by Jane Ockershausen
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXI, Number 3 - Summer 1995
"They've struck oil!" They were only three words, but they thundered triumphantly throughout the valley along northwestern Pennsylvania's Oil Creek during the days following the long-anticipated breakthrough—one that would change the world forever—on an otherwise quiet Saturday in August 1859. To many it was a miracle, one on which great fortunes would be made—and lost. And it was three men who made the seemingly impossible now possible.
It was George H. Bissell's intuition, James M. Townsend's faith, and Edwin L. Drake's tenacity that literally "paid off"—they proved that petroleum could be obtained in substantial quantities by drilling through rock into the earth. During the turbulent era launched by the trio, the region through which oil Creek flows was christened "The Valley that Changed the World." And that was no exaggeration.
A combination of propitious circumstances crystallized the vision of George H. Bissell. A young lawyer practicing in New York, Bissell visited his alma mater, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1853, where he saw a sample of oil drawn from the area near Titusville, Venango County. Intrigued by the economic possibilities it might offer, he took the small bottle of oil to Benjamin Silliman Jr., a chemistry professor at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Silliman was paid $526.08 (roughly the equivalent of five thousand dollars today) to analyze the oil for its possible use as an illuminant and lubricant. Silliman's encouraging assessment, Report on the Rock Oil, or Petroleum, from Venango Co., Pennsylvania, played a pivotal role in the creation of the country's petroleum industry. "I can promise you that the result will meet your expectation of the value of this material for many most useful purposes," he wrote. But even Silliman's conclusion far exceeded anyone's expectations.
The second bit of good fortune, according to Daniel Yergin, author of an intensive study of the petroleum industry, The Prize, occurred when Bissell noticed an advertisement for "rock oil medicine" in a New York City drug store. Rock oil was a by-product of drilling for salt, and this particular advertisement included drawings of several drilling derricks used in salt wells. These drawings gave Bissell the idea of drilling—not digging—for oil.
Enter Edwin L. Drake (1819–1880), a former railroad conductor, unemployed because of poor health, visiting New Haven's Tontine Hotel, where, as fate would have it, financier and banker James M. Townsend lived. The affable, loquacious thirty-eight-year-old Drake impressed Townsend, who made him an agent of the newly formed Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of Connecticut. It was inevitable that Drake would want to see, firsthand, the northwest section of Pennsylvania that seemed to hold such promise of fortune and fame.
Drake arrived in Titusville, a western Pennsylvania lumber town with a population of one hundred and twenty-five, in December 1857. To impress Titusville residents and, more important, to give him credibility, Townsend dispatched letters and documents addressed to "Colonel" E.L.Drake, a title by which he has been known since. Drake leased a sawmill site owned by the Brewer, Watson Lumber Company along Oil Creek, where three to six gallons of oil were being skimmed from the creek daily. He returned to New Haven with the encouraging news that a lease had been secured, and the company was reorganized as the Seneca Oil Company, recognizing the American Indians who shared a belief in the Oil's healing powers with European settlers. Accompanied by his second wife Laura and two children, Drake returned to Titusville in May 1858.
Drake's instructions were simple and direct: extract oil in quantity. His workers, hired from the salt wells near Tarentum, Allegheny County, were paid one dollar and twenty-five cents each for the first one hundred feet they drilled and one dollar a foot thereafter. By the end of summer, and without success, Drake said, "I had made up my mind oil would be obtained in large quantities by boring as for salt water. I also determined that I should be the one to do it. But I found that no one with whom I conversed upon the subject agreed with me, all maintaining that oil was the drippings of an extensive coal field or bed."
Drake spent the winter of 1858 in Titusville erecting a derrick and well house for a steam boiler and engine built by the Erie City Iron Works. When they were completed, he once again traveled south to Tarentum to hire drillers. The first man Drake hired did not even show up. The driller later admitted he thought Drake was "crazy" and had only agreed to work for him to get rid of him. However, William A. "Uncle Billy" Smith signed on, and he arrived with his fifteen-year-old son Samuel and daughter Margaret Jane. Smith, a blacksmith who made tools for the salt well drillers, brought considerable expertise to Drake's project. The derrick which they built was ridiculed as "Drake's Yoke" by skeptics, who called the entire venture "wild and wooly." When the crew first started pumping, water and gravel filled the hole. To solve what many saw as an insurmountable problem, the ingenious Drake drove a pipe down to the bedrock and drilled inside the pipe.
Although the procedure worked, it did not yield the results for which Drake had worked so tirelessly. By mid-summer 1859, Townsend remained the only investor who still believed in the project. As summer days passed, however, even he had given up hope and had written to Drake, advising him to pay his bills and close the operation. But Drake ignored Townsend's instructions.
On the afternoon of Saturday, August 27, the drill reached sixty-nine feet, dropped into a crevice, and slipped another half-foot. Work was halted for the weekend. "Uncle Billy" checked the well the following morning and noticed dark fluid floating on top of the water that filled the pipe. Using a tin drain spout, Smith drew up the liquid and discovered it was oil. Excited, he sent a helper to spread the good news. The "Colonel" had won his race with time—and earned his niche in history. He had struck oil!
Drake wasted no time. On Monday, August 29, he attached a simple pitcher-pump to the pipe and proceeded to accomplish what scoffers and naysayers had claimed was impossible: to pump oil to the surface. The well produced between eight and ten barrels a day, twice the amount produced by any other means, such as skimming the surface of ponds or pools or by digging. Drake's success spurred the country's greatest land rush since gold was discovered in California a decade earlier. On September 13, 1859, a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune captured the drama of the moment. "The excitement attendant on the discovery of this vast source of oil was fully equal to what I ever saw in California when a large lump of gold was accidentally turned out." Fifteen months after Drake's well "came in," seventy-five wells around Oil Creek were also yielding the precious fluid. The name of the little settlement at the confluence of the creek and the Allegheny River was changed from Cornplanter (named after a Seneca chief) to Oil City. By 1865, the village had, indeed, burgeoned into a city, whose inelegance was described eloquently by J.H.A. Bone, a reporter for the Cleveland (Ohio) Herald and author of Petroleum and Petroleum Wells.
Oil City at last. Oil City, with its one long, crooked and bottomless street. Oil City, with its dirty houses, greasy plank sidewalks, and fathomless mud. Oil City, where horsemen ford the street in from four to five feet of liquid filth, and where the inhabitants wear knee-boots as part of in-door equipment. Oil City, which will give the dirtiest place in the world three feet advantage and then beat it in depth of mud. Oil City, where weary travelers think themselves blest if they can secure their claim to six feet of floor for the night, and where the most favored individual accepts with grateful joy the offer of half a bed and the twentieth interest in a bed-room.
Oil City is worthy of its name. The air reeks with oil. The mud is oily. The rocks hugged by the narrow street, perspire oil. The water shines with the rainbow hues of oil. Oil boats loaded with oil, throng the oily stream, and oil men with oily hands fasten oily ropes around oily snubbing-posts. Oily derricks stand among the houses, and the "town pump," if there is such an institution, must pump oil. There are several productive wells in the city, ranging from five to twenty barrels, and the citizens are busy boring in their back yards, in waste lots, or wherever a derrick can be erected. . . .
At the opening of the oil boom, George H. Bissell traveled to Titusville and spent thousands of dollars buying and leasing farmland around Oil Creek. To his wife he wrote a promising letter. "We find here an unparalleled excitement. The whole western country is thronging here and fabulous prices are offered for land in the vicinity where there is a prospect of oil." Bissell ultimately amassed a fortune. Within three years of Drake's success, the sheer number of producing wells in the region forced the price of oil to plummet, driving investors out of business. Drake also failed. He remained in Titusville, serving as justice of the peace, until 1863, after which he joined a New York brokerage firm that dealt in oil shares. By 1866 he had lost all his money and lived in poverty until 1873, when the state legislature granted him-at the behest of friends and admirers, most of whom had made money in oil-a small, lifetime pension for his service. Although sickly, he was neither bitter nor broken. Toward the end of his life—the last seven years of which he lived in Bethlehem, Northampton County—he reflected on his accomplishment, "If I had not done it, it would have not been done to this day."
Little more than five years after the Drake Well came in, the frenzy spread from Oil Creek to nearby Pithole Creek. In January 1865, the Frazier Well, the first flowing well in Pithole, came in. Two weeks later the Twin Wells became the area's second and third flowing wells. Instead of oil being pumped out of the ground, like the Drake Well and most of the other Oil Creek wells, these were gushers created by pockets of natural gas whose pressure forced the oil to the surface. The Frazier Well, and the other flowing wells in the area, produced two hundred and fifty barrels a day at a time when oil was selling at eight dollars a barrel. In July, the Pool Well came in and was soon producing three thousand barrels of oil daily. The market, however, was quite volatile. As supply increased and demand rose little (if any), the market value of oil continued to spiral downward. In fact, the whiskey barrels used at first to hold the oil cost twice as much as their contents.
The settlement of Pithole, destined to become the scene of the greatest speculation in land, sprang up around the one hundred and eighty acre Thomas Holmden Farm. Colonel A.P. Duncan and George Prather purchased the farm and divided it into five hundred lots, which they leased to hopeful (but inexperienced) speculators and seasoned oil men. Scores of Civil War veterans flocked to Pithole City to try their luck. Under the terms of the leases given by Duncan and Prather, the land would eventually revert to them, so there was little incentive for leasees to erect anything substantial or costly. From September 1865 to the following February, many of the two thousand prospectors lived in one of Pithole's fifty-seven hotels. Population continued swelling and within three months more than fifteen thousand people crammed Pithole. During Pithole's brief-but-fabled ascendancy, the post office was the third busiest in the Commonwealth, Handling more than fifty-five hundred pieces of mail each day. Decline was inevitable, though, as many gusher wells ran dry, and terrible fires destroyed scores of wells and swept through neighborhoods of hastily built wooden structures. By December 1866, the population of Pithole was falling rapidly, and within four years it had dropped to less than three hundred. All that remains of Pithole today are depressions in meadows along Pithole Creek where buildings and structures once stood (see "Pithole City: Boom Town Turned Ghost Town—An Interview with James B. Stevenson," by Kristin R. Woolever in the Summer 1984 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage).
The boom—and the bust—of Pennsylvania's oil industry is complex and complicated, often difficult to comprehend. So enormous was the influx of oil company agents, in addition to speculators, investors, and wildcatters, that cities sprang up seemingly overnight. The vagaries of the mid-nineteenth century market, too, make it hard to appreciate the cycles of the rise and fall of oil. The story of the oil industry, which began in northwest Pennsylvania, is of international significance (see "The Last Frontier: Venango County—Indians, Oil, Ghost Towns" by Carolee K. Michener and Michael J. O'Malley III in the spring 1984 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage). It is a story of universal appeal and importance because of its human dimension—a saga of trial and tribulation, of travail and triumph, all documented and interpreted by the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.
Administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Drake Well Museum explores the oil region's industrial and social history and the individuals who helped shape it. The roles played by George H. Bissell, James M. Townsend, Edwin L. Drake and other significant figures are examined and explained through programs and museum exhibits. It is not only leading individuals whose lives and careers are scrutinized, attention is also focused on families who worked the leases. The roles of women and children are integrated into the story as well. Youngsters worked as "oil dippers," collecting oil in buckets as it floated to the surface of streams and pools, while women worked the farms that stocked the family's larder and provided additional income. The museum's long-range plans are to concentrate on four women, each with a spellbinding story to tell: Laura Dowd Drake, Margaret Jane Smith, Doris Johnson Rassavage and Ida Minerva Tarbell.
Laura Drake arrived in Titusville in 1858, to keep house for her husband and George, his eight-year-old son by his first wife, and their son Alfred, born in 1857. While living in Titusville Laura bore two more children, Charles in 1862 and Mary Laura three years later. "Colonel" Drake suffered from neuralgia, and in his later years he was confined to an uncomfortable "invalid's chair." His yearly pension of fifteen hundred dollars and Laura's labors supported the family. (Laura Drake continued to receive her husband's pension after his death.) Twenty-four year old Margaret Jane Smith arrived at Drake's Well in June 1859 to keep house for her father, "Uncle Billy," and her brother Samuel. Her accounts reveal what it was like for a young woman to live in the wilderness of northwestern Pennsylvania. Doris Johnson Rassavage, born in 1912, grew up on an oil lease. As a new bride she moved to a shanty on an oil lease, and upon her husband Tom's death she tended to the machinery. Ida Tarbell was raised in Rouseville, on Oil Creek, and in Titusville. A noted magazine writer working for McClure's Magazine, she was assigned in 1898 to write about the Standard Oil Corporation. Her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company of New York, published by the Macmillan Company, New York, in 1904, led to antitrust and monopoly legislation.
An important goal of the museum—looking ahead fifteen years toward the sesquicentennial celebration in 2009 of Drake's discovery—is, according to site administrator Barbara T. Zolli, to become "audience-driven, to answer the questions people have, rather than telling them what we want them to hear." Essentially, Zolli wants visitors to "become involved in telling the story."
The Drake Well Museum is blessed with thousands of period photographs that portray life on oil leases and in the boomtowns. A wall-size selection of images captures the horrors of what has become known as the Great Flood and Fire of 1892. Heavy rains on Saturday, June 4, caused the dam in Spartansburg to burst, sending a roaring, twenty foot wall of water crashing through the valley, toppling oil storage tanks, igniting explosions at refineries in Titusville and Oil City, and spreading fires, whose flames followed the flow of the escaping oil. One hundred and thirty-two were killed, and destruction to both residences and businesses was estimated to be well more than one and a half million dollars. A local newspaper reporter wrote of the devastation in Oil City in an article entitled "Looking Backward: A Glance at the Week Just Passed Through."
The week which this day closes has been the saddest one in the history of Oil City. It was ushered in with a day of death and disaster and has been a week of sickening sights, of funerals, of tears, of searches for lost ones, of care for the living and for the dead. Like a horrible fantasy it all seems. It is difficult yet to realize that almost in the twinkling of an eye more than half a hundred residents of the city have been sent into eternity; that the twin elements of destruction which destroyed their lives left in the wake of ruin the wreck of hundreds of thousands dollars worth of property and sent hundreds of homeless people to seek shelter where they may find it. It seems difficult to believe that the ghastly sights which have been witnessed have not been things of over wrought imagination—"the jumbled rubbish of a dream." But it has all been reality—stern, gruesome, sickening reality, and, aside from the figures as to the loss of life and the area of destruction, the half has not been told. And it never will be told, for the simple reason that it cannot be. No one can measure and no one, therefore, can describe, the fright, the horror and grief which it has caused. It has been a week which has seen many people driven to the verge of insanity and has seen the feelings of everybody strained to the fullest tension and horrified beyond expression. First and most fearful has been the loss of life; second the ghastly condition of the bodies and the heartrending grief of the relatives and friends; third, the destruction of property and condition of the homeless. Yes, it has all been reality, and the sternest
reminder of it is the number of the dead.
Drake Well Museum's exhibits are well-balanced and focus on petroleum's significance throughout the world, according to Zolli. One theme analyses the impact of cheap and plentiful illumination on nineteenth century society. Museum exhibits reveal that the importance of "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake's achievement was quickly realized. Less than a year after Drake Successfully drilled for oil, The Reverend Thomas Gale wrote a handbook on oil, proclaiming: "As an illuminator the oil is without a figure: It is the light of the age." Another important theme the museum addresses is the impact of oil on transportation. Balancing the conservation of the environment with the continuing need for oil production is another timely topic the Drake Well Museum explores.
In addition to the history of the oil region in the museum's exhibits, the history of the founding of the Drake Well Museum is, itself, quite fascinating. During the late nineteenth century, several movements were undertaken to honor "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake and the site of birth of the petroleum industry, but nothing actually occurred until 1908 when members of the Canadohta Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), headquartered in Titusville, took an interest. The widow of David Emery, the last private owner of the site of the Drake Well, donated a small tract of land to the DAR chapter, which placed a huge native sandstone boulder weighing thirty tons to mark the site. On August 27, 1914, DAR members set a large bronze tablet depicting the Drake Well in the stone to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Drake's success. Area residents began to talk seriously of establishing a museum and library to chronicle the heritage of northwestern Pennsylvania's oil region.
E. C. Bell, who had devoted fifty years to collecting anything relating to the origin and early development of the petroleum industry, was instrumental in building a small museum in 1915 near his home, just west of Titusville. With his demise in 1923, so died this museum, and the considerable array of his artifacts, objects, and ephemera was relegated to storage at Titusville's Benson Memorial Library. However, many local residents remained keenly interested in commemorating the role that their county had played in the creation of an international industry. In 1931, the American Petroleum Institute raised eighty thousand dollars to establish a national museum and library at the site of Drake Well and three years later, to celebrate the "Diamond Jubilee of Oil," it purchased additional land and added a library to a small museum it had built in the interim. The American Petroleum Institute donated the museum and surrounding property to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the same year. In 1963, the present museum building replaced the American Petroleum Institute's facility.
The Commonwealth erected a replica of the Drake Well in 1946 (which required that the boulder bearing the DAR plaque be moved one hundred and fifty feet). It has been recased to exactly sixty-nine and a half feet to match calculations on that historic August day in 1859. Because the original engine house burned to the ground two months after the first well came in, this replica was constructed using seven photographs of the second structure Drake built.
Visitors today to the Drake Well Museum encounter a wide range of oil drilling and production equipment scattered about the two hundred nineteen acre park. When oil was first pumped, small independent operators used the simple and cheap spring poledrilling rig that visitors can actually operate. Also economical was the central powerhouse, similar to a replica at Drake Well, which was employed to pump oil from more than one well at the same time.
In the early days of the industry, each oil derrick was locally crafted and, naturally, different, but by 1875, what has become known as the "Pennsylvania" standard rig—an example of which is on display at the museum—was being used in oil fields around the world. The museum's standard rig, towering eighty feet was capable of drilling to depths of more than five thousand feet! Shallow wells were sunk by the Sanderson Cyclone Drilling Rig, also exhibited at the site, which gave prospectors the mobility needed to test different sites. Because most oil wells were deep, this equipment was used primarily for drilling water wells and for boring holes for coal mines. At the Museum's National Transit Pipeline Station, visitors discover how the problem of moving oil over long distances was solved. Pipe lines, first used successfully by Samuel Van Syckle in 1865, employing steam-operated pumps (and later gasoline engines) moved the oil from the leases into the refineries. The National Transit Pipeline Station is typical of those installed in the region at the turn of the century.
Other attractions located on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum include the Grant Oil Field Office; a Densmore Tank Car, which consisted of two large wooden vats placed on a railroad flat car, developed by Amos Densmore in 1865 (see "Almost on the Right Track: The Densmore Tank Car" by John H. White in the Summer 1985 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage); "mystery pits," numerous indentations along Oil Creek believed to have been dug by Indians to obtain petroleum for medicinal use.
Drake Well Museum, a featured attraction of the Oil Region Heritage Park, is open throughout the year. Hours of operation are subject to change; please call ahead. There is a charge for admission. A visitors center at the site of Pithole City, administered by the museum, is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Wednesday through Sunday. For additional information about either attraction, write: Drake Well Museum, 205 Museum Lane, Titusville, PA 16354; or telephone (814) 827-2797. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone (814) 827-2797, or the Pennsylvania TDD relay service at (800) 654-5984. Historic sites and museums in Venango County, noted today for its natural splendor and the baronial residences of its oil kings, include the Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry, located in Oil City, once called the “Hub of Oildom” because the city's major industries produced, refined and shipped oil during its heyday. Not far from Oil City, the Rynd Farm serves as the southern terminus for the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad, which runs excursions north to the Drake Well Station and, passing significant oil sites, continues on to the Perry Street Station in Titusville.
For additional information about these and other visitors attractions in the county, write: Oil Region Alliance, P.O. Box 128, Oil City, PA 16301-0128, or phone (814) 677-3152.
Jane Ockershausen of Oakmont became a best-selling author by concentrating on the weekend travel market in a series of guidebooks. She has written for the National Geographic Traveler, AAA World, Washingtonian Magazine, Historic Preservation, and Mid-Atlantic County Magazine, among others. Her article entitled "Harmony in the Wilderness: A Walk through Old Economy Village" appeared in the Winter 1995 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.
For Further Reading
Darrah, William C. Pithole: The Vanished City. Gettysburg: Privately printed, 1972.
Dobler, Lavinia. Black Gold at Titusville. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1959.
Giddens, Paul H. The Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1941
____________. Early Days of Oil. Princeton, N. Princeton University Press, 1948.
___________. The Early Petroleum Industry, Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974.
__________. ed. Pennsylvania Petroleum, 1750- 1872: A Documentary History. Titusville, PA: Drake Well Memorial Park, 1947.
Martens, Charles D. The Oil City. Oil City, Pa.: First Seneca Bank and Trust Company, 1971.
Michener, Carolee, et al. Venango County Panorama: A Salute to its People! Titusville, Venango County Historical Society, 1983.
Miller, Ernest C., ed. This Was Early Oil: Contemporary Accounts of the Growing Petroleum Industry, 1848-1885. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1968.
Olds, Elizabeth. Deep Treasure: The Story of Oil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958.
Yergin, Daniel. The Prize. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.