Business and Labor

How the History of Petroleum Was Made in New England

In the history of petroleum, a chance meeting at Dartmouth College set into motion a chain of events that led to the Pennsylvania oil rush and the creation of the American oil industry.

The Drake Well

The Drake Well


Had George Bissell never seen a bottle of ‘rock oil’ at his alma mater in 1853, oil might never have gushed from that first oil well in Titusville, Pa., six years later. Bissell is considered the father of the American oil industry, but other New Englanders deserve credit as well.

The cast of characters includes a former high school principal from New Hampshire, a Vermont country doctor, a Maine lawyer, a Yale chemist and a railroad conductor on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.

The history of petroleum, so often associated with Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, would never have happened without Yankee ingenuity – and capital.

Rock Oil

George Bissell

George Bissell

Bissell was born Nov. 8, 1821 in Hanover, N.H., the son of Nancy Wemple and Isaac Bissell, a fur trader who died when he was 12. He worked his way through Dartmouth College by teaching and writing articles. After graduation, he taught Latin and Greek for a while at Norwich Academy in Vermont, then traveled around as a journalist until he made his way to New Orleans. There he became a high school principal and later superintendent of schools while studying languages and the law in his spare time.

By 1853 he had moved to New York City, where he practiced law at 14 Wall Street with his Harvard-trained partner Jonathan Eveleth.  Eveleth, born of colonial New England stock in New Gloucester, Maine, was described as ‘sage, cautious and tenacious.’ He, too, had worked as a school principal, in Norway, Maine, after graduating from Bowdoin College.

Seneca Oil

Bissell returned to Hanover in the fall of 1853 to visit his mother and stopped by Dartmouth. In the office of Dr. Dixi Crosby, head of the medical school, he saw a bottle of rock oil.

The oil was marketed as a patent medicine called ‘Seneca Oil,’ after the local Indians who had shared its healing properties with the white man. Many Americans believed the Indians had a deep knowledge of natural healing, and it was said to heal wounds and cure ailments like deafness, toothaches and rheumatism.

The oil had been brought to Dartmouth by Crosby’s nephew, Francis Beattie Brewer. Also a Dartmouth graduate, Brewer was a physician from Barnet, Vt., who in 1852 moved to Titusville to join his father’s lumber company. There were oil springs on the company property, and some of the rock oil was used to lubricate sawmill machinery. The oil that leaked out of the ground – seep oil – was soaked in blankets, and then the blankets were drained over barrels.

Dixi Crosby’s enthusiasm was lost on Bissell.  It took months for Crosby’s son Albert to persuade Bissell to finance a trip to Titusville to inspect the oil springs.

By then, Bissell recognized oil could be marketed to lubricate the sophisticated machinery of the burgeoning Mechanical Age. Power looms in the textile industry and the steam printing presses needed better lubricants than lard.

Bissell also knew the rock oil was flammable, and suspected it could be used to replace expensive whale oil and coal oil or dangerous camphene as a lighting fluid for America’s growing population.

If Crosby came back with a favorable report, he and Eveleth would organize a petroleum company and launch it on the New York stock market.

A Golden Vision

Crosby visited the oil springs in Titusville with Brewer, his cousin, and returned with a glowing report. Brewer recalled how they had ‘stood on the circle of rough logs surrounding [one spring] and saw the oil bubbling up, and spreading its bright and golden colors over the surface, it seemed like a golden vision.’history of petroleum pennsylvania rock oil

In October 1854 Bissell and Eveleth visited Titusville, stopping in New Haven first. They were introduced to James M. Townsend, a speculator living in a boardinghouse.

On went Bissell and Eveleth to Titusville, where they were suitably impressed by the rock oil. In November, Bissell, Eveleth and Brewer started a joint stock enterprise, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, and bought 200 acres of the Hibbard farm for $5,000.

The $562.08 Report

Benjamin Silliman

Benjamin Silliman

They couldn’t sell their stock.

They were getting oil by digging pits and ditches, then pumping the oil and water into vats using water power from a sawmill. The oil was sold to patent medicine companies.

Brewer’s father warned his son away from Eveleth and Bissell, calling them a couple of ‘sharpers.’ Brewer ignored his advice, but investors stayed away.

Except for James Townsend, who agreed to drum up interest among New Haven investors. He told them, though, that he couldn’t do it until they got a scientific report on the commercial value of petroleum.

During the 19th century, Yale was the center of scientific thought, and Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman was the country’s preeminent chemist. His father, Benjamin Silliman Sr., was also a Yale chemistry professor who developed a process that enabled the commercial production of kerosene.

“We must have him,” Eveleth said.

Silliman, who earned little as a Yale college professor, agreed to write a report on the commercial potential of rock oil for $562.08. The company forwarded a few barrels of petroleum to the chemist.

Silliman concluded petroleum could be used not just as a lubricant, but as a lighting fluid. He wrote, ‘the Oil of your Company’ has ‘a much higher value as an illuminator than I had dared to hope.’ He arrived at the happy conclusion,

…it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive process, they may manufacture very valuable products.

The Report on the Rock Oil is probably the most famous consulting report ever produced.

History of Petroleum

Edwin Drake

Edwin Drake

They were not quite on their way. Silliman’s report attracted investors, but it didn’t tell them how to get enough oil.

James Townsend was elected company president. In 1857, the idea of boring an artesian well was broached, but the board couldn’t agree. Some members, led by Townsend, proposed drilling a well at their own expense and paying the parent company 12 cents a gallon for the oil produced. That proposal was accepted.

Townsend had become friendly with a garrulous fellow who lived at the same New Haven boardinghouse as he. Col. Edwin Drake was not a colonel but a former conductor on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Rail Road. Townsend hired Drake to figure out how to bore an oil well.

The announcement of their intention provoked mirth and ridicule, and ‘Col. Drake’ became ‘Crazy Drake.’

For two-and-a-half years, Drake toiled in Titusville until Aug. 28, 1659, when he famously became the first to strike oil in America.

Oil Rush

Drake’s gusher touched off an oil rush that rivalled the quest for California gold. His achievement set off a wave of exploration and investment that established petroleum as a major industry.

The Titusville area after Drake's well was bored. Photo couresty Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Drake Well Museum.

The Titusville area after Drake’s well was bored. Photo couresty Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Drake Well Museum.

Eveleth would soon die of kidney disease, but Bissell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and leasing land in the Titusville area.

Bissell wrote to his wife:

We find here an unparalleled excitement…The whole population is crazy almost … I never saw such excitement. The whole western country are thronging here and fabulous prices are offered for lands in the vicinity where there is a prospect of getting oil.

The men who helped push back the night with their discoveries of oil met separate fates.

James Townsend, the New Haven banker who took the biggest financial risk, was bitter: “The whole plan was suggested by me, and my suggestions were carried out,” he wrote. “The raising of the money and sending it out was done by me.”

Brewer served in the Civil War, went into politics and became director of a New York Insane Asylum.

Drake made bad business decisions and gambled his money away. He ended up a poor and ailing old man, finally granted an annuity of $1,500 in 1872 by Pennsylvania.

Bissell became a wealthy philanthropist. One of his donations was for a gym at Dartmouth. He insisted that the gym include six bowling alleys, ‘in remembrance of disciplinary troubles into which he had fallen as an undergraduate because of his indulgence in this sinful sport.’


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