William Hopkins and the Pennsylvania Oil Boom

Edwin Drake is to the right in front of Drake’s Oil Well

In 1859 Edwin Drake struck oil at 69 feet below ground along the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania. Drake’s well was one of the first commercial oil wells in the United States. Within a few years the Pennsylvania oil boom was in full swing. Thousands came to the Oil Creek area to strike it rich or just find good work.

Drake’s oil well was considered the first successful commercial well
but within a few years Oil Creek, Pennsylvania was transformed
William Hopkins around 1860s

William Hopkins, a cooper by trade, was one of these oil boom workers. After arriving at Ellis Island in 1857, William went to Grand Traverse county where his parents Robert Hopkins and Susannah Holdsworth Hopkins had already settled. By 1859 William purchased 92 acres in Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan, his parents Robert Hopkins and Susannah Holdsworth Hopkins purchased an adjacent 55 acre track the next year.

However, William did not remain in Grand Traverse County for long. By the time he married his first cousin Jane Suddick in Kent County, Michigan in 1863 he is recorded as “William Hopkins, Titusville, Pennsylvania” (one of the central Oil Creek area cities). Nevertheless, land records show William purchases an additional 40 acres in 1862, adding to his Old Mission Peninsula landholdings.

William Hopkins’ Old Mission Peninsula landholdings (marked 1 & 4)
along with Robert Hopkins (2 & 5) and William Holdsworth (3), William Hopkins’ uncle;
land patents drawing by Kenneth Robert Core, William Hopkins’ great grandson

William Hopkins had an opportunity to make great wages as a cooper in Titusville. The need for oil barrels was incredible. From the success of the Drake Well in 1859 to 1865 the demand for oil barrels went from a few thousand to millions in order to transport oil from Oil Creek to refineries in Pittsburgh. As a skilled cooper William would have found as much work as he was willing to take on in Oil Creek.

Oil barrels on flat bottom boats getting prepared for the trip
from Oil Creek to Pittsburgh, 1864
1850-60s typical cooperage William likely worked at

William Hopkins and Jane Suddick Hopkins must have been impressed with the oil boom as they named their first son William Petroleum Hopkins. He was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1865. Nonetheless, given all William and Jane’s remaining children were born on Old Mission Peninsula it is clear they moved to their Old Mission Peninsula home permanently by 1866. So why would William leave this great work opportunity in the Oil Creek area by 1866?

Densmore Brothers developed a 40-barrel rail tank car in 1866

What the Drake Well discovery started was much more than successfully drilling for oil. It began a chain of incredible technology, process and business innovation from oil drilling equipment, to storage and transport, to refining and distribution, to financing and

Oil pipeline put underground to keep from Teamster sabotage, 1865

marketing. In fact, the oil men were aggressively trying to dominate the lamp light fuel market by making kerosene from petroleum the lowest cost and most available alternative to other lighting oils (e.g. whale oil, Camphene, coal oil, lard oil). This meant cutting costs across the oil supply chain, which in turn impacted the coopers and other related occupations.

So by late 1865 the first fully successful oil pipeline from Oil Creek to railroad lines carried 2000 barrels of oil per day. By 1866 two more oil pipelines were operational. The coopers, the teamsters that transported the oil on horse drawn wagons from well to river, and the flat bottom boat pilots that took the oil barrels down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh were no longer needed in the numbers previously employed. The boom times for the coopers were over.

Is this why William and Jane left Titusville in 1866? Given William had already purchased a total of 132 acres in Old Mission Peninsula it is likely their move was planned, but possibly the timing was related to the change in opportunity for the coopers?? Either way it is fascinating that William Hopkins directly participated in the heady days of the Pennsylvania oil boom but left as it began to squeeze coopers and other workers with rapid oil industry innovation.

Sources:

  1. Drake Well Museum, Titusville PA – oil boom, related innovation, coopers & cooperages
  2. Oil Creek State Park, Oil City PA – oil boom historic details
  3. Newspaperarchive.com – historic Oil City and Titusville news
  4. Ancestry.com – vital records, family records
  5. BLM.gov – land patents
  6. explorepahistory.com – oil industry history
  7. Library of Congress – Lloyd’s Map of the Great Oil Region

@ copyright by Elizabeth Scott Wright 2019

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