Harpers Ferry: Oil Wells and Family Trees

Byron King discusses Colonel Edwin Drake and the early days of US oil drilling in Titusville, PA — and how, when the news of the first successful well drilled for broke in October 1859, it was overshadowed by abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

THE PAST 145 years have constituted a unique era in the long view of human history.  It has been a time when mankind (well, some of it, anyhow…) has had relatively easy access to relatively low cost volumes of petroleum.

Refined petroleum has served as a source of liquid fuel with incomparably high energy-density (ever try to power an aircraft engine with coal or burning wood?), as well as a feed stock for much of what has built the world’s economy.  Ancient peoples constructed pyramids, or great walls, or temples to the gods, or hanging gardens.  These are magnificent achievements and wonders of the world, every one of them.  But there has been nothing like this age of petroleum, which has changed the very nature of human existence.  But this gets ahead of the discussion.

Edwin Drake’s oil well, drilled not far from this small town in 1859, is credited as having ushered in the modern industrial era.  Singular as it may be in history, however, the modern industrial era was not just waiting in the lobby of time, fully dressed and ready to march onto the world stage at the curtain call of the Colonel.

Nothing great in history is so cut-and-dried, although many things that change the world are both signal accomplishments and simple accidents of fate.  And as the historian Francis Parkman noted of another time, “It is the nature of great events to obscure the great events that came before them.”  But this also gets ahead of our discussion.

People had been skimming oil from the creeks and streams of western Pennsylvania since prehistoric times, so the substance itself was known to some extent.  Before Drake’s well, petroleum was available in very modest quantities.  People did all sorts of things with it, more or less, to the limits of their knowledge of its potential.

There is evidence that Native Americans burned it as part of religious rituals.  Some people drank it as a patent medicine, or rubbed it on sores or ailing muscles.  Others applied it as waterproof caulking on canoes and boats, or derived candle wax through a simple process of distillation.  In the late 1850s, the noted Professor of Chemistry at Yale, Benjamin Silliman, Jr. (b.1816 – d.1885) wrote the first scientific article on the properties of oil.  Silliman’s article forecast the many uses to which petroleum could be put, if the substance was made available in industrial quantities.  Then as now, when a Yale man spoke, people listened.

Harpers Ferry: Colonel Drake’s Fortunate Augury

Edwin Drake, a railroad conductor who had come into the employ of a group of Connecticut investors, applied to the search for oil the drilling technology that others in that time were using to extract salt.  That is, Drake rigged a “walking beam” device, powered by a small steam engine.  The walking beam held an iron augur on the end of a rope, which it raised and lowered, thus pounding the augur into the rock.  This created an open hole in the ground.  Drake’s technological innovation, at least from the standpoint of extracting oil, was to keep the workings open by hammering down into the hole a cast iron conductor pipe.  The augur pulverized the rock on the way down, and the pipe kept the sides of the hole from caving in.

Drake’s innovation was simple but profound.  At least, no one else in the oil patch had thought of it before.  In the big scheme of man’s knowledge, Drake’s success at Titusville was not particularly an intellectual achievement.  That is, the nominal Colonel did not invent anything new.  Rather, he applied existing technology to a problem, and he worked hard.  And conductor pipe or not, Drake was very lucky.

Drake was lucky because he had located his well a mere 69 feet above an oil-bearing sandstone that was only about eighteen inches at its thickest point.  Had Drake spotted his well even one hundred feet in any direction, he would have missed the sandstone.  Had the sandstone been much deeper than 69 feet, Drake would have run out of funds to pound his hole in the ground.  Drake’s iron-lined well would have produced no oil, and the effort would have been abandoned.  So we call it luck.  Or we can call it serendipity.  Or perhaps we should call it a revolution in the course of events that constitute the history of mankind.  Edwin Drake gets the credit and the laurels.

There were other people who had come close to doing what Drake accomplished.  That is, they came close but not close enough.  The oil seeps of the Ohio valley, along the present-day Ohio-West Virginia border, had lured oil prospectors from the earliest days of French exploration.  And the seeps of western New York and Ontario also offered their enchantments to others in search of the valuable substance.

These hardy souls did what prospectors have done since time immemorial.  They traced the oil seeps to the cracks in the source rocks.  They set up their mine works and digging engines.  They chipped and pounded holes into the ground.  And sometimes, they even produced a few barrels of oil.

But none were as successful as Drake, whose employers had sent him, fortunately, to a place where the oil was where a man could find it.  Drake’s hole in the Devonian shale and sandstone near Titusville allowed him to lift an industrial-strength quantity of petroleum – about 25 barrels on the first day, August 27, 1859, but over 1,000 barrels in the next month — from beneath the woodlands of Pennsylvania.  As the epitaph on his grave site states, Drake achieved a “conquest of the rock.”

Harpers Ferry: From Faith to Funds; Rock Turns to Wealth

To the man or woman whose well has struck oil, there is nothing quite like the feeling of success and elation that comes with the news.  (In all humility, your author speaks from first hand experience.)  Put yourself in that person’s place.  You traced the seeps, or examined the rocks and outcrops and structures that appear at the surface.  You had an idea that something was down there.  You envisioned a spot in the depths of the earth, where the rock is porous and permeable, and where there is energy sufficient to move an oily fluid to a drill hole.

You came up with a point on the surface to spot a well.  You acquired the legal rights to do what you intended.  You convinced others put their faith, and more importantly their funds, behind you.  You applied the funds to your idea, and you allocated capital to the effort.  You kept faith with your investors.  You worked with other people to do the many things, most on a scale of heavy industry, that have to be done. 

You did not squander or waste the opportunity, but instead you made an oil well.  When the petroleum first showed up in the drill cuttings, or on the down-hole logs or in the drill stem test, you realized that you had located a tangible and useful natural resource.  After all of that, you could pump or lift the product out of the ground.  You could sell your product into the world market.

You turned rock into wealth.  It is not quite the same thing as turning lead into gold, but it comes close.  In your own small way, you have improved the lot of mankind and, maybe, have even done something good for yourself.  (In my case, my then-employer, Gulf Oil Corporation, gave me a nice bonus check.)  Still, wow.

Yes, you dared.  You took a calculated risk, and you conquered the rock.  But at the same time, if you truly understand what has happened, you know that Mother Nature has been kind to you.  There is but one God in Heaven, and He has this day smiled upon your house.  But one must never forget that there are many days in a lifetime, and not all of those days are subject to the good favor of the Almighty.

And there were many days in the life of Colonel Edwin Drake.  Over time, he made a fair amount of money in the oil business.  And then he lost it.  And then he made some more.  And he lost that, too.  Eventually Drake fell into penury, and ended his life a pauper and living on a small stipend that he received as an act of charity from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

He died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1880.  Years later, in 1902, his body was moved to a fine and impressive grave site in Titusville, courtesy of a number of old oil field acquaintances who had subsequently made vast fortunes in the late 1800s by investing in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.  Better late than never, they honored the pathfinder.  But this too gets ahead of our discussion.

As for the landowner on whose property the oil well comes in, or the fortunate soul who owns the mineral rights, well….  Back in 1859, then as now, striking oil could change a family tree, or at the very least replant it to the fertile soil of a better part of town.

In the months and years after Colonel Drake met with his success in the valley of Oil Creek, near Titusville, many a widow found herself with a line of suitors standing at the front door.  To a man, they stuttered proposals of sacred matrimony and promises of faithful wedded bliss.

Likewise, many a father and mother sat in their parlor, and listened skeptically or focused wary eyes at the hordes of young men who arrived to ask for the hand in marriage of “that fine young daughter.”  Or, if the one “fine young daughter” was already spoken for, the eager young man would seek the hand of the lucky parents’ “other fine young daughter.”

It was and remains ever so.  It is as if drilling an oil well and penetrating the depths of Hades, god of the underworld, convey to a family an introduction to Aphrodite, goddess of beauty.  Indeed, few words in the English language (or in any language, when you think about it…) are so sultry, or can do so much to enhance the pulchritude and irresistible charm of a young lady, as for someone to note of woman, in polite company, that “her daddy struck oil.”  The amber liquid may not exactly be a perfect love potion, nor nature’s preeminent aphrodisiac, but it can certainly make a man’s heart grow fonder.

Then as now, one good investment could be worth a lifetime of toil in the hot sun.  And toiling in the hot sun, or suffering through the bitter cold of the winters in those good old days before global warming, was the fate of most who journeyed into the oil patch.  As companion to the prospect of riches, the endeavor required mostly back-breaking physical labor under truly miserable conditions.

It was all for the opportunity to change one’s family tree.

Looking back, one sees in retrospect an oil-boom in northwestern Pennsylvania during the 1860s.  Seeing the oil-boom, one can be forgiven for thinking that word of Colonel Drake’s successful oil well spread out from Titusville like a prairie fire after the events of August 27, 1859.  And one can be forgiven for thinking that the oil-boom was all about oil.  The truth, as we will discuss in other articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder, was different, far different.

Harpers Ferry: Relative Speed of “News”…Divergent Colonels Transplant the Oaks

As to the news of the Drake well, many of the local populace of course knew of the success of the formerly “Crazy Colonel,” and his ridiculous effort to drive a hole into the ground and find oil.  But the sleepy village of Titusville, buried in the woodlands and farmsteads of the very remote County of Venango, was about as isolated as any place could be.  It was 40 miles to the nearest railroad, or a couple of days of hard riding northeast to Erie or southwest to Pittsburgh over little more than dirt pathways or at best wooden-plank roads.  The journey by flatboat, down the Oil Creek to the Allegheny River and thence to Pittsburgh, required several days under good weather and upon the smoothest of waters.  Almost like the oil that moved up his pipe from 69 feet below, information about Drake’s success slowly trickled out, and mostly in the form of rumor and anecdote.

It took over a week for James Townsend, who lived in Connecticut and was the promoter and fundraiser of the drilling project, to learn from his man on the spot, Edwin Drake, about the successful oil well.  Townsend informed almost no one, out of fear that the Drake well was a fluke and would dry up within a short time after the initial success, like all the other holes in the ground in the Ohio Valley or western New York.  It was almost a month before the news of Drake’s oil well was reported in a newspaper in an adjacent county.

By October of 1859, as the news of Drake’s well began to spread in a significant way, another trick of fate occurred.  A man named John Brown, an ardent slavery abolitionist (and one whom we would today label as a psychopathic serial killer…), and a band of his followers attacked and seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  (It was Virginia back then, not West Virginia.  That “West”-part would come later.)

Within days, another Colonel – a real one, this time – named Robert E. Lee (b.1807 – d.1870), then in the employ of the United States Army, led a force of U.S. soldiers to Harpers Ferry, took back the arsenal and captured Brown and his band of insurrectionists.  This news traveled across the nation faster, to say the least, than did the word of Drake’s well.  Although Brown was speedily tried, and promptly hanged on December 2, 1859, his raid was widely regarded, correctly as it turned out, as a symptom that the federal union under the Constitution of the United States of America was beginning to unravel.

Interestingly, it was Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee (b.1756 – d.1818), who had fought alongside fellow Virginian George Washington (b.1732 – d.1799) during the American Revolution.  After the Revolution, Henry Lee had served as governor of Virginia.  He led the Virginia Militia during then-president Washington’s 1794 campaign to cross Pennsylvania from Philadelphia and put down the Whiskey Rebellion near Pittsburgh.

This insurrection was the first real challenge to federal authority and the preservation of the embryonic union of 1789, but not the last time that a man named Lee would march the boots of an army of Virginians across Pennsylvania.  It was Henry Lee who penned the famous epitaph for George Washington, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

But later in his life, Henry Lee squandered the fortunes of two successive wives.  He ran up significant debts and was imprisoned in 1808 and 1809.  Henry Lee disgraced the family name, and it fell to his son, Robert E. Lee to commit himself to a life of honor and to restore his own family tree.  Young Lee graduated with high distinction from West Point in 1829, and served well and ably in the U.S. Army until 1861.  Then, he was forced by larger events to make the decision to resign his commission and take up with the Army of Northern Virginia.  He did this, he said, out of a “sense of honor.”

Thus we return to those earlier-cited words of Francis Parkman:  “It is the nature of great events to obscure the great events that came before them.”

In this case we have two “great events” in 1859 that, certainly in hindsight, changed the world.  The real Colonel, Robert E. Lee (later, of course, General Lee of the Confederacy), participated in a great event at Harpers Ferry that would, within months, alter the course of the nation.  The nominal Colonel, Edwin Drake, drove the first commercially successful oil well into the earth, a great event that spearheaded the launch of an industry that would, over a longer time, alter the trajectory not just of the nation but of mankind.

At that time, in October of 1859, Colonel Lee of Harpers Ferry stole the limelight from the accomplishments of Colonel Drake at Titusville.  Robert E. Lee would, as you all know, go on to become a legendary, if not mystical, figure in American history.  In the absence of Lee, the American Civil War could not have been waged as it was.  Without Lee’s exceptional generalship, the Southern Rebellion may have suffered early and debilitating military defeats.  This would be a far different world.  But of battles not waged, and wars ending differently, and great events leading to different outcomes…  of those things we can only speculate.

All things must come to an end, including articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder.  In future articles, however, we will discuss how, in the absence of the Civil War, the petroleum industry would have had quite a different beginning in the early 1860s, which were its formative years.  145 years later, we still live in a world of petroleum rooted in a Civil War legacy.  “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” goes the old saying.  This includes family trees – of people, of families, of industries, and even of nations.

Best regards…

Byron W. King
January 11, 2005