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,

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