Though he drilled only three oil wells in his lifetime, Edwin Drake (1819-1880) is known as the "Father of the Petroleum Industry" because the technology he devised to drill the first commercial oil well in the United States revolutionized how crude oil was produced and launched the large-scale petroleum industry.
Edwin Laurentine Drake, born on March 11, 1819, in Greenville County, New York, grew up on family farms in New York and Vermont. He left home at age 19, having received a common school education, and wandered the Midwest and East, working at various jobs. In 1850 he settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and became a railway conductor for the New York and New Haven Railroad. Ill health forced his retirement in 1857, but it also opened a new opportunity for him.
The opportunity occurred while Drake was staying in the same hotel as George H. Bissell and Jonathan G. Eveleth, founders of the newly formed Seneca Oil Company. The company was the successor to the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, the first oil company in the United States, which had been created to exploit ground-level seepage of oil near Titusville (Pennsylvania). Chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr. had analyzed oil from the site and determined that, after refining, it could be used as an illuminant, as well as for other purposes. The Seneca Oil Company founders needed someone to inspect the oil springs on their property and make a report. Drake got the job because he had a free pass on the railway. Drake had never been an officer, let alone in the military. Nevertheless, James M. Townsend, one of the investors, used the salutatory title "Colonel" in his correspondence with Drake. The title stuck and Drake became commonly know as Colonel Drake.
Humans and the gods had used oil for thousands of years before Seneca Oil Company sought to make its production worthwhile. Fred Hapgood wrote in National Geographic: "In Greek mythology Medea set her rival on fire with naphtha. The Mesopotamians used asphalt as a building material 5,000 years ago. But as valuable a product as petroleum had already become, gods and mortals alike until the 19th century took oil as the earth gave it to them, from seeps and springs." The petroleum that surfaced in salt borings also was another source of oil.
An early name for petroleum, "Seneca Oil," alludes to the trade in oil by Seneca Indians of western New York in the 18th century. After the American Revolution, white settlers discovered Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania and began skimming petroleum from little springs in the banks and in the bed. They built rings of timbers and baffles from which they collected the trapped oil. The largest seep on Oil Creek produced only about 20 barrels a year, yet the effort was worth it. There was a great demand for oil, which was bottled for medicinal uses, such as for a purge and as a balm. In 1853 Joel D. Angier purchased the first petroleum lease in the United States. This lease gave him the right to collect oil from an Oil Creek seep on the Brewer, Watson and Co. lumber property near Titusville. The lumber company had used the seep oil for lighting and to lubricate machinery.
In Early Days of Oil, Paul H. Giddens told how Samuel M. Kier sold his bottled "Petroleum, Rock Oil" "as a cure for all ailments, human or animal." Although he had sales agents throughout the country, Kier still had more oil from the seeps and salt wells on his father's Tarentum, Pennsylvania, property than he could sell. Oil had been used for illumination, but in its pure form was smelly and smoky. Kier thought if he could overcome these drawbacks, he would have a widely used product. After consulting with a chemist in 1850, he built a crude one-barrel still in Pittsburgh and began distilling crude oil into "carbon oil," or kerosene. Because it was a cheaper, safer, better illuminant than other fuels on the market, such as whale oil, carbon oil came into general use in western Pennsylvania and New York City. Its price more than doubled. Kier added a five-barrel still to his operation, which was the first commercial refinery in America. Now he needed a more plentiful, reliable source of oil. It was around then that "crude oil attracted attention and finally stimulated serious experimentation as to its use and theories as to its extraction," noted Samuel T. Pees in Oil History.
Not long after Kier began his refinery, Silliman reported that the seep oil sample taken from the former Brewer, Watson and Co. land on Oil Creek had properties that made it valuable. In 1858, Drake, now a stockholder in Seneca Oil Company, was sent back to Titusville as the salaried general agent in charge of operations (for a short time he was company president). His mission was to produce a profitable amount of oil. However, the main seep netted only three or four gallons of oil daily, and other oil springs he had opened up added only a few gallons to the output. So Drake attempted mining for oil. He hired workmen to dig a shaft, but water inundated it and he gave up that idea. Finally he decided to try an idea he had discussed with George H. Bissell, a lawyer who helped to organize and invest in early oil companies, including Seneca Oil. Salt drillers often had to contend with oil that polluted their wells. Bissell reasoned that oil could be extracted using salt well drilling methods.
Drake chose a drilling site on an artificial island between the creek and the lumber company's water race. He then enlisted the help of the lumber company's boss, Jonathon Watson, to build a house for the 6 hp "Long John" stationary, wood-fired engine and boiler that would power the drilling tools and to erect a derrick for hoisting the drilling tools. He hired William "Uncle Billy" A. Smith, a blacksmith and experienced salt well driller, to make the tools and do the drilling. Prepared to drill down 1000 feet, Drake had to reassess things when the hole, which was only 16 feet deep, kept caving in. "It was at this point that Drake conceived the idea of a drive pipe, also called a conductor," wrote Pees. "The drive pipe consisted of joints ten feet long and was made of cast iron. They battered or drove it down to bedrock at thirty-two feet depth (9.75 m). The tools could be safety lowered through the pipe which protected the upper hole."
The conductor proved to be just what Uncle Billy needed to do his job. Now that the steam-powered drilling tools were protected by iron pipe, he was able to drill an average of three feet a day through the bedrock that was mostly shale. Problems persisted, though. "[T]he shale caved in occasionally. The engine caught on fire but was saved and put back in service. [P]eople came to snicker. Drake [ran] out of company money, used his own money and quickly ran out of that," Pees explained. But friends came through with loans, and he kept drilling despite hearing the taunt "Drake's Folly." On August 27, 1859, the drill slipped into a crevice six inches below the 69-foot depth of the drilled hole. Uncle Billy pulled up the tools and headed home. The next day when he went back to the well, he discovered oil floating on the water just a few feet from the derrick floor. Fashioning a scoop from a section of tin eaves trough, he dipped out some of the prized liquid.
Interestingly, the first oil well fire also occurred at the Drake Well, less than two months later. On October 6, Smith was using an open lamp to see how much oil was stored in the vats when it ignited collected gases. The blaze destroyed the derrick and the driller's house, which were later rebuilt.
Drake had the good fortune of locating his well in a shallow oil belt, and one with Penn Grade crude that could be refined with the limited technology available at the time. A pitcher pump, like those found at kitchen sinks, brought up the oil in the Drake Well and splashed it into a washtub, before it was transferred to whiskey barrels. The initial production of 10 to 35 barrels a day nearly doubled the world's output of oil. Many new cooperage businesses sprang up around Titusville when the supply of barrels ran out. Within days of Drake's success, Kier was buying the oil and was paying 60 cents per gallon delivered. Another Pittsburgh refiner, W. Mackeown, also made a deal to buy Drake Well oil. By the end of 1859, the two refiners had purchased over $8800 of oil from the well. Seneca Oil Company had paid $5000 for the 100 acres of land where it was sited.
"Lighting, in itself, created the great demand for oil that led to the frantic drilling of the pioneer oil wells along Oil Creek and elsewhere. Other uses soon increased the overall demand," pointed out Pees. Lee R. Forker Jr. summed up the significance of "Drake's successful drilling venture" in the Oil Daily. The "plentiful and low cost fuel alternative [petroleum products, instead of whale and lard oil] gave a second-stage boost to the country's industrial revolution. This influx to the economy helped propel the United States into a world leadership role. Our ability to produce gasoline in great quantity at a low price played a major role in the launching of the automotive industry. In essence, oil's discovery at the Drake well, with gasoline as the byproduct, provided unprecedented mobility to Americans."
But Drake wasn't to profit from the great oil exploration rush as others used his drilling technique. He hadn't patented his invention, so anyone could use it. Drake himself drilled only two more wells, both on the same island in Oil Creek in 1860. One, at 480 feet, produced 24 barrels of oil daily, the other only 12 barrels daily. Unlike a lot of oil entrepreneurs of the time, he didn't buy leases himself. He did, however, invest in oil speculation. But it was the successful application of his drilling method that turned the speculation market sour. "News of the new technique spread rapidly, creating in its wake, to name only one effect, the abundant supply of cheap, high-quality lubricants that greased the way for the industrial age," explained Hapgood. According to the Drake Well Museum brochure, "By 1862 wells had come in that produced thousands of barrels a day and the price for oil at the well head dropped so low that Drake and his partners went out of business. The original well was shut down, but the boom continued."
Ill and impoverished, Drake returned to Pennsylvania in 1870; the people of Titusville helped him out with a stipend. In 1876 the Pennsylvania legislature voted Drake a pension. That same year the derrick and engine house were dismantled and reassembled at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Drake died on November 8, 1880 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1902 his body was reinterred in a tomb in Titusville's Woodlawn Cemetery. Inscriptions on the tomb's panels extol his contributions to the oil industry. The Driller, a bronze sculpture by Charles Henry Niehaus, sits in a small pavilion.
Giddens, Paul H., Early Days of Oil, Princeton University Press, 1948.
Earth Science, Spring 1988.
National Geographic, August 1989.
Oil Daily, October 9, 1984.
"Colonel Edwin Laurentine Drake," http://www.energy.ca.gov/education/scientists/drake(December 8, 2000).
"Drake Well Museum Brochure," http://www.drilshop.com/hallfame(December 8, 2000).
"Edwin L. Drake," http://www.virtualvermont.com/history/edrake(December 8, 2000).
Pees, Samuel T., "Drake Chapters," Oil History, http://www.oilhistory.com/drakechapters(December 8, 2000). □