Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 307
This is the grave of Edwin Drake.
Born in 1819 in Greenville, New York, Drake grew up on farms in New York and Vermont. He wasn’t too interested in doing that for a living and he got work on the railroads near New Haven, Connecticut when he grew up. He managed to avoid most of the most dangerous jobs on the railroad and worked primarily as a ticket agent and conductor. He had some illness issues that stopped him from working for awhile and he and his family eventually moved to western Pennsylvania by 1858.
Drake had decided on the small town of Titusville to live. It so happened that oil had been discovered in the region. Oils were already necessary in American life, largely to lubricate the machines of the Industrial Revolution and for heating and light. But whales were not exactly an inexhaustible supply of energy and other forms of oil were also in their nascent methods of production. The problem was that no one really knew how to extract the so-called “rock oil” from the ground in any meaningful quantity.
Drake had invested in a small company called Seneca Oil which hoped to figure out some way to get that oil out of Titusville. He had just moved to Titusville and was living in a hotel, where he got to know the company’s owners. This chance encounter led to them offering a Drake a job to investigate oil seeps around Titusville. One reason: as a former train conductor, he had lifetime free train travel facilities, so the company wouldn’t have to pay for travel. Drake decided to try to drill for oil in the way that salt drillers did. He bought a steam engine in Erie and started drilling in an island in Oil Creek, although I don’t know if that was renamed after 1858. It didn’t work well, but Drake was persistent. In April 1859, Drake’s bosses gave up and he invested his own money to keep it going. It was not until August, when the drill had reached 70 feet deep that oil started bubbling up. What made this work is that Drake kept the drill within an iron pipe, which prevented shaft collapses from water.
This was a huge technological innovation and the nation’s first oil rush was on. Like a lot of early inventors, Drake did not get rich. He made the huge mistake of not patenting his invention. Instead, oil riches would be initially shared by a lot of people before John D. Rockefeller started forcing everyone else out of the business by the 1860s, becoming the nation’s wealthiest man through extremely sketchy tactics of intimidation, fraud, and sweetheart transportation deals. Drake was impoverished by 1863 after a bunch of bad oil speculation investments. In 1872, as Pennsylvania became a wealthy state due to oil, the legislature voted this pauper a $1,500 annual pension in appreciation. This allowed him to live in a modest home in the eastern Pennsylvania city of Bethlehem for the rest of his life, which ended in 1880.
Evidently, in the 1950s, the American Petroleum Institute decided to make a propaganda film on how great the oil industry was. It hired Vincent Price to play Drake. I would like to see this.
Edwin Drake is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Titusville, Pennsylvania. This is obviously was not the first grave for the man. It was in the years just after 1900 that some oil executives decided to rebury him as a monument to their industry.
If you would like this series to visit more figures from the petroleum industry, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I can’t really think of a lot of names off the top of my head, outside of Rockefeller of course, who I have already visited. But then that goes to show how people you don’t know have enormous impacts on your life. Previous posts in this series are archived here.