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The Search for Oil and Oil-Finding Experts I would most earnestly invoke men of science . . . to come to the oil regions, and remain there for weeks and months, collecting pebbles, fossils, fragments, and all other materials obtainable for the nether world. Let them spend their time and labor as enthusiastic explorers of truth, not with a view to lend their names to this or that Mammoth Gas Bubble Company, for a consideration in dollars or dollars’ worth [of stock]. —William Wright, The Oil Regions of Pennsylvania (1865) In February 1865 James Hall was in a quandary. The oil boom was in full swing, and he was “[p]ressed with outside business.”1 But he had strained the tendons in his foot and could not walk.“To get my foot in a condition to travel,” he told J. Peter Lesley, he would have to refuse many engagements.2 It was all “very disheartening,”Hall lamented,“to be unable to take advantage of this state of things.”3 So Hall took hold of something else. A friend offered to take leases on properties in upstate New York if he thought they were good petroleum prospects. The gentleman, whom Hall had“every reason to believe honorable,”would find the capitalists, organize the company, and bore the wells. All Hall had to do was name the places. The scheme was enticing; “there is an abundance of Cash, hydrogen gas & oily indications.”4 He got to rest his lame foot and collect half the “proceeds” from any discoveries. Frankly, he did not see anything “very objectionable in the matter.” Still, Hall felt compelled to justify his involvement to Lesley (and possibly to himself) as a simple necessity: “In these times a small salary must be eked out or no [one] can live.”5 He even offered Lesley the chance to join in. On second thought,“you already know plenty of capitalists who will do better by you than this proposition.”6 244 CHAPTER 9 In deciding to stay home, Hall was banking on the oil boom.“I think in the next year or two,” he reassured Lesley,“or so long as the currency continues, we are to have more of this kind of work than ever before.”7 What Hall had in mind was consulting, and he knew that geologists were doing a red-hot business in oil. Hall too wished“very much to go into the Oil region next summer.”8 In the meantime, he was happy to do armchair explorations. But if Hall inadvertently ended up endorsing the prospects of some Mammoth Gas Bubble Company, as the New York Times correspondent William Wright feared such lending of names might lead to, it would be bad for business and worse for science. Men of science, of course, were not the only ones doing explorations in oil. Others less scientific and sometimes less honest were hired by companies, capitalists , or whoever was willing to pay them. For historians, the oil boom reveals a marketplace,in which men of science jostled against other oil-finding experts. This marketplace was on display in the numerous company prospectuses and other pamphlets printed during the oil boom. A study of these publications challenges hackneyed depictions of oil explorations as lawless and random. In fact, the numerous consulting engagements helped to create a systematic body of knowledge called petroleum geology. Fever and Fraud Midcentury Americans liked to compare the oil boom to the California gold rush. Both dramas drew on stock accounts, both enthusiastic and excoriating, of colorful characters—rags-to-riches prospectors, unlucky (but honest and hardworking) miners, gullible investors, and audacious swindlers.According to one sanguine oil boomer: “People will come, people will buy, people will make money,people will lose it,people will get crazy—and the consequences are,discomfort , ill-temper, bad beds, worse meats, and worser whiskey.”9 The most vivid image of the oil boom was the fabled boomtown, one minute bursting with activity, the next, busted, dry, and deserted. The boomtown captured the flow and ebb of oil and the tides of people. The most infamous was Pithole.Denounced as the dirtiest,greediest,and meanest place inAmerica,Pithole , as its name luridly suggested, epitomized oil fever.10 But visitors need not go to Pithole to see oil’s ruinous effects. Oil City, at the confluence of Oil Creek and the Allegheny River, would do just as well: If you wish to live in mud, to walk in mud...


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