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A Petroleum Strike Might Have Saved Lincoln

Almost 158 years ago, on the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, as he watched a play. It could have been different.

In March of 1858, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was reorganized as the Seneca Oil Company, with New Haven CT banker James Townsend becoming President and majority shareholder. The entrepreneurial Yankees from New York City had been done out of control of their company by Yankees from Connecticut. Townsend then sent Edwin Drake off to Titusville, in western Pennsylvania’ to see if ‘rock oil’ could be found in any quantities.

‘Colonel’ Drake moved his family to Titusville, his title having been invented by Townsend as a means of gaining respectability among the locals, and started by digging a well. By August, 1858, the diggers hit water at 150 feet and had to stop. Drake announced that he would then begin to bore for oil, rather than dig.

More delays attended, as Drake searched for a well-driller who would do the job. Finally, in May,1859, William, ‘Uncle Billy’, Smith agreed to bore the well. By early August, he had a derrick set up and began work. On Sunday the 28th of August, with less than 70 feet bored, Uncle Billy went to check on his rig. To his surprise, he saw oil in a pool just below the top of the well. It was no gusher, but oil was soon being pumped out of the ground at a good rate and the rush was on.

Drake’s well was not the first to tap liquid oil, but it was the well that changed how the world got its lighting thereafter. Many drillers looking for salt beds or brine, especially in Kentucky, had hit oil before, but it had been useless to them, so they moved on. But ‘rock oil’, refined into kerosene, could be a lighting substitute for whale oil or camphene, a type of turpentine. Whale oil was growing scarce as the animals were overhunted.

Oil-based kerosene came on the lighting market just as the Civil War broke out in 1861. Secession and war led to the end of camphene shipments from Southern forests to the North. The federal government applied a heavy wartime tax on alcohol, which could be used for lighting, while only lightly taxing petroleum products. this allowed the oil industry to grow fast enough to supply the kerosene needs of the army as well as those of the broader Northern society. Wartime production took off.

In a twist of fate, in 1864, with his acting career in ruins because of a voice problem, John Wilkes Booth spent a number of months drilling for oil in western Pennsylvania as head of his Dramatic Oil Company. The hole proved to be dry, though another in which he had a minor investment, later struck oil. Booth, by then, had moved on to his and Lincoln’s destiny. Had Dramatic Oil made a strike, history might have been rather different.