Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future

An insider’s assessment of the precipitous decline of large city ...


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by Ida M. Tarbell


The Rise Of The Standard Oil Company

THE RISE OF THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY

THE chief refining competitor of the Oil Creek territory of western Pennsylvania in 1872 was Cleveland, Ohio. Since 1869 that city had done annually more refining than any other place in the country. Strung along the banks of Walworth and Kingsbury Runs, the creeks to which the city frequently banishes her heavy and evil-smelling burdens, there had been since the early sixties from twenty to thirty oil refineries. Why they were there, more than 200 miles from the spot where the oil was taken from the earth, a glance at a map of the railroads of the time will show. By rail and water Cleveland commanded the entire Western market. It had two trunk lines running to New York, both eager for oil traffic, and by Lake Erie and the canal it had for a large part of the year a splendid cheap waterway. Thus, at the opening of the oil business, Cleveland was destined by geographical position to be a refining center.

Men saw it, and hastened to take advantage of the opportunity. There was grave risk. The oil supply might not hold out. As yet there was no certain market for refined oil. But a sure result was not what drew people into the oil business in the early 1860s. Fortune was running fleet-footed across the country, and at her garment men clutched. They loved the chase almost as they did success, and so many a man in Cleveland tried his luck in an oil refinery, as hundreds on Oil Creek were trying it in an oil lease. By 1865 there were thirty refineries in the town, with a capital of about $1,500,000 and a daily capacity of some 2,000 barrels. The works multiplied rapidly. The report of the Cleveland Board of Trade for 1866 gives the number of plants at the end of that year as fifty, and it dilates eloquently on the advantages of Cleveland as a refining point over even Pittsburg, to that time supposed to be the natural center for the business. If the railroad and lake transportation men would but adopt as liberal a policy toward the oil freights of Cleveland as the Pennsylvania Railroad was adopting toward that of Pittsburg, aided by her natural advantages the town was bound to become the greatest oil refining center in the United States. By 1868 the Board of Trade reported joyfully that Cleveland was receiving within 300,000 barrels as much oil as Pittsburg. In 1869 she surpassed all competitors. “Cleveland now claims the leading position among the manufacturers of petroleum with a very reasonable prospect of holding that rank for some time to come,” commented the Board of Trade report. “Each year has seen greater consolidation of capital, greater energy and success in prosecuting the business, and, notwithstanding some disastrous fires, a stronger determination to establish an immovable reputation for the quantity and quality of this most important product. The total capital invested in this business is not less than four millions of dollars and the total product of the year would not fall short of fifteen millions.”

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