Myth Legend Reality- Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early oil Industry by Dr. William Brice

Apr 03, 2008 | Posted in Essays, People

Myth Legend Reality- Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early oil Industry

(This essay is excerpted from the new biography of Drake by Dr. William R. Brice)

As with most people, Drake is a more complex individual than would appear at first glance. About part of his life we know a great deal, while other parts of it are more obscure, but it was an interesting life, and his actions changed our modern world forever.

Although Drake was born in Greenville, New York, March 20, 1819, to Lyman and Laura Drake, during his early childhood his family moved to another farm near Castleton, Vermont. Of his early education we know very little, though it is assumed he had a standard (for that time) country school education in Castleton. At 19 he left the family farm and set out to make his fame and fortune. He drifted west and landed briefly in Buffalo, New York, where he found brief employment as a night clerk on the lake steamer, Wisconsin, that traveled between Buffalo and Detroit, Michigan. In only a few months he moved on to his uncle's farm near Ann Arbor, Michigan, but farm life did not agree with him and he relocated once again, this time to the nearby city of Tecumseh, Michigan. There he began a new life as a clerk in a local hotel and settled behind that desk for about two years. But the desire to be nearer family and his old friends drew him back east. After seeking his fame and fortune, and finding neither, now at age 22, Drake who was a bit older and probably wiser, headed back to the family farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Acting on the advice of friends and family, Drake made the fateful decision to try his luck in New Haven, Connecticut. And, as had been his good fortune so far, he soon found a position in a dry goods store where once again his personal charm and ability to make friends easily allowed him to succeed. But after about three years in the New Haven dry goods store, his ambitions began to push him toward a bigger market, and in 1844 the lure of New York City was hard to resist.

Shortly thereafter, no doubt through his connections in the dry goods business in New Haven, or other New Haven contacts, he was employed in large dry goods store right on Broadway. No doubt he felt that finally his fortunes were turning and that his life was really beginning to take shape. No doubt this 25 year old, 6 feet 1 inch man in his new suit cut quite a figure as he walked along Broadway with a jaunty step and a smile and tipping his top hat to the ladies he passed. Either just before he left New Haven or just after he moved to New York City, Drake met Philena Adams from Springfield, Massachusetts, and they were married on December 16, 1845. But Drake's new family life was to be full of tragedy. Philena's health began to fail shortly after their marriage, and they moved to live in her home of Springfield. There Edwin was able to get a position as an express agent with the Boston & Albany Railroad, a position he held for about a year. Their first son, Arthur M. Drake was born in 1847, but he died a little over a year later, and then a second son, Arthur L. was born in 1849, but he, too, only lived a few months. During all this tragedy, in 1849 Drake resigned from the Boston & Albany line to become a conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad, and they moved once again, this time back to New Haven. Although amidst all the suffering, there was one bright spot, the birth of a third son, George L., who was born in 1850, but tragedy followed him and Drake was to suffer yet another even more devastating blow. While they were living in Port Chester, New York, his wife Philena died in childbirth in 1854 (1), and their baby daughter was lost at the same time; leaving him with only his four year old son, George.

Having lost a wife and three children all within the space of nine years, a lesser man might have given up, but Drake was not a lesser man. We must remember that in 1854 death during childbirth was far more common than it is today, and the death of children in the mid-Nineteenth Century was not unexpected either. But knowing these facts, however, does not lessen the tragedy suffered by Drake, however, perhaps it does help the present day reader understand how Drake was able to go on with his life in the face of such devastating losses. But fate had not finished with Mr. Drake. He still had his position with the New York & New Haven Railroad, so he and four year-old George returned to New Haven where he had friends and took up residence at the Tontine Hotel. But he was to have young George for only a short time as he, too, died in 1856(2). But then Drake's life took a turn for the better when he married Laura Clarissa Dowd, some 16 years his junior, of New Haven in 1857 and in October of that year their first son, Alfred Lee, was born. Then just as his life seemed to be brighter than it had been for many years, Edwin had an attack of what has been called "Malarial Fever,"(3) and with such poor health, he was forced to retire from his position with the railroad. At the time he and his new bride were still living at the Tontine Hotel where Drake crossed paths with many important local businessmen, among them was James Townsend.

Only a year or so earlier Townsend had become interested in an oil project proposed by George Bissell. Bissell, in the fall of 1854, had stopped at the Tontine where he had related a story to Mr. Townsend about what was called "Seneca Oil" that had been collected from an oil spring near Titusville, Pennsylvania. This "Seneca Oil," or "Rock Oil" as it was also called, was widely touted as a magic cure for most illnesses of both man and horse. Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh had developed quite a business selling this by-product from his salt wells at Tarentum on the Allegheny River. Kier had also discovered a way to distill the crude oil to get a much better burning fluid and he invented a lamp to use this new fluid he was making. Thus there was a growing market for this dark and somewhat smelly substance which is why Townsend became interested in Bissell's story about the oil seeping out of the ground in Western Pennsylvania.

Through many machinations Bissell and his partner J. G. Eveleth of New York City incorporated "The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company" under the laws of the state of New York, specifically to harvest and sell this "Rock Oil." Under the laws of New York State, however, stockholders were liable for debts of a company, so Townsend and his New Haven friends were not willing to invest their money until the company had been re-organized under the laws of the state of Connecticut where stock holders did not have such liabilities. Once this re-organization was accomplished Townsend and several New Haven business men, among them, Asahel Pierpont, W. A. Ives, and Edwin Bowditch, took shares in the new Connecticut company. The group had been encouraged to make this investment step by a very favorable scientific report prepared by Benjamin Silliman, Jr. of Yale University in which he pointed out a great potential for this substance.

About this time a friendship had developed between Drake and Townsend and others who were regulars at the Tontine. Drake was well known as a great story teller who made friends easily, and at that time had little to do but sit around the hotel tables entertaining all within earshot with his tales and exploits; perhaps embellished here and there with the passage of time. The new Company needed someone to go into the wilderness, at least in their mind Western Pennsylvania was a wilderness, and check on and enlarge the oil production there. The tall, distinguished, and very personable Edwin Drake was a likely candidate for the position; and as a retired conductor, he could ride free on any train, hence there would be no transportation costs if they hired him. Not only did they hire him, but they persuaded Drake to invest $200 of his savings in the Company. One has to wonder what the new Mrs. Drake thought of this use of their money. Drake had been forced to retire due to his poor health, so he wasn't working, and she was pregnant with their first child, and now he was taking $200, not a small sum in 1857, and investing it in a project to collect oil in Pennsylvania and sell it. But she had deep faith in and love for Edwin and she supported him in this bold move. The Company made him President (a short-lived position as it turned out) and promised to pay him $1,000 per year for his services (a sum much higher than he ever actually received), but for his $200 he had received a large block of 8,926 shares in the Company, the bulk of which he soon had to transfer to others, and by January 1860 his ownership was reduced to only 656 shares(4). Later, by March 1860 as he was forced out as President, and he also lost the remaining stock as well(5). At this time, however, he was selected to act as the Company Agent at Titusville. As Townsend said, "He [Drake] is the right kind of man for the undertaking, perfectly upright and honorable in all his dealings,...I congratulate myself as well as all the members of the company in securing so worthy and competent a man to intrust [sic] with the lease of our property."(6) And the fact that he had a free railroad pass no doubt helped him gain this position as well. So in December 1857, Drake headed west, and to make certain Mr. Drake was well received by the frontier people, Townsend sent letters and important looking papers ahead of him in care of the local hotel addressed to "Colonel Edwin Drake," a title that stuck, but was never really earned; until (long after his death) on August 25th, 1959, when an Act (Number 259) was passed which officially, though quite posthumously, made Drake a Colonel in the Pennsylvania Nation Guard.

During his journey to Titusville, Drake visited the salt wells at Syracuse. Later salt well drilling technology was to play an important role in his success, but for now he went on to Erie and then by stage coach to Titusville, where, as mentioned previously, his new title had preceded him. The actual business he had to conduct took only a few hours, however, in this "wilderness," he had to wait three days for the next stage back to Erie. But he used this time wisely making friends and seeing how the local crude oil was used as a lubricant in the local sawmills or used as a fuel to light the mills at night. In this short time Drake was convinced that the oil was indeed valuable, if only it could be obtained in large quantities. And by May of 1858, he was back in Titusville, but this time with his new family and intending to stay for while.

He quietly and without much fanfare set to work trying to gather the oil as it seeped into trenches, soaking it up with woolen blankets and then wringing them out into barrels, not a very efficient method of obtaining oil in large quantities. It is here that various accounts differ and there is some controversy as to who actually conceived of the idea of drilling into the earth to find oil. The idea of drilling for oil may have been suggested by Bissell who had the inspiration after seeing one of Samuel Kier's advertisements which featured a wooden well derrick. According to one often repeated story(7) the advertisement was in a drug store window, on Broadway in New York City, under whose awning Bissell was seeking shade on a hot day during the summer of 1856. Thus it was Bissell who realized the potential of drilling for oil as well as for brine:

"For a moment he [Bissell] scanned it [the Kier advertisement], scrutinzing [sic] the derricks and remarking the depth from which the oil was drawn, till instantly, like an inspiration it flashed upon him, that this was the way their lands must be developed-by artesian wells....When Mr. Bissell disclosed his theory to his partner [J. G. Eveleth] that gentleman embraced [it] with enthusiasm."(8)

According to Ida Tarbell(9), Bissell saw Kier's advertisement during a visit to Dartmouth and not along Broadway. In this version, the oil Bissell saw in the laboratory there was a bottle of Kier's medicinal variety and the derrick was on the label; thus he had his inspiration about the oil and the method of obtaining it all at the same time, also before Drake went to Titusville. Another major publication(10) makes no mention of the Broadway story either, but does state that Bissell noticed one of Kier's circulars in 1856 from which he had the idea of drilling for the oil.

However, Edwin Bell(11), Drake's first biographer, totally disagrees and states that Bissell did not originate the idea of drilling the well, and further states that drilling a well to get the oil was totally Drake's idea. Somewhat in support of Bell's statement is the wording in an original lease on the Titusville property signed November 8, 1856, between the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and David H. Lymans and Renssalaer N. Havens of New York. Lymans and Havens were, "...empowered to bore, dig, mine, search for, and obtain oil, salt, water, coal, and all other minerals..." [emphasis in the original].(12) The important word, obviously, is bore as a method to use in seeking oil on the property. However, in the incorporation articles quoted by Bell and others, the object of the Company was to, "...raise, procure, manufacture and sell Rock Oil..." [emphasis added](13). The word "bore" does not seem to appear, as Townshend indicated, until that intermediate lease in 1856, but this was still three years before Drake drilled the well. However, some support for Bell's conclusion comes in a letter from Drake to Townsend in August 1858, Drake said, "I am satisfied that boring is the cheapest [method to use]."(14) Also, another letter dated October 11, 1858, from Townsend to Drake seems to indicate that Drake was boring for oil, for Townsend said, "...directly you [Drake] will see all things clear as daylight with a good bright sun shining and the big augur going down and the oil coming up."(15) But both of these letters were written after 1856 when Bissell was supposed to have had his revelation. And to further muddy the waters, in an interview with Drake in 1866, during his only return visit to Titusville, a newspaper article stated that in 1858, shortly after he had arrived in Titusville, "...the idea flashed across his [Drake's] mind that there was a basin of oil in the rock below the surface, and he first formed the resolution to sink a well."(16) But this was still two years after Bissell is said to have conceived the idea to drill for oil. Thus, who actually had the original idea seems to be shrouded with the mists of the past, but Drake is the one who was in charge of the well and he is the one who stuck with the project when the odds were completely stacked against him.

After failing to hire a local driller, Drake went to Tarentum to seek a driller among the salt producers there, namely a Mr. Lewis C. Peterson, who in April 1859 recommended Mr. William A. Smith (Uncle Billy)(17). Smith and part of his family (son Samuel (age 15) and daughter Margaret Jane) arrived some time in the middle of May. The work proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace due to all sorts of malfunctions; this on top of earlier delays due to drillers not showing up and delays in funding. The Company did send money, but not nearly as often or as much as Drake needed. In fact at one time to keep the operation going during the summer of 1859, he had to borrow money with two local men, R. D. Fletcher and Peter Wilson, counter-signing a $500 note with Drake at a Meadville bank. As the site was only about 100 feet or so from Oil Creek, part of the difficulty was water that was getting into the hole causing cave-ins. Drake had the idea of driving cast iron pipe through the loose sand and clay right down to the bedrock, and then drilling through the pipe, thus inventing the idea of a using well casing, but, alas, Drake did not seek a patent on his idea. Although the idea seems to have been original with Drake, he was certainly not the first to use some kind of well casing. The Ruffner Brothers, in what is now West Virginia, had done the same thing in about 1806, but they had used a hollow sycamore log instead of iron pipe. In 1815, a metal worker in Charleston, then western Virginia, started making tubes of tin which could replace the crude wooden ones the Ruffners were using, and by 1825 tin was replaced by copper which allowed the use of screw joints(18).

By August, 1859, Drake was down to his last few pennies. The Company either couldn't or wouldn't invest any more money. Toward the end of that month Townsend sent a letter with $500 of his own money telling Drake to close the operations and pay the final bills. As far as the Company was concerned, the project was finished. Fortunately that letter was not delivered until after they found oil in the pipe on the afternoon of August 28th, 1859. At a depth of about sixty-nine and a half feet, the drill had dropped into a crevice on Saturday afternoon August 27th and Uncle Billy decided it was time to quit for the day. So the tools were pulled up and everyone went home. Late the following afternoon Uncle Billy came by the site to check the hole and noticed a very dark liquid floating on top of the water in the hole, which, when sampled, turned out to be oil. Drake's Folly, as it was known to the local population, was not such a folly after all, for Drake had shown that large quantities of oil could be found by drilling into the earth. And so began the modern petroleum industry.

But hard luck, again, seemed to strike Drake just when good fortune seemed to be within his grasp. Not long after the original discovery, Drake was in Meadville on business and a fire destroyed the entire original derrick, engine house, and well, and he had to drill a second well. It is this structure that appears in all the famous Mather photographs. Then the New Haven men quickly shoved Drake aside. Within one year of his success, as the world around him went quickly "oil-mad" and fortunes were being made, and lost, overnight, we find Drake working as a local Justice of the Peace in Titusville and doing some oil-leasing and selling on the side. All of this generated an income of about $5-6,000 annually which was a nice salary for 1862. But in 1863 he sold his home and some land he had acquired in Titusville and left for New York City, taking with him $15 to $20,000. This sum was, in 1863, enough for his family, now with another son, Charles Henry, born in February 1862, to live comfortably. But he went back to New York City to try his hand at business, which proved to be an unwise decision. In only about a year, Drake had lost almost everything and on top of this, his health continued to fail. Now they had a daughter as well, as Mary Laura was born in March 1865. Drake was desperate, and from New York City, he wrote to his friend Peter Wilson:

"59 Liberty St., New York, May 19th 1866
"My old Friend 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 I am sick.
"Yours Fraternally(19)
"E. L. Drake"(20)

Apparently his plea fell on deaf ears, for in October that year he again appealed to Wilson for money stating that he had not been able to pay the room and board for his family. Eventually they had to move and this time Drake took the family to Vermont, back to his roots. But the damp, cold New England winters did not agree with him, and he was advised to try the sea air. Fortunately a friend had a cottage the family could use in Long Branch, New Jersey. Laura, his wife, kept the family fed by taking in hand sewing, for they could not afford a sewing machine. Drake by this time was almost an invalid. Some time in 1869, he hobbled to a train and went into the city to try and find some work with some of the men he used to know. While hobbling along the streets, he chanced upon Mr. Martin, a hotel owner in Titusville, who hardly recognized him. But when Martin heard his story he provided him with a hot meal and $20.00 before parting. Once back in Titusville, Martin and others who heard the story called a public meeting to raise money to assist the man who had made it possible for many others to make undreamed of fortunes. After much delay, with small amounts being raised and sent to Drake, eventually the balance of almost $4,000 was given to Mrs. Drake. With this windfall, they moved once again, this time to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, possibly to be near the famous, in its day, "Hydropathic Institute," later the site of St Luke's Hospital, and its "water cures." By now Drake was so incapacitated with what was called "muscular neuralgia" that he could only sit in a special reclining chair (which today is at the Drake Well Museum). In 1873, the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted Drake and Laura an annual annuity of $1,500 for as long as either of them lived.

But even in this act of benevolence from State, the wording of the Act is not very kind to Drake. It consists of two hand written pages(21) with one paragraph stating how much tax money the State has enjoyed as a result of his work:

"Whereas E. L. Drake a citizen of this Commonwealth did in the years One thousand eight hundred and fifty eight and one thousand eight hundred and fifty nine search for and discover large quantities of petroleum in this Commonwealth which discovery has greatly stimulated various industries and has also added directly to the revenues of the Commonwealth more than one million dollars since the discovery and which also continues to yield directly to the said revenues a large sum annually."

The next paragraph states his current situation:

"And whereas the said E. L. Drake expended large sums of money in prosecuting his search for petroleum and by reason of disaster to his fortune and unfortunate loss of health in the labor and expense of the said search for petroleum he was not able to derive any benefit from his discovery but is now in indigent circumstances and helpless from disease and therefore unable to provide for the want of this family consisting of a wife and four children."(22).

Then, after stating that the State had gained millions of dollars from his discovery, that it was expecting to continue to receive millions of dollars in tax revenues, and that he has gained nothing as a result, magnanimously the Legislature opened its heart and its pockets:

"Now Therefore: Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same that an annuity of fifteen hundred dollars be and the same is hereby granted to the said E. L. Drake for and during the time of his natural life and that from and after the death of the said Drake in case his wife shall survive him the sum of fifteen hundred dollars per annum shall be paid to her so long as she shall remain his widow."

Thus, after telling everyone how many millions his discovery had generated for the State, they granted Drake $1,500/year! Although a nice income for 1873, the amount granted was certainly not in proportion to the revenues being collected. It was, however, a great boon to Drake and his family and it allowed them to live in some comfort until his death on November 8th, 1880. Mrs. Drake lived until May 17th, 1916 and thus they benefited from the annuity for more than 40 years at a total cost to the State of about $65,000; a very small fraction of the tax revenue for just a single year.

So why is Drake so prominent if, as it seems, he was just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time? His importance lies in the fact that he persevered with the well, "Drake's Folly," in the face of financial ruin and public humiliation. His discovery allowed the modern oil industry to eventually flourish and with it our modern society. He was certainly in the right place at the right time, but without his warm and outgoing personality, his honesty and integrity in his business dealings with both friends and strangers alike, he would not have been chosen to go to Titusville. And without Drake heading the project, in all likelihood, the well would have failed and who knows how long it would have been before someone else would have purposely drilled for oil.


(1) According to The History of the Town of Marlborough Windham County Vermont, by Ephraim H. Newton (1930), Philena was born in 1820 and died March 28, 1855. But the family Bible at the Drake Well Museum has the dates as 1821 and March 28, 1854.

(2) The Descendants of John Drake of Windsor, Connecticut, Compiled by Frank B. Gay, 1933, George's death date is given as 1856 on p. 232.

(3) New Haven and the First Oil Well by Henry H. Townshend [spelling as on the title page]. 1934, p. 15. Henry was a nephew of James Townsend. [Note that the original has no pagination. The numbers used here are based upon starting with the first text page as page 2.]

(4) Giddens 1938, p. 52; Minute Book (D236 - Drake Well Museum Archives), p. 2, 17.

(5) Giddens 1947, p. 168-169; Minute Book (D236 - Drake Well Museum Archives) p. 20.

(6)New Haven and the First Oil Well by Henry H. Townshend [spelling as on the title page]. 1934, p. 16.

(7) For examples see Henry, J. T. 1873; McLaurin 1898; Whiteshot 1905; Croneis 1933.

(8)Croneis 1933, pg. 131.

(9) As quoted in Henry, J. D. 1914.

(10) Anonymous 1898.

(11) Bell 1900, footnote p. 142-143; and p. 155.

(12) Townshend 1934, pg. 11.

(13) Bell 1900, pgs. 162-164 and J. D. Henry 1914, pg. 129.

(14) Miller 1968, pg 15.

(15) Townshend 1934, p. 21.

(16) Titusville Morning Herald, July 27, 1866.

(17) Drake's own handwritten manuscript (Drake Well Museum Archives); re-printed Rig & Reel, v. 2, no. 8 (February 1921), p. 11-14.

(18) White 1899; Henry, J. D. 1914.

(19) Drake and Wilson appear to have attended the same Masonic Lodge.

(20) D528, Drake Papers, Drake Well Museum Archives.

(21) A copy is in the Drake Papers (D541 - Annuity from the State) at the Drake Well Museum Archives.

(22) The Drake genealogy at the Drake Well Archive lists only three children, Alfred, Charles, and Laura.


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