While Colonel Edwin Drake was never a citizen of Oil City, his life certainly affected our area immensely. And while I would not normally include an article that doesn't specifically address Oil City on this site, because this is uniquely the best summary of Colonel Edwin Drake's life I've ever read, I believe it is worth including here. The article is written by Judith Etzel, one of the most prolific and exceptional staff writers working for the Oil City Derrick newspaper. Judy also happens to be the wife of my 1963 Oil City High School classmate Jim Etzel.
From the October 23, 2009 Oil City Derrick
By: Judith Etzel
Not-so-glamorous life of Drake examined
The former railway agent and onetime dry goods salesman who launched the petroleum industry along Oil Creek on Aug. 27, 1859, had as ignominious an end as did the wood apparatus that housed his well — tossed aside without a thought given to posterity.
Highlights in research done by William R. Brice, Ph.D., for his new book, “Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry,” were outlined at a public program Thursday at Venango Campus. Brice’s talk was part of the Barbara Morgan Harvey Center Lecture series, now in its fifth year.
Brice, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, said his book has been two years in the making and is due soon for publication. His research was supported by a grant from the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry and Tourism and is dedicated to longtime oilman and Meadville resident Samuel Pees who, said Brice, “got me involved in the oil industry.”
“How special to live in an area where an event changed the world,” Brice told his audience. “...(Oil) is the magical elixir, thanks to modern chemistry and the persistence of Col. Drake.”
In tracing Drake’s early life as a child (born 1819) growing up in the Catskills of New York and later in Vermont, Brice said Drake worked on the Erie Canal, labored on his uncle’s farm and worked as a hotel clerk in Michigan, served briefly in the Michigan militia, sold drygoods in Connecticut and New York City.
He married and began a family, only to have “unbelievable tragedy” over the space of six years, said Brice, when his wife and three children died between 1848 and 1854. Drake and his surviving child, a 4-year-old son, moved to New Haven, Conn., where they lived in the Tontino Hotel at a cost of $9 a week for room and board. While there, he became acquainted with influential individuals, including George Bissell, a Dartmouth graduate and later superintendent of the New Orleans school system.
Struck by the idea that crude oil, as seen in medicinal and illumination advertising, might be obtained by drilling in the same method used to obtain salt water, Bissell became aware of oil seepages in western Pennsylvania, particularly along Oil Creek. He formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. of New York in 1854, a company that soon was taken over by a New Haven group led by James Townsend.
Townsend contacted Drake to go to Titusville — “he had a free railroad pass (as a former conductor) and they didn’t have to pay for transportation,” Brice said — under the auspices of a new company, the Seneca Oil Co.
“To make Drake appear important in the eyes of the Titusville people, Townsend used the unofficial title of ‘Colonel’ and addressed letters to him at Col. Edwin Drake. The title was thereafter attached to his name,” Brice said.
It was not entirely made up, said the lecturer. Drake’s wife said “his eastern buddies gave him the nickname Colonel” because of his service in the Michigan militia. Drake formally received the military title during the 1959 Oil Centennial when Pennsylvania made him a colonel in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Drake and his second wife and their two children stayed first at the American Hotel in Titusville and later moved into a house on East Main Street (now the high school gym site).
“Most people in Titusville thought that Drake was crazy to drill for oil when you could just soak it up from the creek,” Brice said.
While the oil company funded the drilling operations, they did not pay Drake, said the speaker, and he was forced to borrow money to feed his family. Within months of his successful well, Drake “was out of a job and began driving horses and wagons hauling oil,” Brice said.
Despite how the company neglected him, Drake has a very good reputation in Titusville where he was elected justice of the peace, Brice said. Drake and his wife were among the founders of St. James Episcopal Church and their son was the first child to be baptized there.
In 1863, Drake and his family left the oil valley and within three years, he “was literally begging his friends for money — he was destitute in New York City,” Brice said.
A chance encounter with a Titusville friend in New York City prompted a campaign to raise money for Drake.
“It was 1869, 1870, and the Drake family was living on sale a potatoes. Laura (his wife) was making all their clothing (and) they were living in a friend’s house,” Brice said. “Titusville people raised $5,000....Everyone else was getting rich by this time and here the man who started it all was starving.”
In 1873, the Pennsylvania legislature granted Drake an annual pension of $1,500, “enough to keep them alive but barely,” Brice said. The Drakes moved to Bethlehem where he died in 1880. In 1902, his remains were moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville where a memorial statue, “The Driller” by Charles Niehaus, marks his burial site. The $100,000 cost was paid by an anonymous donor who was not revealed until he died — Henry Rogers, Standard Oil vice president.
The Drake Well buildings (the second set — the first burned in October 1859) were moved for a display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. “They were left to rot — a very ignoble end to a building that started the world’s most successful industry, the oil and gas industry,” Brice said.
Despite all the personalities involved in the 1859 drilling and production venture, it is Drake who rightfully claims the fame, Brice said.
“They don’t call it the Bissell well, although he thought of it. They don’t call it the Townsend well, although he financed it. They don’t call it the (Uncle Billy) Smith well, although he actually drilled it,” Brice said. “We call it the Drake Well because it was the project manager, Edwin Drake, who kept the project alive in the face of ridicule, derision, starving of his family. He kept the dream alive.”