Nautilus

How the Oil Pipeline Began

Soon after Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil, 70 feet down, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 27, 1859, he had a problem. He had nowhere to store the dark green liquid, and no good way to move it. Until then, locals had collected smaller quantities of oil from seeps and puddles and pits, by wringing it out of saturated wool blankets and scraping it off of wooden boards and collecting it in buckets, and they stored it easily in washtubs and whiskey barrels. But Drake’s well produced 1,000 gallons a day, and subsequent wells produced much more. The nearest railroad was 16 miles to the north, in Corry, just shy of the New York border. The roads there, ill-maintained lumber trails, were barely passable. So, for half a decade, before the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad arrived from the east, and the Allegheny Valley Railroad arrived from Pittsburgh, Drake and the oil men who followed him—finding themselves in possession of so much oil—filled up hundreds of thousands of oak barrels, and delivered them to refineries by horse and by barge. It’s hard to say which method was worse.

Behind teams of horses, men in tall rubber boots hauled one-ton loads of oil—six barrels to the wagon—south 15 miles to Oil City, where the barrels were transferred to barges on the Allegheny river. The men were teamsters. They charged $3 to $4 per barrel, nearly the value of each barrel’s contents. The fluctuating delivery rates depended on the depth of the oily mud the teamsters had to wade through. The teamsters were numerous, and busy; in those early years, 2,000 wagons might cross one Titusville bridge in a day. They were also profane, and demanding. The journalist Ida Tarbell called them tyrants, and plutocrats.

Oil Creek, the local waterway,

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min read
Through Fortitude or Stupidity, Lee Berger Is Rewriting Human History: The paleoanthropologist makes no apologies for going his own way.
In some sense, Lee Rogers Berger found himself and the drowning woman at the same time. The Georgia native had just returned home after dropping out of Vanderbilt University, where terrible grades in his pre-law major and straight As in his electives
Nautilus6 min read
Rock Solid Evidence for Other Earths: A breakthrough in understanding exoplanets.
Is our planet unique? The chances are slim. There are trillions of other galaxies, each of which has billions of suns. In a recent interview, Ed Young, a professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells
Nautilus3 min read
Are We Flushing Our Resistance to Antibiotics Down the Drain?: Taking account of the drug-resistant germs turning up in rivers and soils.
You may think the key to beating antibiotic resistance is for doctors to prescribe less and scientists to find new drug candidates. But the fundamental solutions may lie far from medicine. They may lie in managing our rivers and soils. Scientists who