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The Rise of the Standard Oil Company
In 1859 Edwin L. Drake, a former railway conductor, drilled the first artesian well specifically for petroleum near Titusville, Pennsylvania, and in effect “discovered oil.” Within a dozen years this strip of northwestern Pennsylvania became one of the busiest corners of the globe, known the world over as the Oil Regions. The activity opened a new chapter in world commerce and riveted the attention of American entrepreneurs, notably a young man named John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland, Ohio. Rockefeller was not only a man of vision; he was possessed of singular drive, ambition, and, when it came to business, a ruthlessness to succeed. Almost single-handedly he built the Standard Oil Company into the greatest corporate colossus the country had witnessed. Rockefeller accomplished this near monopoly by browbeating the railroads for rebates on his costs for transporting oil; by buying up competing companies and putting others out of business; and by thus gaining control of every aspect of the oil business, from the well to the refinery to the sale to the ultimate customer, at home or abroad. Ms. Tarbell’s account of the Standard’s rise, taken from her influential book, covers a crucial moment in Rockefeller’s quest for dominance of the industry. While he would later be tested by government and by the few competitors that remained in the oil business, and while he would suffer setbacks, in the end the Standard Oil Company became, in Ms. Tarbell’s estimation, “probably in the strongest financial position of any aggregation in the world.” As to Rockefeller himself, she wrote, “few men in either the political or industrial life of this country can point to an achievement carried out in more exact accord with its first conception.”
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