Rounding Up Rock Oil

THE NEW WEALTH that the Western Go-Getters found growing from the grass roots up had a counterpart in the discovery of a new kind of gold deep underground. But while the world of the cattleman enriched American folklore and folk song, the roundup of rock oil left few folk heroes. Still, the discovery of oil, the invention of new ways to bring it to the surface, the organizing of ways to collect and transport it and deliver it to market—all these matched the achievements of cattledom.

THE MEDICINAL USE of natural oil was an old story in America. Seneca Indians, who found the black stuff floating on ponds and creeks, would soak it up with a blanket laid on top of the water and then wring out the blanket in a container. Before the end of the eighteenth century it was an item of trade with the Indians. When General Benjamin Lincoln’s Revolutionary troops marched through western Pennsylvania in 1783, he allowed them to stop at a spring where they collected the floating oil and bathed their joints in it. “This gave them great relief, and freed them immediately from the rheumatic complaints with which many of them were affected. The troops drank freely of the waters—they operated as a gentle purge.”

In those days salt was commonly produced from wells which brought up brine, to be evaporated for the market. In the late 1830’s, a number of profitable wells were being spoiled by a black oily substance which came up with the salt. Some enterprising businessmen in Kentucky took over one of these “ruined” salt wells, formed the American Medical Oil Company and bottled the “American Oil” as a remedy for nearly everything. They sold their bottles by the hundreds of thousands. When Samuel M. Kier, the energetic son of a salt manufacturer, took over his father’s wells in western Pennsylvania in the 1840’s, he too was plagued by a black oily stuff, and he considered shutting down his wells. But after his wife became ill with consumption and the doctor prescribed “American Oil,” Kier noticed that the fluid he bought in bottles was like that which was ruining his wells. When oil actually began to flow in quantity from his salt wells in 1846, he went into the medicinal-oil business.

Kier published leaflets with signed testimonials to the wonderful virtues of “Petroleum, or Rock Oil. A Natural Remedy! Procured from a well in Allegheny County, Pa. Four hundred feet below the Earth’s Surface!” Rock oil, he said, had “Wonderful Curative Powers” for rheumatism, chronic cough, ague, toothache, corns, neuralgia, piles, urinary disorders, indigestion, and liver ailments. One of his fliers was printed like a state bank note featuring the numeral “400” (the number of feet below the earth’s surface from which the marvelous mineral was drawn), signed by S. M. Kier and dated “A.D. 1848 discovered in boring for salt water: A.D. 1849 wonderful medical virtues discovered.” He sent out salesmen in wagons ornamented with gilt pictures of the Good Samaritan ministering to writhing sufferers beneath a palm tree, and these emissaries relieved the rural monotony with their “Medicine Show.” By 1858 he had sold nearly a quarter-million half pints of his wonderful Rock Oil at $1 a bottle. But the high cost of advertising and distribution together with the increasing flow of oil (far exceeding any possible medicinal uses) stirred Kier to find other uses for his product. What might these be?

The growth of American cities and of hundreds of new factories and the spread of railroads in the decades before 1850 had, of course, increased the need for better illumination. But the lighting in American homes had improved very little over that of ancient times. Through the colonial period, homes were lit with tallow candles or with a lamp of the kind used in ancient Rome—a dish of fish oil or other animal or vegetable oil in which a twisted rag served as a wick. Some people used lard, but they had to heat charcoal underneath to keep it soft and burnable. The sperm whale, which was not tracked to its habitat until 1712, provided a superior burning oil and its spermaceti made the best candles, but these were expensive. In 1830 Isaiah Jennings of New York took out a patent for a new substance called “camphene,” a redistilled spirits of turpentine which proved an excellent illuminant. But while camphene gave a bright light it too remained expensive, had an unpleasant smell and also was dangerously explosive.

Between 1830 and 1850 it seemed that the only hope for cheaper illumination in the United States was in the wider use of gas. In the 1840’s American gas manufacturers adopted improved British techniques for producing illuminating gas from coal. But the expense of piping gas to the consumer remained so high that until mid-century gaslighting was feasible only in urban areas, and only for public buildings or for the wealthy.

In 1854 a Canadian doctor, Abraham Gesner, patented a process for distilling a pitchlike mineral found in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia which produced illuminating gas and an oil which he called “kerosene” (from “keros” the Greek word for wax, and “ene” because it resembled camphene). Kerosene, though cheaper than camphene, had an unpleasant odor, and Gesner never made his fortune from it. But Gesner had aroused a new hope for making an illuminating oil from some product of American mines.

Meanwhile, in Boston in 1852, some enterprising drug manufacturers in search of better lubricants had begun to produce “coal oil,” distilled from coal tar. They discovered that their new oil was not only a lubricant, but would actually burn in a lamp, without an unpleasant odor. By 1859, coal oil, under the trade name of “kerosene,” was making its way into the American home. Lard, whale and sperm oils were all rising in price, and the explosive qualities of camphene had given it a bad name. It was known that petroleum could be substituted for coal in the production of coal oil. Before the end of 1859 nearly two million coal-oil lamps had been sold, but Americans were still a long way from the ideal of “a lamp in every room.” The raw materials for coal oil were still scarce, and the cost of producing illuminating oils from animal and vegetable oils or from coal was too high.

IN MIDSUMMER 1854 George H. Bissell, a Dartmouth graduate of 1845, visiting his old campus, happened to see a bottle of oil that had been left with one of the professors there by a doctor who had taken it from an oil spring in Titusville, in western Pennsylvania. The stuff excited his curiosity, which was possibly stirred also by having seen some of Kier’s brochures touting the curative powers of his natural Rock Oil. Even before he knew precisely what he would do with the product, Bissell became interested in developing the springs that had yielded the oil in the bottle. He and a partner formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York (the first American corporation formed to take petroleum from the ground) optimistically capitalized at a half-million dollars, bought 100 acres of what they thought was oil land for $5,000, and secured the oil rights to an additional 12,000 acres. The oil was to be gathered by the only methods then used—receiving the natural flow of oil springs, collecting oil floating on creeks, or digging holes and ditches to increase the flow where oil had already been found.

Soon these costs of collecting the surface oil exceeded the company’s returns from sale for medicinal purposes. Then the company enlisted expert aid. Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale was commissioned to do a full range of experiments on the Pennsylvania Company’s rock oil to see what it might be good for. Silliman’s report to the investors in 1855 (one of the first American examples of commissioned industrial research, billed for $526.08) was optimistic. He reported that the oil had wonderful lubricating qualities and was “chemically identical with illuminating gas in liquid form.” “The lamp burning this fluid [distilled from the oil] gave as much light as any which they had seen … the oil spent more economically, and the uniformity of the light was greater than in camphene, burning for twelve hours without a sensible diminution, and without smoke.”

Silliman’s promise, however, still applied only to a meager product—the oil which had seeped up naturally to the surface. The idea of drilling deep into the ground for the express purpose of finding oil which could then be pumped to the surface—such an idea, if it had occurred to anyone earlier, must have seemed too far-fetched to justify any investment. We do not know who first had the idea of “drilling” for oil. It may have been Bissell, to whom it had possibly been suggested by Kier’s brochure featuring the “400” feet below the surface where his panacea had been discovered in “A.D. 1848 … in boring for salt water.” Or perhaps it was the New Haven banker James M. Townsend, who had taken over from Silliman as president of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. “Oil coming out of the ground, pumping oil out of the earth as you pump water?” a friend exclaimed to him. “Nonsense! You’re crazy.” In 1858 most Americans would have reacted in this way.

Whatever their thoughts on how to harvest the oil, the investors in the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company decided to take steps anyway to perfect their legal title to the land at Titusville where the rock oil was bubbling up into a stream, and also to see what else could be done to exploit the stuff. For reasons still obscure, in 1857 they engaged a man who was neither a lawyer nor a successful businessman, but a vagrant ex-railroad conductor then living in a New Haven hotel. Edwin L. Drake had clerked on the steamboat between Buffalo and Detroit, in a Tecumseh, Michigan, hotel, and in dry-goods stores in New Haven and New York. But he had only a grade school education, no technical training and no knowledge of mining. Drake’s main qualification for the job appeared to be the railroad pass which he still held as an ex-employee, and which would get him to Titusville free of charge.

When Drake arrived there in December 1857, he found (according to his own account) “a population of about 125, no churches, two hotels.” After settling the company’s legal business with the local citizens, he visited the site where the famous medical oil, known in those parts as “Mustang Liniment,” oozed up into a pool. There he witnessed the laborious process of harvesting the oil by spreading a blanket upon the pool and then squeezing the liquid out of the blanket into a container. Then and there, according to Drake’s own later account, he had his inspiration. “The idea flashed upon him that there was a basin or spring of oil in the earth or rocks below, and … he then formed the resolution of sinking a well.” “Within ten minutes after my arrival upon the ground with Dr. Brewer I had made up my mind that it could be obtained in large quantities by Boreing as for Salt Water. I also determined that I should be the one to do it.” The popular idea in the region and even the scientific opinions of those whom Drake consulted were “that the oil was the drippings of the coal, imbedded in the contiguous hills—that it was idle to bore for it, and that the only method of accumulating it was by digging ditches leading to a vat.” But Drake could not understand why the oil was under the creek “if it came from the Hills as it is so much lighter than Water that it would be impossible for it to go down of its own accord.”

Not having enough expert knowledge to be confident that an oil well was impossible, Drake went ahead on his hunches. He now became obsessed by the novel notion of “drilling” for oil. He did not know whether rock oil, even if he could secure it in large quantities, was really superior to other substances for lubricating or for lighting. He had no notion of how or to whom the oil would be marketed. But here was a tantalizing new substance that just might be somebody’s fortune. Why not try to collect it? Drake became president of his own new Seneca Oil Company, and he leased land from the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. He would receive twelve cents for each gallon of oil he produced. Since there was nothing in the lease about “drilling” for oil, it appears that Drake at the time kept his obsession to himself.

Meanwhile Drake visited neighboring salt wells to see how they were drilled, and to find an experienced driller, someone who had shown that he knew how to bore for salt. Because drilling for oil was considered insane, he had trouble engaging a competent salt borer. The first salt borer who contracted to do his job never appeared, and later explained that since he believed Drake to be crazy, he “thought the easiest way to get rid of him was to make a contract and pretend that he meant to come.”

Finally Drake found William A. (“Uncle Billy”) Smith, who was not only an experienced salt borer (having drilled salt for Samuel Kier’s father) but also a skilled blacksmith who knew how to make drilling tools. Uncle Billy, helped by his two sons, began drilling in June 1859. In salt boring in those days the usual procedure was to dig a hole and wall it around with a wooden “crib” until reaching bedrock; then an iron pipe was drilled into a hole. But when Uncle Billy tried this at the Drake well, water flooded the hole he dug long before bedrock was reached. So he tried the revolutionary new method of driving a pipe all the way down. After he reached bedrock at 32 feet, he went on drilling, making only 3 feet a day. By Saturday, August 27, 1859, Uncle Billy’s hole reached a depth of 69 ½ feet, and (as Drake always required) drilling was stopped for the Sabbath. The next day Uncle Billy Smith went over to look at the well, and to his surprise he found it full of an oily substance. “What’s that?” Drake asked. And Uncle Billy Smith replied, “That’s your fortune!”

While that oily substance in the hole quickly dispelled Drake’s reputation for insanity, making money out of the well was not quite so easy. The well did not flow but had to be pumped, and since Drake had not planned where to put the stuff, they had to use whiskey barrels, washtubs, and everything in sight. One day in October, Uncle Billy took a lamp to look down the hole, and the whole outfit went up in flames. But Drake rebuilt the derrick and pump, and he soon became the tool and the target of fortune hunters from all over. Leaving the oil country, he went to Wall Street, where he became a broker in oil stocks and lost everything. To save the “inventor” of the oil well from destitution, the Pennsylvania legislature finally gave him a pension of $1,500 a year, but in 1880, in an age of famous oil fortunes, Drake died in obscurity.

The oil mania, sparked by Drake and other Go-Getters, created still another new species of upstart town. The map of the far northwestern corner of Pennsylvania was soon dotted with names like Oil City, Oleopolis, and Petroleum Center. These, and others, were built on oil, on the hope for oil, on the promise of oil, and in a few cases on a real oil bonanza. Oil towns prospered on the auxiliary services, the making of oil drums, oil derricks, and oil pumps, the trade in oil leases, and on the feeding, housing, clothing, and debauching of the thousands of oil prospectors.

We can trace their meteoric careers in the short life of a town called Pithole. In the spring of 1864 a lucky “oil finder,” using a divining rod in the form of a witch-hazel twig, declared that a farm which spread on both sides of Pithole Creek held a fortune in oil. On January 7, 1865, the first completed well there was pouring out 250 barrels of oil each day. Thousands of the hopeful—some soldiers recently discharged from the Civil War armies, some investors with inflated greenbacks to spend, and some vagrants, wanderers, and adventurers—flocked to Pithole. When a second well struck oil, the fever became a mania. By the end of June the four wells flowing at Pithole were producing over 2,000 barrels a day, which was a third of the total production of Pennsylvania oil. The land that six months earlier had been nothing but a remote farm became a buzzing center of commerce. Three thousand teamsters were driving wagons carrying oil barrels back and forth from the wells to the river boats and to other shipping centers. A standard unit was a one-sixteenth interest in a well, which commonly sold for several thousand dollars. The “Working Men’s Pithole Creek Oil Association” bought interests in wells and sold $10 shares to those who could afford no more. Adapting their techniques from earlier Western hoaxers who had “salted” their diamond mines with imported diamond chips to trap the unwary, some drillers avoided risk of a dry hole by “doctoring” their wells, through the simple process of pouring buckets of oil into their hole at night to appeal to buyers the next morning.

SCATTERED OVER northwestern Pennsylvania, scores of newly discovered oil wells every day poured up hundreds of gallons. Where would so much be stored? How to take it to market? Finding the rock oil and drilling for it were enterprises of a few bold Go-Getters willing to risk their time and money, and the ridicule of neighbors. To move it across the vast American spaces would demand the organized efforts of whole communities. Rock oil, like cattle, had its own ways of bringing men together.

One of the most remarkable of these was the “pond freshet.” This was a way of using community organization to make navigable the small shallow streams which ran through the oil-rich countryside. Many productive wells in the early years were clustered near Oil Creek, but during most of the year there was not enough water in the creek to float barges carrying the barreled oil to market. Instead oilmen had to haul their barrels by wagon the great distances to the railroad. Water transport was so much closer and so much cheaper that the enterprising oilmen in the neighborhood invented their own cooperative way of making their creeks navigable.

The pond freshet required long preparation, close coordination, precise timing, and skillful navigation. Here is how it was described by the superintendent of the pond freshet on Oil Creek on January 24, 1863:

A Pond Freshet is a temporary rise of water in the creek for the purpose of running out boats, rafts, logs, etc. The water rises high enough to run out boats containing sometimes five hundred, and in some few cases, seven hundred barrels of oil. There are usually from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty boats on each freshet. It lasts from one to two hours, and is caused by letting the water out from seven to seventeen dams on the principal branches of the Creek, so that the water will all meet together, making quite a flood upon which from seven thousand to thirty thousand barrels of oil are run to the river.

The preparations required that the oilmen upstream get together in building numerous dams, to collect the water in preparation for the planned dramatic moment. This might take weeks. The dams had to be specifically constructed so that their abutments could be quickly removed.

The climax of the work came when the water was to be released. Then, at precisely the right moment, beginning upstream the successive dams were opened, accumulating the water into a sudden rush large enough to raise the level of the creek for a few minutes all the way downstream. The boatmen along the stream had long been preparing for this moment. Having readied their boats and loaded the barrels of oil, they anxiously waited “for the flood which is to waft them to the much desired harbor at the mouth of the creek. About the time the freshet is expected the boatmen stand ready to let loose their lines. A cool, pushing breeze is the first sign of it, and soon after comes the swirling waters.” It took sharp judgment to know the strategic moment, so as not to push off too soon and risk being grounded ahead of the current, and it took skill to keep the boat pointed ahead, to negotiate the narrows and avoid the piers of numerous bridges. The successful boatman brought his cargo swiftly to the wharf at Oil City, where he waited only long enough to prepare for the easier trip down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh and to market.

The scene in the oil town resembled that in a cow town after the arrival of a large herd up from Texas on a drive. As the superintendent of the freshet reported:

Our town is quite lively during the evening after a pond freshet. Shippers are busy paying off the boatmen, the citizens of the creek are laying in a stock of the necessaries of life, and all is bustle and business. You see men dripping with the oleaginous product. Our hotels are filled to repletion with these greasy men who are supplying light for the world. Oil is the only topic of conversation, and the air is redolent with its sweet perfumery.

OIL OFFERED FANTASTIC new opportunities, and the man who organized these opportunities was a Go-Getter of heroic proportions. His name was John D. Rockefeller. Since he has become part of the folklore of urban automobile America, we sometimes forget that he grabbed his fame and fortune and power back in the day of the kerosene lamp, when kerosene itself was a novelty. Like the Go-Getting Cattlemen and bold Cattle Drivers, like the Iliffs and Goodnights and McCoys, Rockefeller found ways to round up his new commodity, transport it long distances, and market it to the world.

When Drake made his strike at Titusville, in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, John D. Rockefeller was a young man of twenty in Cleveland, Ohio, only about a hundred miles away. He had already done spectacularly well for his age, for in that year Rockefeller and his partner, by dealing in grain, meats, and other Western products, would gross nearly a half-million dollars. They were prepared for the business boom that would come with the Civil War.

In the fall of 1859 word came to Cleveland that somebody in western Pennsylvania had drilled a new kind of well that every day produced more than 300 gallons of an oil that sold for fifty cents a gallon. This news produced a miniature gold rush to the Pennsylvania oil fields, and some of the Cleveland businessmen whom Rockefeller knew hastened to the scene. Fantastic stories came back of overnight fortunes—oil-rich farmers, lucky oil-lease speculators, and the village blacksmith who “kicked down” a shaft in a defunct salt well, produced 25 barrels (31–42 gallons each) a day, and made his village into a boom town. Horror tales of unexplained explosions of the nitroglycerin used to “torpedo” failing wells, and of inextinguishable oil-well fires, added to the excitement. But by November 1860 the new black mineral was already a drug on the market. It came gushing from the oil fields, and since there was no place to store it, the Allegheny River was darkened by overflowing wells. The price of oil plummeted.

Rockefeller himself may have gone to the oil fields to see what was happening. But even from Cleveland he could have seen that oil was ruining as many men as it was enriching. Hundreds of barrels were hauled into the cities. Still nobody could see how it could be corralled into the homes that hoped for “a lamp in every room.” How make rock oil into a stable commodity of commerce?

Rockefeller began to see his chance in the competitive chaos of the upstart West. Cities were competing for commerce, for railroads, and for citizens. Burgeoning railroads were competing for the traffic of cities and eagerly grasped for transportable new products. Cleveland itself, incorporated as a village only in 1814, had prospered from the traffic which came with the completion in 1827 of the first section of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Incorporated as a city in 1836, Cleveland annexed its rival, Ohio City, in 1854. During the Civil War, the new Atlantic & Great Western Railway, which connected with the Erie Railroad, tied Cleveland to the oil fields and became the biggest oil carrier in the country. Along the tracks in Cleveland, refineries sprang up to make the crude oil into marketable lubrication for machinery and kerosene for lamps. By 1863 Rockefeller had bought into a refinery, and in 1865 (at the age of twenty-six) he bought out one of his partners for $75,200. By the end of that year his refinery had grossed $1,200,000 (from a capacity of 505 barrels a day), more than double that of any other in the region.

Overproduction and the depression of 1867–68 brought down the price and killed off many smaller refineries, but Rockefeller survived. Railroads then competed harder than ever for the business of the remaining companies. There were no published freight rates, and the roads gave “special” rates to all their customers. Rockefeller was ingenious at playing off the competing roads against one another. He set up his own cooperage plants for making barrels, bought his own forests to supply the timber, produced his own chemicals for the refining processes, bought ships and railroad cars to carry his products, and yet watched every penny of cost. He found new markets for by-products. He used his large volume of shipments (promising to ship daily sixty carloads of refined oil by the New York Central-Lake Shore System) to secure the lowest rates.

But the fluctuations of the price of oil, due to unpredictable new sources, produced what Rockefeller called “destructive competition.” He envisaged a huge combination to control the market, and called it the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. By 1872 his company was refining 10,000 barrels of kerosene a day—the largest operation of its kind anywhere. Then he went into the pipe-line business, which in the long run was essential if he was to perfect his monopoly. At his insistence one of his chemists devised a process for refining the cheap sulfur-base oil of Ohio, and so he opened up a whole new source of supply. By 1890 he had extended his marketing, and was using a fleet of tank wagons to deliver Standard kerosene to the consumer’s door. As his organization reached out, his empty five-gallon cans were serving housewives in primitive huts and hovels on all continents. “Oil for the lamps of China” was a Standard product.

Rockefeller’s grasp of public opinion was weaker than his understanding of rate negotiation and the competitive squeeze. He professed surprise at the well-documented attacks like Henry Demarest Lloyd’s “Story of a Great Monopoly” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1881, and at the legislative hearings on the trusts. But these provided the basis for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. When the Standard Oil Trust was dissolved by order of the Ohio Supreme Court in 1892, Rockefeller’s lawyers proved more than equal to the challenge, and their newly invented “holding company” kept Rockefeller in the saddle.

The Standard Oil combination was one of the organizing achievements of the century. The price of oil products actually declined during the heyday of Standard Oil monopoly, but might it have declined still more if it had not been for Standard Oil? Rockefeller’s ruthless tactics—his use of threats, his ability to make competitors “sweat,” his willingness to employ strong-arm tactics, espionage (some even said murder)—became the reformist cliché of the century.

Rockefeller was a distinctively American breed. For he exploited a mysterious new mineral whose source was unknown and whose supply could not be estimated. He built his fortune in the Western vagueness. What was most remarkable and most New Worldly about Rockefeller was not his boldness in overstepping the bounds of common decency or of familiar business ethics. His methods had the authentic seductive stamp of a moral-legal ambiguity that flourished beyond precedent in America. The best lawyers of his day, men of the highest legal ethics, were employed by Rockefeller to devise his most dubious tactics. The trust—the notorious instrument of his ruthlessness—was one of the most ancient inventions of English law, devised centuries before in the moral laboratories of the Chancery and for the courts of Equity whose watchword was always a scrupulous concern for conscience. When the trust was made into an instrument to outrage the public conscience, it was only another symbol of the ambiguities that blessed and plagued the burgeoning West, that made possible both its worst and its best.

John D. Rockefeller was an American Cecil Rhodes, but in the United States the empire was within. Rhodes’s reckless unconcern for the African colonial was sanctioned by a pious faith in the “Anglo-Saxon” race. Rockefeller’s unconcern for his American competitors was sanctioned by Baptist piety. But in England somehow the Victorian moral imperatives remained unclouded. Was not Africa a land of “natives”? And what about the White Man’s Burden?

Since the American empire was inside the expanding nation, Americans somehow incorporated colonial ambiguities into widespread national ways of believing. Go-Getting Morality—the morality of lawless sheriffs and honest desperadoes—had a refreshing and energizing appeal. It spread easily from West to East, like other creative American tendencies. Historians have too long dazzled us with talk of a “Westward Movement.” American civilization was just as much the product of an “Eastward Movement.” A movement from the Western verges toward the respectable established East—of visions and uncertainties which would explain much that America had to offer the world.

Rockefeller, the ruthless philanthropist who gave no quarter to a weaker competitor, somehow considered himself a trustee for the poor everywhere. In an age of Wild Bill Hickoks and Billy the Kids he was a colossus of moral-legal ambiguity. The richest man of the age, he was one of its most conspicuously ascetic. After retirement from Standard Oil, Rockefeller (who ten years earlier had endowed a new University of Chicago) founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1901); the General Education Board (1902), which conquered the hookworm in the South and helped reform American medical education; the Rockefeller Foundation (1913), “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world,” which attacked yellow fever in Latin America and built medical education in China. Before his death Rockefeller’s benefactions exceeded a half-billion dollars.

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