While Englishmen and Americans have been alike interested in the late project for forcing water by a pipe line over the mountainous region lying between Suakim and Berber in the far-off Soudan, few men of either nation have any proper conception of the vast expenditure of capital, natural and engineering difficulties overcome, and the bold and successful enterprise which has brought into existence far greater pipe lines in our own Atlantic States. We refer to the lines of the National Transit Company, which have for a purpose the economic transportation of crude petroleum from Western Pennsylvania to the sea coast at New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and to the Lakes at Cleveland and Buffalo.
To properly commence our sketch of this truly gigantic enterprise, we must go back to the discovery of petroleum in the existing oil regions of Pennsylvania and adjacent States. Its presence as an oily scum on the surface of ponds and streams had long been known, and among the Indians this "rock-oil" was highly appreciated as a vehicle for mixing their wax paint, and for anointing their bodies; in later years it was gathered in a rude way by soaking it up in blankets, and sold at a high price for medicinal purposes only, under the name of Seneca rock oil, Genesee oil, Indian oil, etc.
But the date of its discovery as an important factor in the useful arts and as a source of enormous national wealth was about 1854. In the year named a certain Mr. George H. Bissell of New Orleans accidentally met with a sample of the "Seneca Oil," and being convinced that it had a value far beyond that usually accorded it, associated himself with some friends and leased for 99 years some of the best oil springs near Titusville, Pa. This lease cost the company $5,000, although only a few years before a cow had been considered a full equivalent in value for the same land. The original prospectors began operations by digging collecting ditches, and then pumping off the oil which gathered upon the surface of the water. But not long after this first crude attempt at oil gathering, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. was organized, with Prof. B. Silliman of Yale College as its president, and a more intelligent method was introduced into the development of the oil-producing formation. In 1858, Col. Drake of New Haven was employed by the Pennsylvania Co. to sink an artesian well; and, after considerable preparatory work, on August 28, 1859, the first oil vein was tapped at a depth of 69½ feet below the surface; the flow was at first 10 barrels per day, but in the following September this increased to 40 barrels daily.
MAP SHOWING THE NATIONAL TRANSIT CO.'S PIPE LINES.
The popular excitement and the fortunes made and lost in the years following the sinking of the initial well are a matter of history, with which we have here nothing to do. It is sufficient to say that a multitude of adventurers were drawn by the "oil-craze" into this late wilderness, and the sinking of wells extended with unprecedented rapidity over the region near Titusville and from there into more distant fields.
By June 1, 1862, 495 wells had been put down near Titusville, and the daily output of oil was nearly 6,000 barrels, selling at the wells at from $4.00 to $6.00 per barrel. But the tapping of this vast subterranean storehouse of oleaginous wealth continued, until the estimated annual production was swelled from 82,000 barrels in 1859 to 24,385,966 barrels in 1883; in the latter year 2,949 wells were put down, many of them, however, being simply dry holes. The total output of oil in the Pennsylvania regions, between 1859 and 1883, is estimated at about 234,800,000 barrels--enough oil to fill a tank about 10,000 feet square, nearly two miles to a side, to a depth of over 13½ feet.
[Footnote 1: The total number of wells in the Pennsylvania oil regions cannot be given. In the years 1876-1884, inclusive, 28,619 wells were sunk; this is an average of 3,179 per year. During the same period 2,507 dry holes were drilled at an average cost of $1,500 each.]
As long as oil could be sold at the wells at from $4.00 to $10.00 a barrel, the cost of transportation was an item hardly worthy of consideration, and railroad companies multiplied and waged a bitter war with each other in their scramble after the traffic. But as the production increased with rapid strides, the market price of oil fell with a corresponding rapidity, until the quotations for 1884 show figures as low as 50 to 60 cents per barrel for the crude product at Oil City.
In December, 1865, the freight charge per barrel for a carload of oil from Titusville to New York, and the return of the empty barrels, was $3.50. To this figure was added the cost of transportation by pipe-line from Pithole to Titusville, $1.00; cost of barreling, 25 cents; freight to Corry, Pa., 80 cents; making the total cost of a barrel of crude oil in New York, $5.55. In January, 1866, the barrel of oil in New York cost $10.40, including in this figure, however, the Government tax of $1.00 and the price of the barrel, $3.25.
[Footnote 1: It is stated that in 1862 the cost of sending one barrel of oil to New York was $7.45. Steamboats charged $2.00 per barrel from Oil City to Pittsburg, and the hauling from Oil Creek to Meadville cost $2.25 per barrel.]
The question of reducing these enormous transportation charges was first broached, apparently, in 1864, when a writer in the North American, of Philadelphia, outlined a scheme for laying a pipe-line down the Allegheny River to Pittsburg. This project was violently assailed by both the transportation companies and the people of the oil region, who feared that its success would interfere with their then great prosperity. But short pipe-lines, connecting the wells with storage tanks and shipping points, grew apace and prepared the way for the vast network of the present day, which covers this region and throws out arms to the ocean and the lakes.