Col. Drake and the Age of Oil

THERE HE WAS, as big as life and looking quite good for a man who died in 1880. I was on a visit to the Drake Well Museum, just south of Titusville, Pa. I was walking into the museum compound, and whom should I encounter but Col. Edwin Drake, dressed in the period garb one is accustomed to seeing in the grainy old photos. “Well, hello, Col. Drake.”

OK. It was not the real Col. Drake. This fellow is an actor who has been playing the role of Col. Drake for about 10 years. He gives talks to museum visitors and appears in films or news articles that call for a Drake look-alike. He has read much of the literature available on the life and times of Drake, he dresses for the part, and he is just the plain old spitting image of the famous man, down to his bushy brown beard. He is as near as one can get to being in the company of the famous man, and his life and remarkable times.

The Oil of Titusville

“Let me make something clear,” said Drake. “It was not I who found the oil of Titusville fame. The area is one of many oil seeps, from which petroleum simply flows from the ground and then runs down into the creeks and streams. The Seneca Indians had been gathering oil from the local creeks for several centuries, and there is evidence that other more ancient tribes also gathered the oil of these parts even before then.” 

Drake is referring to the archaeological evidence that goes back about 1,500 years indicating that people were digging oil pits and gathering Pennsylvania rock oil since A.D. 500 or so. In all likelihood, the oil was used as a patent medicine, as a body rub, and for purposes such as caulking canoes. There is documentary evidence that white settlers were shipping small quantities of Seneca oil south for sale in Pittsburgh as early as 1790.

“Before my arrival in 1858,” said Drake, “there was an immense amount of timber in these parts. One of the largest firms in the area was a sawmill working on Oil Creek. The operators of the sawmill knew also of the oil, and gathered it up when it formed pools on top of the water. They too used the oil as patent medicine, and in the course of things noted its very good lubricating properties on the moving parts of the sawmill machinery. This had much to do with my eventually being here.” 

Drake continued: “For many years, people had performed simple experiments on the oil, such as boiling it and collecting the various fractions that condensed. They noted that the different fractions had different properties. One of the owners of the sawmill, Mr. Brewer, was acquainted with certain members of the scientific faculty of Dartmouth College. Mr. Brewer sent to that school a sample of the local rock oil. One of the professors at Dartmouth forwarded the sample to the famed chemist Benjamin Silliman of Yale. 

“Professor Silliman evaluated the oil and determined that it had many useful properties. It was, of course, well known as a lubricant, but it also could be used for purposes of illumination by burning it in lamps. There was at that time a growing demand for some substance to burn in lamps for the purposes of illumination. Professor Silliman prepared a report on the Seneca oil for a banker and investor from Connecticut named Mr. Townsend. It was Mr. Townsend who hired me and sent me to Titusville. My job was to determine if we could extract oil in large quantities.”

Pits and Holes

Drake went on with his discussion. “My first effort to recover oil was simply to dig a large pit into the ground in an effort to gather the oil at the bottom. But after several feet of digging, the hole started to fill with water from the very shallow water table. We were, after all, right next to a creek. So I lined the pit with wood planks, but even that did not keep out the water. We tried to drain the pit, but the water entered faster than the pumps could remove it. A pit was not going to work.

“It was then that I began to travel to other places and observe how people were mining substances and harvesting the products of the Earth. Near the town of Tarentum, on the Allegheny River, I encountered salt drillers. They would pound down an iron pipe into the salt beds and pump out brine water. After evaporating the water, they were left with salt. But some wells also produced an oily residue with the salt, so it became apparent to me that the oil might be flowing underground with other fluids. I decided to adapt the use of the iron pipe in an effort to push down a hole for oil near Oil Creek.

“Also, I heard of men working near what is now Parkersburg, W.Va. (it was Virginia back then), who were pounding down holes into the ground with iron tools. I hired a tool smith, named ‘Uncle Billy’ Smith, appropriately, to obtain or manufacture for me such similar tools.

“When I returned to Titusville, I immediately set about to drive down a hole into the ground using the digging tools. Shortly after starting the hole, I lined its walls with an iron pipe that we pushed down along with our drilling tool. This kept the walls from caving down into the hole, and also served to keep out most of the water from the adjacent soil. Once we hit bedrock, we kept on pounding down our hole.

“On Aug. 27, 1859, from a depth of 69 feet, we lifted our first quantities of oil from the hole, about 25 barrels in total.

“Thus, my achievement was not really in discovering oil, because the oil was already there for the taking. Nor was it my idea to use the oil for whatever purpose, because there were others who came before me. It was not even my role in history to extract the oil by digging downward for it, because others were already attempting the same thing. But my most notable accomplishment was in applying the concept of using a conductor pipe to protect the walls of the drill hole on the way down to the oil-bearing formation. This technique is still in use today, and is the foundation of the technology upon which is built the modern oil industry.”

Why an Oil Age?

Col. Drake brings up many good points that serve to explain the origins of the oil age, if not the origins of modern history. Why do some things happen the way that they do? What makes history?

People had known about the oil of the Titusville region for at least many centuries, certainly long before it was called Titusville. Why did the Seneca Indians, or their more ancient forebears, not usher in the Age of Petroleum? In another part of the world, by comparison, starting in the 16th century, the Spanish were importing barrels of oil from what is now Trinidad and Tobago, as well as from Venezuela. The queen of Spain, among others, used the oil to treat various family ailments. Why did this not usher in the Age of Petroleum?

And people certainly knew about digging pits, if not making holes in the ground, as well, long before Col. Drake muddied his boots along the banks of Oil Creek. Again, why does the credit for ushering in the Age of Petroleum go to Col. Drake? At about the same time that Drake was drilling his well in Titusville, other people were drilling holes in the ground in what is now West Virginia and eastern Ohio and southern Ontario near Petrolia. Within a year of Drake’s well at Titusville, other people achieved similar results in extracting oil from the rocks of New Brunswick, and there were even oil wells put down in Romania and southern Russia.

Even the initial news of Drake’s well at Titusville was overshadowed by events just two months later, when abolitionist John Brown took over the U.S. federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia). Most people had other things about which to think than some oil prospector driving down a hole in the backwoods of northwest Pennsylvania.

A Confluence of Events

What created the modern petroleum industry was a confluence of circumstances, and certainly of events. Col. Drake’s innovation in driving a hole into the earth was just one of many things along a long chain of events.

The oil, of course, had to be there, and Titusville was the right place with its relatively shallow oil-bearing rock formations. And one of the principal virtues of the Seneca oil was that it was (and is) devoid of asphaltic fractions. It is light, sweet, and even smells kind of good. But science also had to advance to the point at which there was a rational, if not economic, purpose behind the demand for what Col. Drake called “large amounts” of oil. Here is where Professor Silliman’s report to Mr. Townsend comes in, a scientific basis for an economic investment. 

Backed by the Connecticut investors, Col. Drake perfected a means to extract oil by drilling a hole lined with conductor pipe. But Col. Drake may not have been the first person to do this either. There were similar attempts ongoing near Parkersburg, W.Va., and Petrolia, Ontario. 

But after Drake’s well came even more wells in 1860, drilled into the Devonian bedrock of northwest Pennsylvania by Drake’s imitators, albeit with great caution and trepidation, because the Drake well may have been a fluke for all anyone really knew. By late 1860, the wells were starting to come in on a regular basis and oil drilling was becoming a relatively predictable business.

And then came the U.S. Civil War. U.S. federal expenditures skyrocketed, and the central government rapidly exhausted its reserves of gold and silver. The U.S. government resorted to issuing paper currency, the well-known “greenbacks.” These fiat dollars flooded the U.S. economy, causing a general inflation in price levels. People who understood the nature of inflation were keen to find some means of protecting their purchasing power. Then as now, money flowed into hard assets, and there are fewer assets harder than bedrock sandstone filled with oil.

The World’s First Oil Boom

Much of the federal spending for the Civil War would end up in the pockets of two classes of people: New York bankers and Pittsburgh industrialists. It was this mixture of capital and industry, building upon the presence of oil, a scientific use for the substance, and a novel means for extracting it, that sparked the world’s first true oil boom. 

Even in the midst of a general Civil War, the New York money flowed to the iron mills of Pittsburgh to purchase pipe and other equipment to install in the oil patches of Titusville. The foundries of Pittsburgh could just as easily roll tubular goods for the oil fields as cast cannon for the Union Army. The equipment shops of western Pennsylvania could just as easily manufacture pumps and gear drives and sucker rods as any other implement of war. And so they did.

The federal spending boom sparked the classic wartime phenomenon of currency flooding the national economy. Much of this money found its way into speculation on oil leases, and then into the capital equipment for developing those leases. Had there been no Civil War, one can only wonder if there would have been the Pennsylvania oil boom of the 1860s. 

As a necessary concomitant of the oil boom, the Civil War itself created a vast underground army of laborers for the oil fields. To be sure, the development of those fields required an immense amount of backbreaking labor. This labor force included deserters from combat on both sides of the fight, draft dodgers, immigrants from foreign shores, and freed slaves who were searching for work away from the sound of the guns.

Thus did the U.S. Civil War bring together a large amount of new money, invested in leaseholds in the oil country of Titusville, plus capital equipment and a ready supply of labor. Here was the confluence of events that sparked the modern petroleum industry.

As the oil wells came in, they sparked an oil boom in the mid-1860s. Production soared and prices crashed. Investment waned, and by the late 1860s, the price of oil was drifting upward again. There was another boom and another bust in the early 1870s. The industry was irrational from an economic perspective, and something had to happen.

Something did happen, in the form of a man who desired, and eventually acted, to bring some semblance of rationality to a chaotic industry. He was a businessman from Cleveland, Ohio, named John D. Rockefeller. He conceived a method of bringing a certain sense of standardization to the oil industry, and eventually did exactly that.

So this takes us from Col. Drake to Mr. Rockefeller. We will discuss Rockefeller in my next article in Whiskey & Gunpowder. Without Rockefeller’s effort, one wonders where the oil boom would have gone. Where would we be today? We are all both products and prisoners of history.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
August 16, 2006

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