Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Petroleum, Parrafin, President



A Pandora’s Box of sorts was opened up in Venango County, Pennsylvania in August of 1859. As I am sure that most of you may recall from your school days, this is when Colonel Edwin Drake drilled a well at Titusville that gave birth to the oil industry. What Drake accomplished in 1859, although reasonably significant seeming to him at the time, would eventually become the uncontrollable petroleum industry that keeps us under the proverbial thumb to this very day.


Venango County would go on to make some men wildly rich, and would bring others to the brink of despair, much as fortunes are made and lost on oil in the 21st century.
Some of the wells that were drilled into the Venango County ground were producing up to 300 barrels of oil a day, at roughly $10 a barrel. Back in the 1860s, $3,000 a day was an incredible return on an investment and some wells were producing this output day after day. A good well could make a man very wealthy, very fast.

Stories of the fortunes being made on Venango County oil began to circulate widely, and naturally this created a boom industry in the area. Investors with pockets full of money came to the area to lay claim to a slice of the oil pie. Along with these speculators, there was non drilling monies to be made. Barrel makers, hotel men, hardware suppliers bankers and timber men made a good buck too. An anecdote that I read many years ago went something like this:

A young man looking to make a good wage working the oil fields of the area walked and hitched rides all the way from Canada to make some money to take home to his growing family. Upon his arrival at Pithole, Pennsylvania he sat down to rest against a huge pile of lumber.

Before long a man supervising the drilling of many local wells and in desperate need of timbers approached the young man.

“How much would you sell me that whole pile of lumber for?’

The Canadian glanced up at the pile and answered “$1,000”

The supervisor paid him immediately in cash and had his crew begin to haul the lumber away.

The young man pocketed the $1000 and immediately started walking back to Canada. It is not known how the lumber’s true owner reacted.

Every once in a while a well that produced copiously and consistently just stopped flowing. It was discovered that a by product of the crude oil, paraffin, would begin to harden at lower temperatures or when cold ground water entered the well. In some cases the paraffin plug was so thick and hard that the drillers had to contract a “shooter” to attempt to fix the problem. A shooter was an individual who would try to dislodge the paraffin by lowering an explosive charge into the well. The best and most expensive charge was a “torpedo” filled with nitro-glycerin that was routinely successful is getting the flow going once more.

But such was not always the case. Take the example of a group of four stage actors that decided to try their luck at the game. They created the “Dramatic Oil Company” in late 1863 and operated a well named “Wilhelmina 1”, a few miles from Drake’s Well. Through out the rest of 1863 and through early 1864 this well produced at a lack luster 25 barrels a day. Then they fell victim to paraffin, and it stopped all together. They made a last ditch monetary investment and brought in a “shooter” to clear the well. Unfortunately, either by hiring an inexpensive, inexperienced shooter, or by the shooter using an inferior explosive or method, the attempt failed miserably. Not only did the oil not resume flowing, but the well was damaged to the point where it never would again.

In September of 1864 one of these actors decided that maybe oil riches were not in his destiny. Financially broken and tremendously bitter he caught a stage to Meadville Pennsylvania and for some reason boarded a train for Montreal to meet a few partners involved in another of his many ventures.

Upon his return from Canada, the young man fell back on his acting career back in Maryland. He probably thought himself the world’s worst oilman, but he was a surprisingly good actor. Although he would never gain the fame that his brother Edwin did on the stage, he was popular and well liked amongst the ladies of Baltimore and Washington D.C.

But, it turns out, that becoming an oil baron was most definitely not this young actor’s destiny or claim to fame. He sealed his destiny at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. on April 14th, 1865. The would be oil tycoon, John Wilkes Booth, had chosen to pin his name to history in a far more infamous way. Perhaps a more successful shooter back in Titusville may have kept this shooter an obscure, forgotten millionaire as opposed to one of the greatest scoundrels of all time.


Something to think about for sure.........

1 comment:

NP said...

Wow, they didn't tell us about that in history class when I was in school. Drakes Well was a standard field trip for everyone in Meadville some time ago. I went twice in school and found it interesting and boring at the same time, but that was an age thing.

Very cool post!