Career with the Railways
Drake started working as a hotel and dry goods clerk.
Later, he joined the ‘Boston and Albany Railroad’ as an agent.
In 1850, he began working with the ‘New York and New Haven Railroad,’ serving as a clerk, an express agent, and a conductor.
His poor health cost him his job, and he was forced to retire. However, he was allowed to retain the privileges of a train conductor, which included traveling in trains without charges.
Career in the Oil Industry
After retiring from his job with the railways in 1857, Drake settled in New Haven, a city on Long Island Sound in the state of Connecticut, U.S.A. There, he met George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth, the co-founders of the ‘Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company.’
The firm’s business interests lay in exploring the prospects of extracting oil from Titusville, a city in the far eastern corner of Crawford County in the state of Pennsylvania, U.S., and in selling it as fuel for lighting purposes. In 1857, Drake was hired by the company to study the feasibility of profitably extracting oil from Titusville.
He left for Titusville in 1857. It is reported that he was hired for this job because he had retired from the railways and held a free railroad pass that permitted him to travel to Titusville without being charged.
In Titusville, Drake procured land on behalf of the company, and after his survey, he stated it was possible to profitably extract oil.
Bolstered by Drake’s report, George and Jonathan, along with businessmen and bankers from New Haven, including banker James Townsend, founded another company, named ‘Seneca Oil Company,’ in March 1858, with its office in Connecticut. Drake also invested his entire savings of $200 in the new firm.
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In 1858, Townsend assigned him with the responsibility of developing the site that was initially owned by the ‘Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company’ and later transferred to the ‘Seneca Oil Company.’
His initial methods of collecting oil from the surface seeps or mining it from excavated shafts were not fetching the expected profits.
He realized that if the operation had to be profitable, oil had to be extracted by boring and by employing techniques similar to those used in mining salt. He thus decided to drill a well. For this purpose, he hired William A Smith, fondly called “Uncle Billy,” who was a salt well driller from Tarentum, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
In mid-1858, after purchasing a steam engine to power the drill and building an engine house, he erected a derrick. His crew began to dig a well on an island on the Oil Creek flowing through Titusville.
He faced a lot of problems. The drilling was slow, as it was challenging to bore through the layers of gravel. At 16 feet, the walls of the hole began to collapse. Also, the well got flooded with water, which made matters worse for Drake.
To overcome these challenges, Drake came up with an ingenious idea of installing cast iron pipes to reinforce the walls. At 32 feet, the drill hit the bedrock, after which the drilling was done at a rate of 3 feet per day. He did not patent his successful methodology.
On August 27, 1859, at a depth of 69.5 feet, oil was struck. The output of the well was 12 to 20 barrels per day.
After drilling two more wells, he left the company in June 1860.
His other business ventures, including a stock company to extract and sell oil, failed. By 1863, he had lost most of his savings in oil speculation, and in 1866, he was totally bankrupt and living in abject poverty.
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Family, Personal Life & Death
Drake married Philena Adams in 1845. They had two children. However, she breathed her last while giving birth to her second child in 1854.
Three years later, in 1857, he married Laura Dowd. In the summer of the same year, he fell ill. He had to give up his job due to his troubled health.
In 1858, he moved to Titusville along with his family.
Having failed to patent his technology and struggling with his lack of business acumen, he (along with his family) ended up being impoverished.
However, due to his goodwill among the people of Titusville, he was able to raise funds and moved to Bethlehem, a city in Lehigh and Northampton Counties in the state of Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania also awarded him a pension.
In the last 6 years of his life, between 1874 and 1880, he lived in a house in Fountain Hill, a suburb of Bethlehem,
He passed away on November 9, 1880, in Bethlehem, at the age of 61.
He was buried in Titusville and had a memorial built in his honor.
The first well Drake drilled was named “Drake Well” and is now part of the ‘Drake Well Museum,’ a “National Historic Landmark.”
The 1954 industrial movie ‘Born in Freedom: The Story of Colonel Drake’ was funded by the ‘American Petroleum Institute.’
The book ‘History of Petroleum: Life of Col Edwin L. Drake,’ written by Edwin C. Bell, was released in 1900.
‘Edwin L. Drake: Father of the Petroleum Industry’ by Leonard M Fanning, part of the ‘Fathers of Industries Series,’ was published in 1954.
In 2009, a book titled ‘Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry,’ authored by William Brice, was published.
Drake’s second wife, Laura, was 16 years younger to him.
He came to be known as “Colonel Drake” because he was addressed as a colonel in his company’s official communications.
As the method of drilling a well to extract oil was unknown during those days, and since it was a prolonged procedure that led to deadlines being missed, giving rise to financial losses for investors, Drake became an object of ridicule in Titusville. He and his site were mockingly called “Crazy Drake” and “Drake’s Folly,” respectively.