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Obscure, unsung genius of Penna.'s early oil boom

His drilling method made others rich - while he starved.

TITUSVILLE, Pa. - The oil boom that began 150 years ago in this small northwestern Pennsylvania town changed the world and made countless people rich, but not the man who found the way to extract black gold from the earth.

Edwin Laurentine Drake died an invalid, virtually penniless. In his later years, he relied on the goodwill of friends and a state pension given late in life to recognize the millions of dollars in tax revenue Pennsylvania made thanks to his drilling method.

"As they say, sometimes the good we do benefits others and not ourselves, because he certainly benefited others from his work," said William Brice, a University of Pittsburgh emeritus professor, whose book Myth, Legend, Reality, Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry will be published this year.

Drake's genius was to drive pipe into the ground so debris wouldn't clog the drill hole. On Aug. 27, 1859, the method proved successful when his driller struck oil 691/2 feet below ground.

Drake, who had no drilling or engineering background, had been hired by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. to oversee drilling, primarily because he was a retired railroad conductor and could ride trains free, saving the company money. He had retired in his mid-30s because of ill health and was a hotel clerk in New Haven, Conn., where he met James Townsend, an investor in the company.

Oil's presence around Titusville, then a lumber town of several hundred people, had long been known. But extracting it proved vexing. Early efforts involved digging trenches along Oil Creek or collecting it from seeps in the ground.

Drake's early effort brought ridicule and was known derisively as "Drake's folly," as townsfolk doubted it would work. Eventually, he hired "Uncle" Billy Smith, an experienced saltwater driller from Tarentum, near Pittsburgh.

They started drilling in early August 1859. They drove pipe 49 feet into the ground until they struck bedrock and began percussion drilling - using a steam engine to drive a heavy iron bit into the ground to break the rock.

The work was slow-going, just a couple of feet a day.

On Aug. 27, they quit for the day. The next day was a Sunday, and Drake, a devout Episcopalian, did not work. Smith stopped by the well and saw liquid. He lowered a can and pulled up oil.

Soon, the valley sprouted scores of derricks.

"I don't think he fully appreciated what he had done," Brice said of Drake.

Drake, hired at $1,000 a year, wasn't paid for more than two years, when the company let him go in June 1860 and paid him $2,167.

Later business ventures failed, Brice said, and by 1866 Drake was essentially destitute. That May, he wrote a friend asking for money: "If you have any of the milk of human kindness left in your bosom for me or my family, send me some money. I am in want of it sadly, and I am sick."

His health continued to decline. Brice believes Drake may have had multiple sclerosis.

On a trip to New York in 1869, Drake ran into Zebulon Martin, a friend from Titusville who barely recognized him. Martin bought him a meal and gave him $20, then returned to Titusville to take up a collection for his friend.

With the money raised, Drake moved to Bethlehem so he could seek treatment at a mineral-springs health resort. But the resort closed.

"Again, he just couldn't get a break," Brice said.

In 1873, the state granted Drake a pension of $1,500 a year, writing that his oil-drilling method "added directly to the commonwealth more than $1 million since the discovery, which also continues to add large yearly sums" to the state's coffers.

Drake died in 1880 in Bethlehem.