Sitting On A Gusher

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Animal similes were a journalistic commonplace in those early days of oil as reporters tried to describe a phenomenon that they didn’t quite believe themselves. “The earth seems to bleed,” one journalist wrote, “like a mad ox, wrathfully and violently.” They constantly prefaced an account with some such touching appeal: “We shall ask you to believe that we are neither drunk nor crazy, though we shall hardly expect strangers to oil diggings to believe all we tell you.” The first man who wrote any sizable account of the early wells was Thomas Gale, whose pamphlet, “The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century! Rock Oil in Pennsylvania,” appeared in June, 1860. “One is almost constrained,” he wrote, “from his intuitive notion of the natural world, to suspect such a story is a whopper ; and that the man who talks in this manner of oil flowing up, has been drinking poor whiskey. But good vouchers are at hand.”

That fall of 1859 the slick promoters and the big money-men who swarmed over the Oil Creek countryside were distressed to see the Titusville shoemaker, William Barnsdall, “kick down” the second well in the area without a single piece of imported machinery. The shoemaker began drilling a few hundred feet from the Drake well, on a farm owned by his brother-in-law, James Parker. To supply the power, Barnsdall used a crude hickory spring-pole with stirrups operated by foot like a treadle. It was hard work, but for a man who couldn’t afford an engine, a cheap way to drill.

When Barnsdall got down a few inches below the depth of the Drake well, the waiting crowd of spectators were ready to give up their places at what seemed to be a certain flop. But he refused to quit, and eighty feet down, he struck oil. The new well became the “lion of the valley.” Crowds lined up at the creek bank, waiting their turn to be ferried across by flat-boat to see the marvel which yielded ten barrels a day—about 420 gallons. One visitor wrote:

A ladder was provided for the party to go up and see the oil spout out of the pipe. When we got up on the little platform, it was coming up gently enough. But soon it commenced throwing up the greasy and odorous substance far above our heads, and sprinkling us in a manner which was death to white vests and black pants. We were amused at one gentleman, who did not appear to like that kind of bath, and undertook to get away by going down the ladder. He started as though he would go down a pair of stairs, but as ill luck would have it, fell through, between the rounds and barked himself considerably!

The next well, brought in by a Titusville blacksmith, David Crossley, was even more impressive. Crossley was an English immigrant who had originally walked all the way to Titusville from New York; his sturdy legs enabled him to kick down the deepest well yet, 124 feet. It was on the creek bank near Drake’s, and the sightseers who nearly swamped the flatboat ferry called it the “Elephant.” Skeptics (some Wall Street men among them) stood by with watches, timing the well. Its output—fifteen quarts a minute-amazed them.

“A splendid thing is the Crossley well!” exclaimed pamphleteer Gale. “A diamond of the first water! Enough of itself to silence the cry of humbug; to create a sensation among rival interests; to inspire hope in many toiling for the subterranean treasure, and to make every son of Pennsylvania rejoice in the good Providence that has enriched the state … with rivers of oil !”

Of the earliest wells, however, the most spectacular was the Williams well, which produced an average of ten barrels an hour. Describing this newest sensation, the editor of the Titusville Gazette wrote:

We have no language at our command by which to convey to … our readers any adequate idea of the agitated state at the time we saw it. … The gas from below, from a depth of 145 feet was forcing up immense quantities of oil in a fearful manner and attended with a noise that was terrifying. … When the gas subsided for a few seconds, the oil rushed back down the pipe with a hollow, gurgling sound, so much resembling the struggle and suffocating breathings of a dying man, as to make one feel as though the earth were a huge giant seized with the pains of death. … During the upheavings of gas it seemed as if the very bowels of the earth were being all torn out and her sides must soon collapse. At times the unearthly sounds … drew one almost to sympathize with earth as though it were animate.

In years to come, journalists were to find themselves hard pressed to describe the first real gushers, which yielded not hundreds, but thousands of barrels a day.

A representative of a Chatauqua County journal who visited Oil Creek in the summer of 1860 reported that “The greatest excitement exists in that region, and fortunes are made in a few minutes by sale or lease of lands … Wells are sinking in every direction and strangers are flocking in from all parts of the country.” And Drake, who was placidly sinking a second well for his employers, wrote Townsend, “The Town is full of anxious seekers all determined to make a fortune or bust in the attempt.”