February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
How gullible Edwin L. Drake, an ailing ex-railroad conductor, brought about America’s first and gaudiest oil boom
Perhaps the most bizarre of all the great mineral booms of the nineteenth century took place not in a remote western wilderness, but in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, within easy reach of such well-established centers of population as New York and Pittsburgh. In this case the sought-after prize was not gold or silver but an infinitely more valuable substance, petroleum. If Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 strike was not as stupendous as the turn-of-the-century Spindletop gusher in Texas ( AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958), it was more significant. For the greasy liquid that bubbled to the surface one August day a hundred years ago launched an industry. The account of the first months of the Pennsylvania oil boom that follows is taken from Hildegarde Dolson’s The Great Oildorado, to be published later this month by Random House.
After his well came in, poor Edwin Drake got shoved aside in all the excitement and nearly lost in the rush. He was the hero, all right, but one of those heroes who seem to have been chosen in a game of blindfold, like Pin The Tail On The Donkey. It took an improbable trio of New Englanders—a hearty country doctor, a lawyer-promoter who looked like a Greenwich Village poet, and a banker with an undercoating of ballyhoo—to propel the ex-railroad conductor into his one larger-than-life act.
In fact, there are still factions who say that the other three men were the heroes. Since 1859, there have been so many fierce arguments that it seems only sensible to point out that nobody “discovered” oil. The truth is large enough—that Drake was probably the first man to carry through a practical method for drilling and pumping out of the earth mass quantities of the liquid wealth that had been collecting for a few million years, in the slow distillation of matter, animal, vegetable, or mineral. Job, in the Bible, sounds like the best prophet of the lot, with his talk of the rock that poured out “rivers of oil.”
In the seventeenth century British and French explorers in what is now western Pennsylvania and New York sent back eager accounts of the oil pools that looked like water and burned like brandy, but nobody seemed to care. Lewis Evans, drawing a map of the middle British colonies in America in 1755, carefully lettered Petroleum near the spot where Seneca and Cornplanter Indians spread blankets on the rainbowed oily surface of the creek, then wrung out the slippery liquid into earthenware vessels for liniment and medicine and to mix with their war paint for glistening, waterproof make-up. For his help in the Revolution, the great chief Cornplanter was given 300 acres in Venango County, Pennsylvania. The hillside settlement of shanties above Oil Creek was called Cornplanter long after the chief sold the land, in 1818, to two white settlers for $2,121. Later it became Oil City.
After making a survey of other Revolutionary land grants. General Benjamin Lincoln reported in 1785:
In the northern part of Pennsylvania, there is a creek called Oil Creek, which empties itself into the Allegheny River, issuing from a spring, on the top of which floats an oil, similar to what is called Barbadoes tar, and from which may be collected, by one man, several gallons in a day. The troops, in marching that way, halted at the spring, collected the oil, and bathed their joints with it. This gave them great relief, and freed them immediately from the rheumatic complaints with which many of them were affected. …
Settlers in western Pennsylvania had already discovered this from the Indians. Almost every household had a supply of “Seneca oil,” skimmed up wherever it appeared, and used to enliven the joints of humans and horses. In hot weather, farmers lathered their teams with it, because the oil reeked so hideously that even blowflies couldn’t stand the smell and stayed at a resentful distance.
[ Although the existence of oil in western Pennsylvania was a well-established fact, no one had yet proved that there was enough of it in the ground to warrant large-scale exploitation. By the mid-nineteenth century, scientists also had more than a hint of its effectiveness as a lubricant for machines and, at a time when the world’s supply of whale oil was rapidly diminishing, as a cheap illuminant. Even the drilling process had already been worked out by the men who tapped the earth for salt-water deposits; for the derrick and engine house of the brine-well operators was a familiar sight west of the Alleghenies. ]
In 1849, Ebenezer Brewer, senior partner in the Brewer, Watson lumber mill below Titusville, skimmed up five gallons from the seepage on his land bordering Oil Creek, and sent it by coach to his son Francis, a young doctor who was starting practice in northern Vermont. Perhaps he thought that even a green new doctor could do no harm with the homely remedy. Francis Brewer may have groaned, as sons have always groaned over family advice, but the greasy stuff proved to be exactly the sort of unpleasant medicine Vermonters were crazy about.
Young Dr. Brewer was so gratified he took a flask of the crude oil down to his old professor at Dartmouth, Dr. Dixi Crosby, who examined it and agreed it might be a pretty good thing. Four years later, the flask was still sitting on Crosby’s butternut desk when another graduate, George Bissell, a young lawyer, came back to Hanover for a visit. As he listened to Crosby talk about the interesting contents of the flask, he quivered like a bird dog who has caught the scent of new game. Bissell, in his early thirties, had already hurtled through several careers—as reporter, professor of Greek, high school principal—and had come most recently to law. He looked like a cartoon of a poet or an anarchist, with long black wind-tossed hair, a beard that looked pasted on, villainous scowling eyebrows, snapping dark eyes, and a hectic intensity. He and his partner in New York, Jonathan Eveleth, had spent little time practicing law but a great deal in promoting the laws of chance, handling stocks for such firms as the American and Foreign Iron Pavement Company.
Now they leapt into action and bought 100 acres of the Brewer, Watson lumber firm’s land, the acres that had an oil spring, on the east bank of the creek. They agreed to pay $5,000 eventually, but it was a nice Bissell touch to blow up this purchase price to $25,000 in the prospectus, which sounded more impressive. The company was capitalized grandly at a quarter of a million dollars on paper, and one share would sell at $25, if any buyers could be found. But even the most gullible refused to take a chance on anything so silly. Gold, yes. Or iron. But who wanted oil? Prospects for the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company looked dim. Villagers back in Titusville called it “The Fancy Stock Company.”
Old lumberman Ebenezer Brewer, having sent along the oil to dose patients, was outraged that his son seemed to have swallowed it the wrong way. He wrote him after hearing about the land deal:
I always told you that I had no confidence in the men from the very nature of the transaction and all that you would ever get would be what you received in the sale. … Now mark well what I tell you, it is for your interest alone that I now say it—you are associated with a set of sharpers and if they have not already ruined you, they will do so if you are foolish enough to let them do it.
A New York merchant whom Bissell and Eveleth had approached about buying stock wrote the Brewers: “From what little I have seen of them and their transactions I have no confidence in them as business men and would not trust them without security.”
The hectic, brilliant Bissell was shrewd enough to attach his kite to a solid base; he and Eveleth hired Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale, the leading chemist in the country, to analyze the oil and make a detailed report of its potentialities, especially for lighting. Silliman worked on this project for the next half year, completing it in April, 1855. By then Dr. Francis Brewer had left Vermont and medicine to become a partner in his father’s lumber firm. Brewer, Watson engaged a local man, Jacob Angier, to dig a series of trenches to collect the oil, which was already being used at the mill to lubricate the huge circular saw and to burn in lamps there.
At the impetuous Bissell’s urging, Dr. Brewer shipped three barrels of this oil via canal from Buffalo to New York. When a drayman brought the shipment to Bissell’s office on the corner of Broadway and Franklin Street, both lawyers were away, so he dumped it on the sidewalk out front and drove off. The law office was on the second floor; it was the tenants downstairs, the publishers and booksellers D. Appleton & Co., who were left with the barrels blocking their elegant doorway, oozing in the sun. They had just opened their elaborate new store on the first floor of the building with a display of rare books and fine prints that was attracting the carriage trade. The customers who came in past the barrels holding their noses finally goaded Mr. Appleton into action. He rushed out, imperiously summoned a passing dray, and yelled, “Take these away.” The driver obliged, so successfully that it took Bissell several weeks to locate the missing oil in a dock warehouse. He brought one barrel back to his second-floor office, as a sample for possible purchasers of stock, whereupon the publisher angrily approached the promoter. The oil had leaked through the newly decorated white ceiling below, and Appleton wanted damages. Yet Bissell had so little money that he had been unable to pay Professor Silliman. The Professor had cannily refused to hand over his lengthy, detailed analysis until he got his fee—$526.08—in full.
Bissell already had a hint from Silliman of the glowingly favorable results of the tests, and this spurred him into getting the money, or rather, persuading his partner to pay up out of his own skimpy pocket. The report was worth every penny. It gave the results of innumerable tests and comparisons, and a few sentences must have been enough to convince Bissell he could outshine Aladdin:
I have submitted the lamp burning Petroleum to the inspection of the most experienced lampists who were accessible to me, and their testimony was, that the lamp burning this fluid gave as much light as any which they had seen, that the oil spent more economically, and the uniformity of the light was greater than in Camphene. … As this oil does not gum or become acid or rancid by exposure, it possesses in that, as well as in its wonderful resistance to extreme cold, important qualities for a lubricator. … In conclusion, gentlemen, it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your Company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive process they may manufacture very valuable products.
Silliman himself was so enthusiastic that he consented, briefly, to be president of the company. Since he was one of Yale’s most distinguished men, the citizens of New Haven were impressed. James Townsend, head of the City Savings Bank, slid suavely into the thick of Bissell’s stock tangle and eventually got a new company formed, the Seneca Oil Company, in his own state, taking over the same lease on the Brewer, Watson land, with Bissell and his partner still holding a majority share.
In the antimacassared parlor of the Tontine Hotel where he lived, Townsend talked of the new scheme to a fellow boarder —a courtly, frail-looking, 38-year-old widower, Edwin Drake. It is rather mystifying why a bank president should have persuaded an ailing conductor on the New Haven Railroad to invest what was probably his entire savings—$200—in the venture. “I bot by Townsend’s advice without investigating,” Drake wrote later, “and a few months afterwards when I did try to investigate I made up my mind my friend had pulled me in, in trying to get out himself.”
Professor Silliman had backed out hurriedly; he still thought the oil was valuable, but he must have analyzed the human element involved and found it had a more peculiar odor. What is even more mystifying, at least to laymen unused to the ways in which lambs are shorn and dubious stock deals are promoted, is that Drake was elected president of the company and given a startlingly large block of stock, then promptly relieved of most of it. Townsend, who wore high, stiff collars and kept his lips tight in public, later admitted that it hadn’t seemed proper for a banker to have his name attached openly to such a chancy venture, but he had been perfectly willing to own all the stock he could acquire cheaply, behind the scenes.
On the letterhead of the Seneca Oil Company, the innocent new president wrote out a memo disposing of his stock to the directors:
For value received I hereby sell transfer and convey to Asahel Pierpont—Thirty three hundred and thirty four shares of the Capital Stock of the Seneca Oil Company—Also Twenty-seven hundred and Eighty-three Shares of said Stock to James M. Townsend—Also Sixteen hundred and thirty two Shares of said Stock to E. B. Bowditch—Also Five Hundred and twenty one Shares of said Stock to Henry L. Pierpont now standing in my name upon the Books of said Company.
E. L. Drake
Drake was to go to Titusville and act as “general agent of this Company to raise & dispose of Oil with a Salery of One Thousand Dollars per Annum for one year from the date hereof.” In the minutes of that meeting on April i, 1858, it was also stated: “Voted that the Treas. be requested to procure without delay the sum of one thousand Dollars to be placed at the disposal of Said Drake to be used in conducting the operations of this Company.”
A man already too ill with neuralgia of the spine to walk up and down the aisles of a train collecting tickets was now going off hopefully to an obscure part of Pennsylvania, to run a hellish obstacle race over a course that had never been tried out before. The one thing he knew for certain was that it was a hard place to get to, because he had already made one quick survey trip, traveling free on his railroad pass. Now he was going to return with his new second wife, Laura, and his small daughter.
Round-cheeked, beaming Billy Robinson, proprietor of the American Hotel in the snug little valley village of Titusville, was rather impressed when large vellum envelopes arrived on three successive days addressed to a Colonel Edwin Drake, due to arrive with his family that week. Townsend, who must have had a brash streak of press agent under his sober banker’s garb, had pulled the title out of a hat to provide an air of solid worth to his agent.
Titusville had been founded in 1790 by Jonathan Titus, a civil engineer who had worked on surveys for the Holland Land Company and who had spotted the lovely three-mile-long valley lying between round-shouldered hills and taken a piece for a farm. Of the 300 people living there when Drake came, most were German, English, or Northern Irish immigrants. They were cautious, thrifty, and stubborn, and they paid grudging tribute to Drake’s own stubbornness in sticking to his project that next grueling year, even if they thought the idea of boring for oil was madness. At husking bees and church socials, the word went around that the Colonel was a nice hard-working gentleman and it was too bad he’d been sucked in by the “Fancy Stock Company” to come and do a fool’s errand. The poor man didn’t look fit; he was a bad color and spindly.
The meals at the American Hotel, where Drake paid $6.50 a week room and board, for himself, his wife and daughter were generously designed to fatten almost anybody: smoked pork and johnnycake, mutton, and mashed turnips, pie three times a day. On the wide, shady front porch, wicker rockers creaked companionably behind broad white pillars, while the guests exchanged stories. Visiting lumbermen always called the American Hotel “the tavern.” The proprietor, Billy Robinson, was a hearty host who would referee the young mill hands’ impromptu wrestling matches on his taproom floor, or preside genially over a round of tall tales. There was one other hotel, the Eagle, a general store, and a gristmill. An ambitious German immigrant had opened a butcher shop which failed miserably, because almost every man in the area cured his own meat. The only other store was Peter Wilson’s —“Dealers in Drugs, Medicines, and Chemicals, Paints, Oils and Varnishes, Pure Wines and Liquors for Medicinal Use.” The main street was a stretch of sticky yellow clay.
Drake soon adopted the natives’ clumping high boots, but the rest of him looked forever foreign. He dressed in the somber black of a deacon, and his long, thin legs and the overcoat that reached almost to the ground made him look much taller than his five feet nine and a half inches. His beard was silky and dark; his thin face, strengthened and whittled by suffering, and his enormous, deep-socketed black eyes, gave him an ascetic look. But the men soon discovered that Drake could tell a good story and enjoyed a nip of whiskey and a skinny long Pittsburgh stogie when they sat around the fat-bellied coal stove in Reuel Fletcher’s store, or played pinochle on an overturned barrel. Drake had a New Englander’s twangy humor and deliberate way of speech. He had gone to public school in Castleton, Vermont, worked on an uncle’s farm in Michigan, been a hotel clerk and a clerk in a dry goods store, an express agent, and then a conductor on the New York, New Haven Railroad at $75 a month.
He thought the oil spring on a small, barren, artificial island created by the mill flow was “a rusty, disgusting looking pool.” He insisted later, resentfully, that neither Bissell nor anyone else had told him how to get petroleum in quantities out of the ground and that he had to try whatever came to mind. Hiring local workmen to dig around the seepage seemed a logical start, but even that wasn’t simple. He could get plenty of men, but a mill hand remembered Drake saying incredulously, “You don’t mean to say I cannot get picks and shovels in this town?”
The storekeeper, Reuel Fletcher, had the answer to this and a dozen other dilemmas. He was a kind, sensible man, cheerfully and warmly helpful in the best cracker-barrel tradition, and even if he didn’t carry picks and shovels, he was quick to offer the loan of his horse so that Drake could ride off and buy from Fletcher’s nearest rival at Hydetown. Drake got a pick there, in the tumble-down log cabin store kept by Charles Hyde.
All that summer he kept borrowing Fletcher’s handsome bay horse and rig to ride off in all directions, assembling tools and machinery. He made longer trips by stagecoach to Erie, to Pittsburgh, and to Tarentum, where he consulted owners of salt wells and hired a borer who promised to arrive in July but never turned up. Drake, who had been frightened by tales of the salty thirst of borers, had told the man sternly he would receive only board and tobacco, but no cash wages, until he’d drilled a hole 1,000 feet down. No salt well had ever been dug anywhere near that deep, and certainly never under such Spartan conditions.
This probably clinched the driller’s suspicion that Drake was crazy, and he told friends he had promised to work for the lunatic just to shut him up and get rid of him. A second borer had good intentions but itching feet; Drake traced him to Pittsburgh and learned he had headed west.
The workmen Drake had hired, at a dollar a day, dug trenches and finally a hole, but Drake wrote the directors of his company:
In sinking our well last week we struck a large vein of oil but the same thrust of the spade opened a vein of water that drove the men out of the well and I shall not try to dig by hand any more as I am satisfied that boring is the cheapest. … I have contracted for an engine to be ready for boring by the first of Sept. The engine will cost five hundred dollars in Erie which is about one hundred dollars less than the same or one like it would cost at the East. … Now I think you had better make a loan of $1000 and place it in bank there where I can get it as I need it Sc I assure you there is no risk whatever for I have got as far with five hundred dollars as any other company have with five thousand and further than some have with ten thousand dollars. … Money is very scarce here. The lumbermen could not sell their lumber for cash this summer and the people all depend upon the lumber trade, so money is as tight here as it was in New York last fall. The old lumber company begin to think they did not retain the best of the property when they sold out the oil springs. Old Mr. Brewer is here now and says he is sorry they sold that piece of land or gave that lease; but let them whine …
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
The serene little village of Titusville now looked as if some shanty town had been wrenched up in a hurricane and flung down helter-skelter among prim white clapboard houses. Along narrow plank sidewalks in a sea of sucking mire, land sharks lurked in offices that didn’t yet have a roof, and seldom a solid floor for their high-sounding propositions. Boomers, the shady speculators who moved in to make a fast killing, needed only a handful of blank leases and revenue stamps, and were prepared to sell to the unsuspecting one-sixteenth, or even a sixteenth of a sixteenth, of the greatest money-maker since Croesus. On paper, everything looked foolproof. Nobody had yet discovered that one out of every three wells were “dusters”—that is, dry.
Every newcomer, whether honest buyer or boomer, seemed to bulge with maps purporting to show just which choice leases were still available. Some of the maps were the accurate work of civil engineers sent out by responsible companies. Others were exquisitely water-colored fantasies. Tinted stock certificates marked “$10 a share of property” were careful not to say what property. The filled-in stubs of an old stockbook of this kind show that a sucker who bought, say, $150 worth of these pieces of paper one day often rushed back to buy another $200 worth the next. The fear of being gulled wasn’t so acute as the fear of being left behind.
By the summer of 1860, there were 600 companies incorporated in Pennsylvania alone, and probably four-fifths of these were phonies. During the peak of the boom a few years later, a Boston paper ran a straight-faced announcement of the prospectus for a new company:
THE MUNCHAUSEN PHILOSOPHER’S STONE AND GULL CREEK GRAND CONSOLIDATED OIL COMPANY
Capitalized at $4,000,000,000 with a working capital of $37.50
Wells produce not just oil, but cod liver oil, quinine, ale, and the milk of human kindness. Last Wednesday at 2 P.M. … struck a large vein of quinine. This is generally administered without charge to any of the stockholders seized with fever, or shaky about the value of their shares.
The farmers on Oil Creek were almost the only people involved who didn’t need quinine. From the start they fared remarkably well against boomers, city financiers, and local tycoons like Jonah Watson. Most of their land along Oil Creek was already leased on a royalty basis, rather than sold outright, and those who weren’t satisfied with the original deal had a forth-right way of airing their grievances. The second lease Jonah Watson negotiated was on John Rynd’s farm, and if he congratulated himself on his initial shrewdness in granting a royalty of only one-twelfth, he must have been staggered to read the large public notice which appeared in the Venango Spectator some months later:
IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT OIL LAND
Whereas on the 1st of September 1859, certain parties by misrepresentation procured from the subscriber a lease for his land on Oil Creek, in the county of Venango. Therefore he hereby notifies all whom it may concern that as said interest of lease was procured as above states, he is determined that the said lessees or their under lessees shall never take possession of one foot of said land or operate for oil or salt under said contract. Upon this all may depend.
December 21, 1859
John Rynd was the grandson of an Irish woolen factor, and he still owned the 300 acres his grandfather had bought from the Holland Land Company in 1800. He also owned a loaded Irish temper, and a shotgun; within three weeks, Jonah Watson gave in. The lease with John Rynd was changed to give the farmer royalties of one-fourth on oil. Salt wasn’t mentioned.
Ham McClintock, the farmer whom Watson had approached first of all, also did well for himself. Watson subleased large chunks of this land, and in turn each lessee subleased part of his piece to raise money to put down a well. Ham McClintock didn’t bother putting down many wells; he let others take the risk and pay him royalties. He simply placed mattresses all over the floor of his house, five to each room, to bed down these benighted souls. For 75 cents they could sleep in the hayloft without a blanket. There were sixty wells going down on his place, and McClintock always had plenty of paying guests. He was still so conditioned by his lean farming days that a charge of three dollars a week for board (at a time when eggs were eight cents a dozen) seemed suitably steep. One guest later remarked that when a farmer’s daughter waited on you at McClintockville, you were never sure whether she was a milkmaid or an oil heiress or both.
One day a waif of fourteen, whose tattered, patched pants were held up precariously by a single frayed suspender, poled a visitor across Oil Creek on a raft; the newcomer was so paternally moved by the boy’s apparent poverty that he gave him a nickel tip and a kindly pat on the head. He was somewhat discomfited to learn that the waif was a brand-new oil heir.
To confuse outsiders even more, some of the newly rich farmers continued to live in their dilapidated cabins, with rags and quilts hung at the windows in place of panes, and a limp calico curtain partitioning off a sleeping cubicle from the sitting room-kitchen. They got up at dawn, as always, and ploughed and planted as if their lives still depended upon it.
One of them, old John Buchanan, complained to a newcomer that he had been taken advantage of by sharpers and left a pauper. His listener’s eyes misted in sympathy, and he pictured the poor old fellow trudging over the hill to the county almshouse, until Buchanan finished sadly, “So here I am a poor man-worth barely a hundred thousand.”
With a hundred wells drilled on his farm, and his royalty share of one fourth on each, he may soon have been complaining, “Worth barely half a million.”
The oil-seekers arrived in droves—as one farmer observed sardonically, they came “by rickety coach or rickety mare or on rickety legs.” They came by water, too. Steamers like the Allegheny Belle , chugging upriver from Pittsburgh, were loaded like cattle boats. A tiny steamer renamed the Petrolia, which was once accustomed to carrying a dozen farmers from Franklin up the six miles to Oil City, now carried at least a hundred passengers each trip. On deck, a dapper gambler would unroll a large piece of checkered red and black oilcloth, each square numbered, and in jolly tones would urge listeners to invest fifty cents in the great Havana lottery. For only fifty cents, you had ten throws of the dice, and if the numbers rolled matched the numbers on the oilcloth, you were $150 richer. It was understood, of course, that you would multiply this sum a thousandfold once you reached Oildom. The percentage of Havana lottery winners was even lower than Oil Creek’s.
If you covered the last lap to Titusville by stage-coach, you arrived sore and bruised and with your pantaloons muddy to the hip, what with leaping out along the way to help pry the vehicle out of sock-holes or push it up hills. When you finally staggered into a lobby and asked a hotel clerk for a room, and he said he would try to squeeze you in, you discovered he probably meant just that. Eyeing the snoring guests sprawled on the floor, he would push and nudge two recumbent bodies until a space was cleared; as one victim remarked, “We were hung two on a peg.” More fortunate arrivals paid a dollar to spend the night on a billiard table, or upright in a barber chair, or behind a counter wrapped in a buffalo robe.
Meals were even worse than sleeping accommodations. They were served in three or four shifts, and mobs of hungry men were always waiting outside the eating places. An observer wrote, “When you see a man who wouldn’t sell for half a million trying three times in vain to get at the table while a poor digger who happens to understand the ropes gets comfortably fed, you are apt to inquire What’s the use?” For all this discomfort and near-hunger, guests paid as much as four dollars a day. If anyone dared to complain, the clerk was likely to answer, “This is the oil country, you know.” It was a world so foreign that visitors spoke constantly of “returning to the states.”
No customs or castes were familiar. It was as if a portion of the earth had turned upside down to produce this bewildering new democracy, where no one could be judged by appearances. One critic remarked, “They don’t have time to be aristocrats. They don’t even have time to change their sheets.” Another wrote a few years later:
That individual right in front of you, this greasy specimen could by one stroke of his pen produce a paper of more value than all your worldly possessions, and that would be honored quickly by any great banking institution. That little man to the left, nearly over his boots in mud, with hands covered with “crude” from the barrels which he is filling, handles more money than you ever saw, and beneath that covering of dirt and oil on the hand which you would now scorn to grasp, there glitters a little sparkler that would delight Tiffany or dazzle the eyes of many a Flora McFlimsey of Madison Square. For the individual is the possessor of a piece of land nearby which monthly returns him an income larger than that received by the President of the United States each year.
[ Ironically, one person who did not profit from the remarkable growth of the oil industry in Pennsylvania was Edwin Drake. In matters of finance, the Colonel seemed forever inept. After four moderately prosperous years as an oil commission agent and justice of the peace in Titusville, he went to New York where he lost everything in an oil brokerage venture. In the spring of 1866, he wrote to an old friend, the Titusville druggist Peter Wilson: ]
If you have any of the milk of human kindness left in your bosom for me or my family send me some money. I am in want of it sadly and am sick …
In 1869, the Titusville Herald ran Drake’s obituary, copied from a New England paper, saying that he had died in an almshouse; weeks later the Titusville people learned that it was the wrong man. Sick and impoverished, Drake was living with his wife and four children in a borrowed seaside cottage near Long Branch, New Jersey. The dank, foggy cold had made his spinal neuralgia worse than ever; his wife was supporting the family by sewing, and they lived mostly on potatoes and salt.
Hardly able to walk, Drake went to New York one day in the fall of 1869 to look for work for himself and his twelve-year-old son. He had already been turned away at the Custom House when an old Titusville friend, Zeb Martin, saw him down by the wharves, limping along in the same long, black coat he’d worn ten years before. Martin took the gaunt, exhausted man into a restaurant for a good meal, gave him a twenty-dollar bill and promised to spread the word when he got home.
Back in Titusville, a committee of oil men collected some $3,000 in pledges overnight, but very little cash. Their campaign seemed to raise more arguments than , money: was Drake really the pioneer, the discoverer of oil? And if not, why did he deserve contributions? Even so, a modest amount—$4,833.53—was eventually forwarded, most of it to Mrs. Drake because people agreed that Drake himself could never handle money. Finally, in 1873, the state of Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500, “to the said E. L. Drake or to his widow in the event of the death of the said Drake.”
Early in 1880, Laura Drake wrote to the editor of the Titusville Herald from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:
He has not walked in seven years, nor used his hands to write in two years. … The last six weeks he has been confined entirely to his bed, with only slight hopes of his ever being better. He is a patient sufferer. … As he has had so many sleepless nights, he has taken an interest (until the past few weeks) in all the new developments of the age …
The obituary that appeared the same year was true at last. The Colonel was a much more impressive hero dead than alive.