Late-August marked the 150th anniversary of the success of efforts by the “crazy Yankee”, Edwin Drake, to find oil.
A group of investors in New Haven, CT (Connecticut) and New York City had the idea in the 1850s that a substance called “rock oil” that oozed out of the ground and into streams in north-west Pennsylvania – heretofore used mainly in patent medicines – could meet a burning need. That is, it could be used as an illuminating fluid to replace whale oil, which was in short supply.
And they had a report by a Yale University chemist to back up their belief. But they also knew that digging for rock oil, or wringing it out of rags that had been dipped into streams, would not provide enough supply.
Their idea was to apply the new technology for water drilling to the quest for rock oil. But they needed to find someone who could undertake what was widely regarded as a foolish and crazy idea.
They found their man in a retired railroad conductor named Edwin L. Drake.
Drake was chosen mainly by coincidence. He certainly brought no outstanding or obvious qualifications to the task. He was a jack-of-all-trades who had been laid up by bad health and was living with his daughter in the old Tontine Hotel in New Haven.
By chance, James Townsend, the New Haven banker, lived in the same hotel. It was the sort of hotel where men gathered to exchange news and shoot the breeze, a perfect setting for the 38-year-old Drake, who was friendly, jovial and loquacious, and had nothing else to do.
So he would pass the evenings entertaining his companions with stories drawn from his varied life. He had a vivid imagination, and his stories tended to be dramatic, exaggerated tales, in all of which Drake himself played a central, heroic role.
He and Townsend talked frequently about the rock-oil venture. Townsend even persuaded Drake to buy some stock in the company. Townsend then recruited Drake himself to the scheme.
He was out of work and thus available, and since he was on leave as a conductor, he had a railroad pass and could travel for free, which was most helpful to the financially pinched speculative venture. He had another attribute that would be of great value: he could be very tenacious.
Dispatching Drake to Pennsylvania, Townsend gave him what turned out to be a valuable send-off. Concerned about the frontier conditions and the need to impress the “backwoodsmen,” the banker sent ahead several letters addressed to “Colonel” E. L. Drake. Thus was “Colonel” Drake invented, though a “colonel” he certainly was not.
The stratagem worked. A warm and hospitable welcome was received by “Colonel” E. L. Drake when, in December of 1857, he arrived, after an exhausting journey through a sea of mud on the back of the twice-weekly mail wagon, in the tiny, impoverished village of Titusville, population 125, tucked into the hills of north-western Pennsylvania.
Titusville was a lumber town whose inhabitants were deeply in debt to the local lumber company’s store. He returned to New Haven intent on the much more daunting next step, drilling for oil.
“I had made up my mind”, he later said, that oil “could 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 coalfield or bed”.
But Drake was not to be dissuaded or diverted. He was back in Titusville in the spring of 1858 to commence work.
He set up operations about two miles down Oil Creek from Titusville on a farm that contained an oil spring from which three to six gallons of oil a day were collected by the traditional methods. After several months back in Titusville, he wrote to Townsend, “I shall not try to dig by hand any more as I am satisfied that boring is the cheapest”.
But he begged the New Haven banker to send additional funds immediately – “Money is very scarce here”. After some delay, Townsend managed to send $1,000 and, with it, Drake tried to hire the “salt borers” – or drillers – he needed if he were to proceed. But salt drillers had a reputation for extreme partiality to whisky and frequent drunkenness, and he wanted to be very careful whom he hired.
The first couple of drillers he engaged simply disappeared or begged off. In truth, though they dared not tell Drake so to his face, they thought he was insane.
Drake knew only that he had nothing to show for his first year in Titusville, and the bleak winter was at hand. The investors back in New Haven fretted and waited.
Finally, in the spring of 1859, Drake found his driller, a blacksmith named William A. Smith – “Uncle Billy” Smith – who came with his two sons. The work was slow and the investors in New Haven were becoming more and more restive at the lack of progress.
Still, Drake stuck to his plan. He would not give up. Eventually, Townsend was the only one of the promoters who still believed in the project and, when the venture ran out of money, he began paying the bills out of his own pocket.
In despair, he at last sent Drake a money order as a final remittance and instructed him to pay his bills, close up the operation, and return to New Haven. That was towards the end of August 1859.
Drake had not yet received the letter when, on Saturday afternoon, August 27, 1859, at 69ft, the drill dropped into a crevice and then slid another six inches. Work was called off for the rest of the weekend.
The next day, Sunday, Uncle Billy came out to see the well. He peered down into the pipe. He saw a dark fluid floating on top of the water. He used a tin rain spout to draw up a sample. As he examined the heavy liquid, he was overcome by excitement.
On Monday, when Drake arrived, he found Uncle Billy and his boys standing guard over tubs, washbasins and barrels, all of which were filled with oil. Drake attached a common hand pump and began to do exactly what the scoffers had ridiculed – pump up the liquid.
That same day, he received the money order from Townsend and the command to close up shop.
A week earlier, with the last of the funds in hand, he would have done so. But not any more. Drake’s single-mindedness had paid off. Just in time.
He had hit oil. Farmers along Oil Creek rushed into Titusville shouting, “The Yankee has struck oil”. The news spread like wildfire and started a mad rush to acquire sites and drill for oil.
The population of tiny Titusville multiplied overnight, and land prices shot up instantaneously.
The above is drawn from Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (updated 2009)