Edwin Drake: The Ghost of Colonel Drake
Byron King tells us about the vital role one “Colonel” Edwin Drake played in the drilling of the first oil well in the United States.
“The world of the 1850s was a place of raw animal power, supplemented on occasion with energy derived from wind, burning wood, falling water or hard-won coal from pits dug into the sides of hills. By achieving his “Conquest of the Rock,” Colonel Drake demonstrated that it was possible to extract oil in industrial quantities. Through the exploitation of plentiful oil, the world was at first lubricated and illuminated… and then over the next 145 years mechanized, motorized and plasticized. ”
HE WAS NOT really a colonel. He was certainly not commissioned in any military organization. His most recent occupation was that of a train conductor on the New York, New Haven and Long Island Railroad, a high-tech kind of job in the late 1850s. Working on the railroad was the best employment he had ever had in his life. Born in 1818 in a small town in upstate New York, Edwin Drake had cut a simple and rather undistinguished path during his first 40 years on Earth. He had wandered the countryside looking for odd jobs, worked as a farmhand, a store clerk, and a deckhand on an ore freighter and never earned more than $50 in any given month. Then came the job with the railroad. It was steady work, and the pay came on time.
One of Drake’s frequent passengers on the railroad was a New Haven man named James Townsend. Townsend, who became something of an acquaintance of Drake’s, was a promoter of the Seneca Oil Company, a Connecticut corporation formed to locate and extract petroleum near the oil seeps of the rural hills and valleys of western Pennsylvania. Townsend needed investors for his fledgling company, and even more importantly, he needed a man on the ground to do the hard physical work of the venture. One day, Drake and Townsend had a talk.
By background and training, the wanderer and newly-minted railroad conductor Drake knew nothing of the business of extracting oil, not that anyone else knew much more back in those days. Still, Drake knew nothing about even the rudiments of land and leases, or legal contracts, or general business principles. Drake had spent a lifetime working with his hands, but to his credit he understood tools and how to use them. Perhaps in this regard, Drake was neither better nor worse than anyone else for the job that he was to be assigned. As any employer can tell you, it is hard to screen for destiny in an employee.
One could say that Drake, with his limited perspective, was in the good company of most other men of the time, because industrial-scale production of oil was a business that had not yet been invented. But Drake knew how to work hard and stick to a task, a characteristic often as valuable as all other skills put together.
Edwin Drake: The Ground Floor of Seneca Oil
And as these kinds of things happen, the Connecticut businessman Townsend offered the railroad conductor Drake an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the Seneca Oil Company’s entrepreneurial speculation. The stated goal was to extract petroleum from the earth, in then-unprecedented quantities, by means of boring a hole in the ground. No one had ever done anything like it before, anywhere. Well, no one had ever been successful at such a task. Others had attempted something similar, and lost their shirt at it. So with this in mind, Drake the railroad conductor invested his life’s savings in the venture. Of course. Why not?
Since prehistoric times, and certainly since the days when the northwestern regions of Pennsylvania were inhabited by the Seneca Indians, most of the petroleum that had ever been produced was laboriously scraped and soaked from the smooth surfaces of streams and ponds. A day’s work of soaking a woolen cloth in the sheen on top of the water and wringing out the yield or skimming the slick substance with a flat piece of wood might derive a gallon or so of the brown liquid. The principal value of the product was as a patent medicine. But the great Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman, under contract to Townsend and his fellow investors, had speculated that “rock oil” could have additional industrial uses as a lubricant or illuminant. There might be some money to be made in the venture, because a dwindling supply of whale oil, then the main source for lighting and mechanical lubricants, was creating an urgent and lucrative demand for an alternate resource.
Drake took sick leave from the railroad. He made his way west by train and wagon, and then by horse and on foot to the muddy banks of Oil Creek in the very remote Venango County, in northwest Pennsylvania. And what remote and stark ground it was, isolated by steep hills and winding streams that cut through the remnants of eroded glacial till and moraine and hemmed in by woodlands that formed an all-but-impassable barricade of elm, chestnut and pine.
And as for his ostensible military rank? Drake’s colleagues back in New Haven thought that he would hold more status in the Titusville community if he possessed a title, so they addressed his mail to “Col. E. Drake.” Most of the local populace in this area of forest lands and thin-soiled farms had never seen, let alone met, a real-live, military colonel. Hence Drake was able to accommodate the ruse with his tall, thin appearance and his customary stovepipe hat. After all, who would even begin to know what kind of probing questions to ask a nominal colonel, and who could possibly outrank him in such a remote and austere locale?
Of those few folk who knew anything about producing oil, it was a given that the brown substance was extracted only in connection with the production of salt water. This was, for example, the case to the south at Tarentum, a small town a day’s ride up the banks of the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. The idea of digging, pounding or kicking down a well for the sole purpose of locating petroleum was, quite simply, preposterous.
Edwin Drake: A Major Technological Hurdle
Just making a hole in the earth more than a few feet deep was, in its own right, a technological hurdle, certainly in the glacial soils and outwash that filled the creek valleys of Venango County. More than a few feet down a hole, the sides kept falling in on the workings, filling the shaft as fast as a crew of industrious men could remove the spoil. And if your workmen were drunk, well…it took longer.
But Col. Drake had an idea. While visiting Tarentum, he had seen people pound what they called conductor-pipe down the boreholes and into the salt layers. The cast-iron conductor pipe held up the sides of the holes and facilitated the extraction of the salt water and its oil. Why not, Drake wondered, run such a pipe down the hole that he intended to dig for oil? It would keep the sides from falling in, and hold the walls of the hole open as he made depth.
People laughed. Everyone knew that it was silly to attempt to dig a hole in the ground solely for the purpose of finding oil. And to use up perfectly good lengths of costly cast iron pipe, which had to be shipped on barges up the Allegheny River from the foundries of Pittsburgh, and waste them by ramming them down this hole to nowhere was just…well, they started calling him the “Crazy Colonel.”
Crazy or not, Drake devised a cumbersome rig. It was a walking-beam, sitting on an elevated fulcrum, powered by a six-horsepower steam engine. Drake and his crew fired up the boiler, and began ramming the cast iron drive pipe down the shaft as his machinery pounded the rock with an iron auger hung at the end of a strong rope. Fairly rapidly, Drake made a hole through 32 feet of soft soil, and then began the hard punch into the underlying shale bedrock.
During the course of the digging, people came from miles around to watch what they called “Drake’s Folly.” Skeptical spectators by the dozens stood outside of the shed in which Drake and his team were literally grinding a hole into the earth (rotary drilling and the rotary drill-bit were not to be invented for many more years). There was Crazy Drake, every day, hammering down a pipe to keep the walls from falling in on the works. People laughed, shook their heads and spat on the ground. They knew better. They ridiculed the waste. It would never amount to anything. Never.
And then the sun rose on the morning of Aug. 27, 1859. One of Drake’s workers walked down to the shed that covered the workings to stoke the boiler and prepare for another day of making a hole in the ground. The worker went inside the shed and smelled a strange odor. Curiously but carefully, he lowered a small container down the pipe shaft on a slender rope, and pulled it up filled with Pennsylvania-grade crude oil. This very surprised workman ran off to tell Col. Drake of the discovery, and word soon spread. A large crowd gathered around the well as Drake and his men lifted out container after container of oil, filling 25 barrels in the first day.
“How many barrels?” people asked. “Impossible,” many said. Not a few were skeptical, and opined that Drake had probably poured the oil down the shaft in the middle of the night, the well digger’s equivalent of “salting the mine.”
But other people, with a different sense of destiny, mounted their horses and began to ride to nearby farms, in order to convince the owners to grant them leases to dig more wells and find more of that rock oil. No one understood the significance of the event at the time, but in the echo of their horses’ hoof beats, the world’s first commercial oil well had ushered in the modern industrial age.
At a depth of about 69 feet, Edwin Drake had encountered a thin pinch-out of oil-bearing sand of Devonian Age. That is, over 360 million years previously, an ancient current of moving water had carried a sediment load downstream and deposited a layer of quartz and feldspar on top of clay bedrock. When the ancient environment changed, more clay covered and buried the sand. Hundreds of millions of years of geologic activity — of burial, subsidence and heating from within the earth — had transformed long-dead organic matter contained in the surrounding clays into the light, smooth fractions that characterize the oil of Pennsylvania. And finally, over a period of time beyond the measure of man’s understanding, some small portion of the oily substance had mobilized and found its way into the pores of what became known as the “Drake Sand,” all 18-or-so inches of it.
Millions of years later, the Appalachian uplift and its subsequent erosion had brought this small pinch of sand nearly to the surface of the Earth, but not close enough for the atmosphere and oxidation to destroy its oily contents. To the north, the thin sand had been eroded away by glaciation and stream erosion. To the south and west, the sand simply thinned into nothingness, a “pinchout” in modern oil field terms. And as for the oil, apparently fresh water from the groundwater table had entered the stray sand and provided reservoir energy to drive the petroleum into Drake’s well and part of the way up his “wasteful” iron conductor pipe.
Confounding all of the skeptics who knew better, Col. Drake had located what would later be the eponymous sand. And in this remarkable Drake Sand was the precious oil he and his fellow investors sought.
Edwin Drake: A Lucky Strike
Drake was, in retrospect, a very lucky fellow. Had this railroad conductor, who knew so little about what he was doing, drilled his hole even 100 feet in one direction or another, he would have missed the oil-bearing sand and encountered simply more of the Devonian clay through which he had already dug. Had Drake missed the sand at 69 feet, the next extensive oil-bearing formation was over 100 feet further down, and the next formation after that was down another 300 feet.
Another 300 feet down? It may as well have been all the way to China, because absent the lucky strike in the sand at 69 feet, Drake and his fellow investors would have run out of funds long before being able to deepen the well to those distant depths. In that case, Drake’s well would have been abandoned. The hole he pounded into the ground would have filled in with whatever sediment washed down from the surface. Drake’s failure would have verified and confirmed the conventional wisdom that it was not practical to dig a well for the sole purpose of producing oil.
To add some perspective, it should be noted that, during the late 1850s, there were other embryonic efforts to recover oil in other parts of the United States: in southern Ohio, western Virginia and upstate New York. And across the world, from Ontario to Persia, people were trying to figure out a way of obtaining large, industrial quantities of the substance. But had Drake failed in his effort in 1859, it is probably not too much of a stretch to say that the legend, if not the news, would have carried far. Most likely, it would have been a very long time before any one else tried anything even remotely similar.
In particular, one doubts that any knowledgeable person of the era would have attempted to make a well for the purpose of finding oil, particularly around Venango County, Pa. The amber crude would have remained in its Devonian-age reservoir, and the Pennsylvania oil boom would have been postponed. The dawn of the oil age would have had to await another sunrise.
As things turned out, a “liquid gold rush” followed Drake’s success in Oil Creek Valley. Over the next few years, an influx of people swelled the neighboring sleepy hamlet of Titusville from a population of 250 to a boomtown of 10,000 and created many other long-gone boomtowns in the process.
With vast quantities of petroleum coming out of the ground, industrial-scale investment began to flow into the effort. An early investor in a property not far from Drake’s well was a young Pittsburgh resident, then an up-and-coming executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad named Andrew Carnegie. The young Mr. Carnegie’s dividends, and his gains from stock appreciation of his investment in the fledgling Columbia Oil Company, gave him the means to acquire an ironworks and later to build a metallurgical business and create an industrial empire. Later on, other prospectors ranging from a young Ohio man named John D. Rockefeller to a Midwesterner named Mark Twain caught the oil fever and made their investments in the Oil Creek Valley. These are other stories for another time.
By 1865, the wells of Venango County produced upward of 10,000 barrels a day, accounting at the time for 90% of the world’s oil production.
Edwin Drake: The Fate of Col. Drake
Col. Drake does not fare well in this story. He failed to move aggressively to buy up and exploit leases in the area, although his fame as the “man who made the first oil well” would have given him entree to the best prospective lands. Nor did he return to his previous job with the railroad. Drake did earn some money along the way in the early days of the oil industry, but lost more than he ever made. By the late 1870s, Drake was penniless and living on charity in Bethlehem, Pa., when the state legislature voted to award him an annual stipend for his contribution to the advancement of industry.
Edwin Drake died in 1880 and was buried in Bethlehem in a pauper’s grave. But in 1902 his remains, and those of his wife, were removed from Bethlehem and reinterred in Titusville, beneath an imposing granite memorial. Col. and Mrs. Drake now lie in eternal repose under the shadow of a handsome bronze sculpture of a muscular man pounding and dressing a drill bit with a massive hammer. It is all very neoclassical, and very impressive. Drake’s monument reads in part:
Col. Edwin L. Drake…
Founder of the Petroleum Industry, the Friend of Man.
Called by Circumstances to the Solution of a Great Mining Problem…He laid the Foundations of an Industry that has Enriched the State, Benefited Mankind, Stimulated the Mechanical Arts…and has Attained Worldwide Proportions.
His highest Ambition was the Successful Accomplishment of his Task. His Noble Victory the Conquest of the Rock, Bequeathing to Posterity the Fruits of his Labor and of his Industry.
With this in mind, let us take just a moment to reflect on the life of Col. Drake. He was a man of modest background, but through his efforts, he changed the course of history. Is it too much to say that Drake and his well changed history more than another man in a stovepipe hat who became president of the United States not quite two years after the well at Titusville came in?
Think about the worlds that Col. Drake and President Lincoln changed with their respective efforts. Neither world was even remotely like the place where we live today. In a sense, both Col. Drake and President Lincoln were, in their own way, “Great Emancipators.” Mr. Lincoln and his war upset an entrenched social structure and rewrote the political order of the nation. Col. Drake, through his oil well, opened the door to an era of vast energy surplus for much of mankind, liberating man from human limits. As to the latter notion, the case can be made that Drake set the world on a course that, in the long view of history, relegates Lincoln’s presidency to a footnote. At the same time, it was Mr. Lincoln’s war, and the monetary inflation that it spawned, that funded much of the early development of what has evolved into the petroleum industry that we know today. One human revolution required the other, and we will discuss this at another time.
For both Lincoln and Drake, the world of the 1850s was a place of raw animal power, supplemented on occasion with energy derived from wind, burning wood, falling water or hard-won coal from pits dug into the sides of hills. But by achieving his “Conquest of the Rock,” Col. Drake demonstrated that it was possible to extract oil in industrial quantities. Through the exploitation of plentiful oil, the world was at first lubricated and illuminated, fulfilling the stated goal of the investors in the Seneca Oil Company, and then over the next 145 years mechanized, motorized and plasticized.
It is not overstating the case to say that the seed of the modern world, so dependent as it is upon energy and materials derived from petroleum, was planted by Col. Drake. Due uniquely to the efforts of the good colonel, you are here, playing whatever particular role is yours during your allotted time of life. And the modern world is so used to having at its disposal vast quantities of available oil that it requires a great leap of imagination to envision a world without it.
And on that note, I leave you to ponder the future. You have grown up and come of age to live in a world of vast energy surplus, and it is difficult to imagine anything different. But this energy surplus is the bequest of hundreds of millions of years of geology, and it is being pumped out in the span of 100 years or so. We will discuss this in other articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder.
But for now, just think about this… Try to imagine Col. Drake, a simple man without pedigree save for his honorific “colonel” appellation, standing in the mud next to Oil Creek and wondering how he would ever be able to make oil come up from a hole in the ground. Try to envision a world in which oil is scarce, because that is the world in which we are about to reside.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
November 27, 2004