The task before Drake was no light one. The spot to which he had been sent was Titusville, a lumberman's hamlet on Oil Creek, fourteen miles from where that stream joins the Allegheny River. Its chief connection with the outside world was by a stage to Erie, forty miles away. This remoteness from civilisation and Drake's own ignorance of artesian wells, added to the general scepticism of the community concerning the enterprise, caused great difficulty and long delays. It was months before Drake succeeded in getting together the tools, engine and rigging necessary to bore his well, and before he could get a driller who knew how to manipulate them, winter had come, and he had to suspend operations. People called him crazy for sticking to the enterprise, but that had no effect on him. As soon as spring opened borrowed a horse and wagon and drove over a hundred miles to Tarentum, where Mr. Kier was still pumping his salt wells, and was either bottling or refining the oil which came up with the brine. Here Drake hoped to find a driller. He brought back a man, and after a few months more of experiments and accidents the drill was started. One day late in August, 1859, Titusville was electrified by the news that Drake's Folly, as many of the onlookers had come to consider it, had justified itself. The well was full of oil. The next day a pump was started, and twenty-five barrels of oil were gathered.

There was no doubt of the meaning of the Drake well in the minds of the people of the vicinity. They had long ago accepted all Professor Silliman had said of the possibilities of petroleum, and now that they knew how it could be obtained in quantity, the whole country-side rushed out to obtain leases. The second well in the immediate region was drilled by a Titusville tanner, William Barnsdall — an Englishman who at his majority had come to America to make his fortune. He had fought his way westward, watching always for his chance. The day the Drake well was struck he knew it had come. Quickly forming a company he began to drill a well. He did not wait for an engine, but worked his drill through the rock by a spring pole. [2] It took three months, and cost $3,000 to do it, but he had his reward. On February 1, 1860, he struck oil — twenty-five barrels a day — and oil was selling at eighteen dollars a barrel. In five months the English tanner had sold over $16,000 worth of oil.

THE DRAKE WELL IN 1859 — THE FIRST OIL WELL

A lumberman and merchant of the village, who long had had faith in petroleum if it could be had in quantity, Jonathan Watson, one of the firm of Brewer, Watson and Company, whose land the Pennsylvania Rock-Oil Company had leased, mounted his horse as soon as he heard of the Drake well, and, riding down the valley of Oil Creek, spent the day in leasing farms. He soon had the third well of the region going down, this too by a spring pole. This well started off in March at sixty gallons a minute, and oil was selling at sixty cents a gallon. In two years the farm where this third well was struck had produced 165,000 barrels of oil.

Working an unfriendly piece of land a few miles below the Drake well lived a man of thirty-five. Setting out for himself at twenty-two, he had won his farm by the most dogged efforts, working in saw-mills, saving his earnings, buying a team, working it for others until he could take up a piece of land, hoarding his savings here. For what? How could he know? He knew well enough when Drake struck oil, and hastened out to buy a share in a two-acre farm. He sold it at a profit, and with the money put down a well, from which he realised $70,000. A few years later the farm he had slaved to win came into the field. In 1871 he refused a million dollars for it, and at one time he had stored there 200,000 barrels of oil.

A young doctor who had buried himself in the wilderness saw his chance. For a song he bought thirty-eight acres on the creek, six miles below the Drake well, and sold half of it for the price he had paid to a country storekeeper and lumberman of the vicinity, one Charles Hyde. Out of this thirty-eight acres millions of dollars came; one well alone — the Mapleshade — cleared one and one-half millions.

On every rocky farm, in every poor settlement of the region, was some man whose ear was attuned to Fortune's call, and who had the daring and the energy to risk everything he possessed in an oil lease. It was well that he acted at once; for, as the news of the discovery of oil reached the open, the farms and towns of Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania poured out a stream of ambitious and vigorous youths, eager to seize what might be there for them, while from the East came men with money and business experience, who formed great stock companies, took up lands in parcels of thousands of acres, and put down wells along every rocky run and creek, as well as over the steep hills. In answer to their drill, oil poured forth in floods. In many places pumping was out of the question; the wells flowed 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 barrels a day — such quantities of it that at the close of 1861 oil which in January of 1860 was twenty dollars a barrel had fallen to ten cents.

Here was the oil, and in unheard-of quantities, and with it came all the swarm of problems which a discovery brings. The methods Drake had used were crude and must be improved. The processes of refining were those of the laboratory and must be developed. Communication with the outside world must be secured. Markets must be built up. Indeed, a whole new commercial machine had to be created to meet the discovery. These problems were not realised before the region teemed with men to wrestle with them — men "alive to the instant need of things." They had to begin with so simple and elementary a matter as devising something to hold the oil. There were not barrels enough to be bought in America, although turpentine barrels, molasses barrels, whiskey barrels — every sort of barrel and cask — were added to new ones made especially for oil. Reservoirs excavated in the earth and faced with logs and cement, and box-like structures of planks or logs were tried at first but were not satisfactory. A young Iowa school teacher and farmer, visiting at his home in Erie County, went to the region. Immediately he saw his chance. It was to invent a receptacle which would hold oil in quantities. Certain large producers listened to his scheme and furnished money to make a trial tank. It was a success, and before many months the school-teacher was buying thousands of feet of lumber, employing scores of men, and working them and himself — day and night. For nearly ten years he built these wooden tanks. Then seeing that iron tanks — huge receptacles holding thousands of barrels where his held hundreds — were bound to supersede him, he turned, with the ready adaptability which characterised the men of the region, to producing oil for others to tank.

After the storing problem came that of transportation. There was one waterway leading out — Oil Creek, as it had been called for more than a hundred years, — an uncertain stream running the length of the narrow valley in which the oil was found, and uniting with the Allegheny River at what is now known as Oil City. From this junction it was 132 miles to Pittsburg and a railroad. Besides this waterway were rough country roads leading to the railroads at Union City, Corry, Erie and Meadville. There was but one way to get the oil to the bank of Oil Creek or to the railroads, and that was by putting it into barrels and hauling it. Teamsters equipped for this service seemed to fall from the sky. The farms for a hundred miles around gave up their boys and horses and wagons to supply the need. It paid. There were times when three and even four dollars a barrel were paid for hauling five or ten miles. It was not too much for the work. The best roads over which they travelled were narrow, rough, unmade highways, mere openings to the outer world, while the roads to the wells they themselves had to break across fields and through forests. These roads were made almost impassable by the great number of heavily freighted wagons travelling over them. From the big wells a constant procession of teams ran, and it was no uncommon thing for a visitor to the Oil Regions to meet oil caravans of a hundred or more wagons. Often these caravans were held up for hours by a dangerous mud-hole into which a wheel had sunk or a horse fallen. If there was a possible way to be made around the obstruction it was taken, even if it led through a farmer's field. Indeed, a sort of guerilla warfare went on constantly between the farmers and the teamsters. Often the roads became impassable, so that new ones had to be broken, and not even a shot-gun could keep the driver from going where the passage was least difficult. The teamster, in fact, carried a weapon which few farmers cared to face, his terrible "black snake," as his long, heavy black whip was called. The man who had once felt the cruel lash of a "black snake" around his legs did not often oppose the owner.

With the wages paid him the teamster could easily become a kind of plutocrat. One old producer tells of having a teamster in his employ who for nine weeks drew only enough of his earnings to feed himself and horses. He slept in his wagon and tethered the team. At the end of the time he "thought he'd go home for a clean shirt" and asked for a settlement. It was found that he had $1,900 to his credit. The story is a fair illustration both of the habits and the earnings of the Oil Creek teamsters. Indispensable to the business they became the tyrants of the region — working and brawling as suited them, a genius not unlike the flatboat-men who once gave colour to life on the Mississippi, or the cowboys who make the plains picturesque to-day. Bad as their reputation was, many a man found in their ranks the start which led later to wealth and influence in the oil business. One of the shrewdest, kindest, oddest men the Oil Regions ever knew, Wesley Chambers, came to the top from the teamster class. He had found his way to the creek after eight years of unsuccessful gold-hunting in California. "There's my chance," he said, when he saw the lack of teams and boats, and he set about organising a service for transporting oil to Pittsburg. In a short time he was buying horses of his own and building boats. Wide-awake to actualities, he saw a few years later that the teamster and the boat were to be replaced by the pipe-line and the railroad, and forestalled the change by becoming a producer.

In this problem of transportation the most important element after the team was Oil Creek and the flatboat. A more uncertain stream never ran in a bed. In the summer it was low, in the winter frozen; now it was gorged with ice, now running mad over the flats. The best service was gotten out of it in time of low water through artificial freshets. Milldams, controlled by private parties, were frequent along the creek and its tributaries. By arrangement these dams were cut on a certain day or days of the week, usually Friday, and on the flood or freshet the flatboats loaded with barrels of oil were floated down stream. The freshet was always exciting and perilous and frequently disastrous. From the points where they were tied up the boatmen watched the coming flood and cut themselves loose the moment after its head had passed them. As one fleet after another swung into the roaring flood the danger of collision and jams increased. Rare indeed was the freshet when a few wrecks did not lie somewhere along the creek, and often scores lay piled high on the bank — a hopeless jam of broken boats and barrels, the whole soaked in petroleum and reeking with gas and profanity. If the boats rode safely through to the river, there was little further danger.

The Allegheny River traffic grew to great proportions — fully 1,000 boats and some thirty steamers were in the fleet, and at least 4,000 men. This traffic was developed by men who saw here their opportunity of fortune, as others had seen it in drilling or teaming. The foremost of these men was an Ohio River captain, driven northward by the war, one J. J. Vandergrift. Captain Vandergrift had run the full gamut of river experiences from cabin-boy to owner and commander of his own steamers. The war stopped his Mississippi River trade. Fitting up one of his steamers as a gun-boat, he turned it over to Commodore Foote and looked for a new stream to navigate. From the Oil Region at that moment the loudest cry was for barrels. He towed 4,000 empty casks up the river, saw at once the need of some kind of bulk transportation, took his hint from a bulk-boat which an ingenious experimenter was trying, ordered a dozen of them built, towed his fleet to the creek, bought oil to fill them, and then returned to Pittsburg to sell his cargo. On one alone he made $70,000.

But the railroad soon pressed the river hard. At the time of the discovery of oil three lines, the Philadelphia and Erie, the Buffalo and Erie (now the Lake Shore), connecting with the Central, and the Atlantic and Great Western, connecting with the Erie, were within teaming distance of the region. The points at which the Philadelphia and Erie road could be reached were Erie, forty miles from Titusville, Union City, twenty-two miles, and Corry, sixteen miles. The Buffalo and Erie was reached at Erie. The Atlantic and Great Western was reached at Meadville, Union City and Corry, and the distances were twenty-eight, twenty-two and sixteen miles, respectively. Erie was the favourite shipping point at first, as the wagon road in that direction was the best. The amount of freight the railroads carried the first year of the business was enormous. Of course connecting lines were built as rapidly as men could work. By the beginning of 1863 the Oil Creek road, as it was known, had reached Titusville from Corry. This gave an eastern connection by both the Philadelphia and Erie and the Atlantic and Great Western, but as the latter was constructing a branch from Meadville to Franklin, the Oil Creek road became the feeder of the former principally. Both of these roads were completed to Oil City by 1865.

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