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History's Headlines: The man who gave the world oil

The red brick home on South Bethlehem‘s Wyandotte Street near the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Nativity is easy to miss. The Victorian house could be just about any one from that late 19th century era. But then, most of those houses don’t have a state historical marker in front of them. The marker records that from 1873 to 1880 this was the home of Colonel Edwin L. Drake, the first American to successfully drill for oil. And he did so in Pennsylvania. Although he lived a stone’s throw from Robert Sayre, Elijah Packer Wilbur and other grandees of Bethlehem Iron- later Steel- it is not known that they ever stopped in for a chat. Today their industries are gone, while Drake’s oil legacy keeps on giving.

Since 1901, Drake’s body, removed from a Bethlehem grave, has rested in Titusville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, where he dug his first well, in a monument fit for a national hero and paid for by an oil man of that era. A museum there tells of his exploits. In 1954 the American Petroleum Institute made a film bio of Drake with Vincent Price in the title role. Perhaps he just wanted  a change from the House of Wax, The Fly and other 1950s horror films.

In the more than 150 years since Drake lived and died in near poverty in that Bethlehem house, the world is still dependent on his fuel. By the start of the last century it had overthrown King Coal and today it is still the prize over which nations fight. Threats to cut off a nation from its oil supply have shaken governments with collapse. Although wind and solar power have been seen as the hope of the future, the promise of challenging oil’s primacy is still distant.

Who was this unassuming fellow who set the world on the oil binge? Well, he was born in upstate New York on a farm in 1819. His education was average for that time. By the 1840s Drake was working in New Haven, Connecticut for a railroad. His first wife died  in 1854 while giving birth to their second child. Three years later he remarried a woman sixteen years younger than he was. His railroad job was largely a clerk’s position, although sometimes it included stints as a conductor. One of the few “perks” that went with the job was that he and his family had a free pass on railroads. It was thanks to this that in 1858 Drake and family found themselves in Titusville.

Drake had never shown much interest in oil or anything other than working as a railroad conductor. But there were others who did. America was dependent on whale oil for its lamps. But more and more whaling ships had to travel farther and farther into the Pacific to find the whales. It was two investors, George Bissell and Jonathan Elveleth, who believed the rock oil flowing from a spring near Titusville might work as a lamp oil fuel.  Samuel Martin Kier had already founded the first oil refinery near Pittsburgh and created kerosene, but the market for it was limited at that point.

Bissell and Elveleth were convinced that if oil deep in the ground could be extracted it would be profitable. Drake purchased shares in their company, Seneca Oil, and he was hired to investigate for oil near Titusville. The major reason they hired Drake for $1000 a year had nothing to do with any expertise he might have in looking for oil, because he had none. It was his railroad pass that enabled him to ride free that was the real reason. He was given the title Colonel not from any military experience- he didn’t have any of that either. Most probably it was largely because the military title gave him more prestige than having “railroad conductor” on his business cards.

As nobody had ever really tried drilling deeply for oil before, Drake had to start by using a stationary steam engine to do the work. The real problem was finding something satisfactory to do the boring. It took some time for the drillers to get through layers of gravel. Then, at 16 feet, the side of the hole began to cave in. To solve the problem Drake created a drive pipe. Made of cast iron, it was made up of ten-foot-long joints. It is believed to be an original idea of Drake’s, and his basic concept is said to be what the oil industry has used to this day.

The idea was inspired. Drake began to drill down deeper. At 32 feet it struck bedrock. This slowed the drilling to a crawl. Three feet a day was normal. Titusville people were convinced it was a fool’s errand that Drake was on. People started muttering about “Crazy Drake” and his well as “Drake’s Folly.” Worse, Bissell and Eveleth were getting frustrated with the project. They had, as they saw it, put $2,500 down a hole in equipment and had nothing to show for it. But Drake was not about to give up. Taking out a $500 loan, he used it to keep on drilling.

It was on August 28, 1859, 160 years ago, with the hole at 69 feet that Billy Smith, the driller for the project, came to work and saw oil coming up out of the ground. Drake and the men rushed in and brought all the oil they could up with a pitcher pump. Hardly a gusher, it was just enough to fill a bathtub. A small start for the fuel that for better or worse would end up powering the world.

Although some sources claim prior oil wells were drilled everywhere from Poland to Canada, Drake’s was the one that from the start attracted investors. Pennsylvania oil stocks were soon booming- it was like the California Gold Rush hitting the Eastern U.S. As Sherman was marching through Georgia, everyone seemed to be making millions in the oil fields of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Drake was not among them. Making no attempt to patent his pipeline concept, he lost control of his invention. And even though he did at one point have successful investments he knew nothing of the fast-paced speculative business world his discovery had created. By 1873, with the collapse of the national economy following the Panic that year, he lost what he had.

Not much is known about Drake’s years in Bethlehem. Some sources claim the house actually belonged to one of his family members. He apparently became ill and suffered from a variety of disabling illnesses and spent the last years of his life largely confined to a wheelchair. At some point the state sent him a $1,500 a year pension, in compensation for the millions of dollars it had made in tax revenues from his oil discovery.

Drake died on November 8, 1880 at the age of 60. By 1891 Pennsylvania was producing 58 percent of the country’s oil. It gradually shrank into the early 20th century and was replaced by Texas, Oklahoma and California. Today it is the Middle East reaping most of the revenue. But fracking has put Pennsylvania back in the race.

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