teamsters made desperate producers bid at auction for their services, and the highest bidder got his oil hauled at five dollars a barrel for a six-mile trip.
Even drillers, a new breed of master artisan, only made four to five dollars a day. On the job, on the high stool in the derrick called the Driller’s Throne, they were highly responsible, proud of the tricky skill of handling the tools and cable. The best ones seemed to know in their fingers what was happening underground, and whether they were close to a strike. To celebrate when a good well came in, the producer would buy his driller a fancy new outfit, like a winning jockey’s silks, with twelve-dollar Wisconsin boots, and the wide-brimmed hats that distinguished them from ordinary men in inverted soup-bowl derbies. Right off, the driller would christen his new hat with daubs of oily slush. If there was anything that marked a man as an amateur in Petrolia, it was to be too immaculate—not a mudder.
A visitor to Cornplanter wrote home despairingly, “How shall I describe this place unless my pen is dipped in mud?” And another called it “Sodden Gomorrah.”
One night in the Williams Brothers’ store, a crowd of oil men sat around on molasses kegs and decided that the Indian name of Cornplanter was much too old-fashioned for their bustling metropolis now. Who planted corn any more? Cornplanter needed a new name, and the men settled, not too imaginatively, on Oil City. Next they rushed through a new post office, set up on the cliffside on spikes, but nobody was surprised when it collapsed and tumbled into the creek.
Experts (this now included anybody who had been there a week) sat roasting their boot heels against the box stove in smoky, crowded taverns while they gave their geological opinions on what caused petroleum, and where it was found. Some explained learnedly, between spurts of tobacco juice onto the muddy floor, that you had to go by “the dip and lay of the land.” They said all oil ran downhill underground and was therefore found only by “criks.” Even more interesting, oil was a perennial, like daisies, and would rebloom every year till Kingdom Come. Another sect of believers said oil was produced by the steam from buried volcanoes of the Carboniferous age.
A grizzled old whaling captain from New Bedford, now living in the oil region, had perhaps the most ingenious theory of all. He always expounded it at Crapo’s saloon in Oil City because another ex-whaler tended bar there, and the captain emphasized the points of his talk by pounding on the bar with his blackthorn stick with the whalebone handle. Every newcomer who could stand still long enough to listen was informed that a large shoal of whales had been stranded in western Pennsylvania when Noah’s flood receded, and the oil borers were now drilling into that blubber. As one reporter said, “Now they have come to harpoon Mother Earth.”