A Crude History Lesson
Drake's Pa. oil well idea changed world in 1859
By DAN NEPHIN (AP) – 2 days ago
TITUSVILLE, Pa. — The oil boom that began 150 years ago in this small northwestern Pennsylvania town changed the world and made countless people rich, but not the man who found the way to successfully extract black gold from the earth.
Edwin Laurentine Drake died an invalid, confined to a wheelchair and virtually penniless. In his later years, he relied on the goodwill of friends and a state pension given late in life to recognize the millions of dollars in tax revenue Pennsylvania made from his drilling method.
"As they say, sometimes the good we do benefits others and not ourselves because he certainly benefited others from his work," said William Brice, a University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus, author of a book on Drake and the early oil industry. His "Myth, Legend, Reality, Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry" will be published this year.
Drake's genius was to drive pipe into the ground so debris wouldn't clog the drill hole. On Aug. 27, 1859, the method proved successful when his driller struck oil 69 1/2 feet below ground.
Brice said he's sure that, while Drake didn't invent the concept, he came up with it independently.
Drake, who had no drilling or engineering background, had been hired by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. to oversee drilling primarily because he was a retired railroad conductor and could ride trains for free, thereby saving the company money. He'd been forced to retire in his mid-30s because of ill health and was working as a hotel clerk in New Haven, Conn., where he met James Townsend, an investor in the company. He was given the title colonel to impress Titusville residents.
The presence of oil around Titusville, then a lumber town of several hundred people, had long been known. Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes, and by the mid-19th century, it was being refined into kerosene for lamp oil.
But extracting it proved vexing. Early efforts involved digging trenches along Oil Creek or collecting it from seeps in the ground.
Drake's early effort brought ridicule and was known derisively as "Drake's folly," as townsfolk doubted it would work. Eventually, he hired "Uncle" Billy Smith, an experienced saltwater driller from Tarentum, near Pittsburgh.
They started drilling in early August 1859. They drove pipe 49 feet into the ground until they struck bedrock and began percussion drilling — using a steam engine to drive a heavy iron bit into the ground to break the rock.
The work was slow going, just a couple of feet a day.
On Aug. 27, they quit for the day. The next day was a Sunday, and Drake, a devout Episcopalian, did not work. Smith stopped by the well and saw liquid. He lowered a can down the well and pulled up oil.
Soon, the valley sprouted scores of derricks. The oil boom was on.
"I don't think he fully appreciated what he had done," Brice said of Drake. "Others around him did, but I really don't get the feeling that Drake fully appreciated it."
Drake, hired at $1,000 a year, wasn't paid for more than two years, when the company let him go in June 1860 and paid him $2,167.
Later business ventures failed, Brice said, and by 1866, Drake was essentially destitute. That May, he wrote a friend asking for money.
"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," Drake wrote.
His health continued to decline. Brice believes Drake may have had multiple sclerosis. Doctors recommended moving to New Jersey, thinking the sea air would do him good. His wife supported their family by sewing dresses and taking in boarders.
On a trip to New York in 1869, Drake ran into Zebulon Martin, a friend from Titusville, who barely recognized him. Martin bought him a meal and gave him $20, then returned to Titusville to take up a collection for his friend.
"Martin really felt so bad for Drake because everybody else was getting rich and Drake was starving, literally starving," Brice said.
With the money raised, Drake moved to Bethlehem, Pa., so he could seek treatment at a mineral springs health resort. But the resort closed.
"Again, he just couldn't get a break," Brice said.
In 1873, the state granted Drake a life pension of $1,500 a year, writing that his successful oil drilling method "added directly to the commonwealth more than $1 million since the discovery, which also continues to add large yearly sums" to the state's coffers.
Drake died in November 1880 in Bethlehem.
The location of Drake's well is now a museum and a National Historic Landmark. The well hole still exists, but the original wooden derrick and pump house burned down a couple months after he struck oil. The replacement derrick was used for Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. A replica built in 1945 stands in its place.A