July 7, 2008

Boom and Bust for First Oil Well Driller Edwin Drake

By Brian Bowling

Edwin Drake left his family's Vermont farm at age 19 in 1838 and spent the next 11 years working in clerking jobs. In 1849 he became a conductor for the New York and New Haven Railroad, but he retired eight years later because of a neurological disease that was slowly wasting away his muscles.

Months later, an oil investor persuaded him to check out a Titusville farm. Drake had retained his conductor's rail pass, so he could go there cheaply -- a warning of what was to follow.

Drake visited the farm and reported seeing oil seeping out of the ground. The investors set up the Seneca Oil Co. to lease the property and hired Drake as the company's general agent. His task was to find a better way to extract the oil. The existing method was to skim oil floating on water coming from seeps or in pits dug along Oil Creek near Titusville.

Drake hired workers to dig a well, but they struck an underground spring. He was convinced that drilling might work, but investors refused to spend any more than the $2,000 they put into the project - - except for the investor who first hired Drake. He sent another $500, but no more.

In May of 1859, Drake hired William "Uncle Billy" A. Smith, a blacksmith and experienced well driller, to drill for oil. But the drill shaft collapsed once the drill reached about 16 feet.

The came the moment that made Drake famous in the oil industry.

He bought several 10-foot lengths of cast iron pipe in Erie. He and Smith joined the lengths and pounded the pipe through the loose soil. The pipe kept the shaft from collapsing.

Drake used his own money to keep drilling, and two businessmen guaranteed a $500 loan. On Aug. 27, 1859, the drill was at a depth of 69 feet when it suddenly dropped six inches. When Smith returned the next day, he looked into the well and saw oil.

Despite his success, Seneca Oil fired Drake and didn't fully pay his salary and reimburse his expenses for another four years.

Drake left Titusville in 1863 and lost most of his money in failed oil speculations.

He returned to Pennsylvania impoverished. Grateful Titusville residents took up a collection for him in 1870 and persuaded the General Assembly in 1873 to give him a $1,500 annual pension. Drake died and was buried in Bethlehem in 1880. He was later reinterred in Titusville.

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