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Edwin Laurentine Drake Passed Away

Today in Masonic History Edwin Laurentine Drake passed away in 1880.

Edwin Laurentine Drake was an American innovator.

Drake was born on March 29th, 1819 in Greenville, Greene County, New York. He grew up on various family farms around upstate New York and in Castleton, Rutland County, Vermont. He left home at the age of 19 to begin working on the railroad. He began working as a clerk, then an express agent and finally a conductor. In 1857, Drake fell ill and due to the nature of his illness was not able to continue working as a conductor. He would retain the rights of free travel on the railroad given to conductors.

Eventually Drake moved his family to Titusville, Pennsylvania. At the time oil was starting to become very important as a fuel to replace whale oil in lamps. Although oil had been around for a long time it was not until the first oil refinery appeared in Pittsburgh that the value of oil was truly understood. The founder of the oil refinery developed Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company along with two partners. Due to a disagreement the company was split and Seneca Oil Company was formed. The president of the Seneca Oil Company, James Townsend, encountered Drake at a hotel and offered him a job to develop a more efficient way to extract the oil from the ground. Drake received the job offer in part because of his ability to travel free on the railroad.

The Seneca Oil Company had land in Titusville and Drake was sent to prospect for oil. He secured a steam drill and began working on the problem. There were many set backs and his team often became disillusioned with the project. On a regular basis crowds of local people would come and gawk and jeer at the workers. The project was nicknamed "Drake's Folly." The general issue was that when they drilled the hole, water seepage would cause the hole to collapse in on itself. Drake came up with the idea of putting a length of pipe down the hole and then passing the drill through the pipe. This allowed Drake's team to drill down to the bedrock. Once to the bedrock, the process was slow going. Eventually they broke through the bedrock an empty space and the drill was lodged in crevice. The next day as the driller was readying the equipment he looked down the pipe and saw oil coming up the pipe. Using a water pump, they were able to start extracting the oil. By the time Drake had begun extracting the oil, the Seneca Oil Company had abandoned him and he continued the project with the support of family and investors.

Drake was not the first person to come up with the idea of using a pipe to keep the hole from collapsing. There is evidence of the technique being used in various places around the world. The difference was that when Drake used the technique it caused a rush to start drilling in the area and by 1872 the region was producing 15.9 thousand barrels of oil a day.

Drake unfortunately was not a very good businessman and ended up a poor man, having never patented his drilling technique. In 1872 Pennsylvania voted an annual annuity of $1,500 for the "crazy man" whose determination founded the oil industry.

Drake passed away on November 9th, 1880.

Drake was a member of Oil Creek Lodge No. 3 in Titusville, Pennsylvania.