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Photographer To Oildom

July 2024
3min read

Wherever man has delved, dredged, or drilled the earth to win its precious minerals he has created centers whose names are synonymous with both misery and joyous bonanza—Virginia City, Silver City, Sutler’s Mill. One of the most spectacular of these Eldorados sprang up just before the Civil War in the rolling farm country of northwestern Pennsylvania around the towns of Titusville and Franklin. The region was an unlikely setting for an economic boom, save for one peculiarity: It abounded in a foulsmelling, foul-looking, foul-tasting substance that polluted wells, slicked the tops of ponds and canals, and seeped into newly plowed fields. The locals called the bothersome stuff “Seneca oil,” after the Indians who had used it as a kind of cure-all. Out of exasperation they even named one of the streams in the area Oil Creek.

Then, in May of 1858, a former steamboat clerk, dry-goods salesman, express agent, and railroad conductor arrived in Titusville with his wife and two children. Colonel Edwin L. Drake—the honorific had been dreamed up by his employers—had been hired to develop the properties of the Seneca Oil Company. The company was made up of a group of men who had become interested in the stuff oozing out of the ground around Titusville after a flask of it had been analyzed by the distinguished chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale; he thought it had real potential as a substitute for whale oil in lamps. For more than a year—despite difficulties in purchasing even the simplest tools and finding a trained borer—the determined Drake worked at his task. Finally, on August 27, 1859, he brought in his well, and neither Titusville nor the world was ever quite the same again.

The population of Titusville, two or three hundred at the time of Drake’s strike, soon climbed into the thousands. Derricks went up like umbrellas in a cloudburst, and lots which had been worth no more than $100 changed hands for $40,000 and then $100,000. Into the area flooded men from New York law offices and from the gold fields of California. They slept sixteen to a room in the hotels—or on the lobby floors or on billiard tables or in barber chairs or on counters. They ate their meals of salt pork, beans, and poorly baked biscuits by shifts in tents. And at night they gambled and drank and went to sporting houses where men and women danced together in the altogether. The more respectable element was soon calling Titusville “Sodden Gomorrah.” And over it all and under it all was the wet, black, money stink of oil.

Into the midst of this combined hell and paradise came a man who was to preserve it all, not under glass but on glass. He was John Aked Mather, born in Lancashire, England, in 1829 and trained in his father’s trade as a paper maker. Mather had followed his two brothers to America in 1856 and drifted quite by chance into photography. In the fall of 1860 he was working at Painesville, Ohio, only ninety miles from Titusville, when a friend who had just been hired to run a bar in the new boom town convinced him that there were unlimited opportunities for a photographer where so much new money was changing hands. Thus, late in the evening of October 4, 1860, John Mather stepped down from a stagecoach into the mud of Titusville. He soon rented half of a watch repair shop for a studio and began a business that was to keep him in Titusville for more than half a century. Chance had brought him to the perfect field for his talents: As the photographs on pages 38 through 45 show, Mather had an extraordinary feeling for the drama of the oil business.

But not for making money in it. Like Edwin Drake, who died poor, Mather made almost nothing from the oil boom itself. His investments never panned out, and the one time he did come close to making a fortune his first love, photography, got in the way. A man from Cleveland named Joel Sherman, who had a lease on a farm eight miles south of Titusville, started to sink a well, ran out of money, and offered Mather a sixteenth interest if he would help underwrite the cost of continued drilling. Just as the deal was about to be completed, a woman came along asking to have a portrait made of her child. Mather hurriedly took the photograph and came out to finish the transaction with Sherman. But the desperate driller had found another prospect and sold the sixteenth-interest to him instead—for $68 in cash and an old shotgun. When the well blew in—at 1,500 barrels a day—the three men who had backed Sherman each got $175,000, while Sherman himself made approximately $1,700,000.

Still, the i86o’s were good years for Mather. His business was excellent, he liked the rush and bustle of the town, and he had time enough to enjoy the straight whiskey and good cigars he favored, as well as to play the violin in the orchestra he had organized. In 1871 he married a girl from a nearby town, Martha Tarr, who was twenty-five years his junior. They had one child, a daughter. Mather lavished on them the finery they loved—luxurious dresses, hats, and shoes—often spending more than he could afford.

By the beginning of the last decade of the century Mather’s business had begun to decline. Then in 1892, a great flood, followed by a fire, hit Titusville, causing a large loss of life and heavy property damage. Water ran more than five feet deep in Mather’s studio and ruined over 16,000 glass negatives; it was a financial disaster for Mather, an irreplaceable loss for history.

In his last years Mather worked very little. His wife became something of an invalid, his daughter married and moved to Philadelphia, and he himself seemed to lose all interest in his trade. Besides, Titusville had been invaded by young, aggressive photographers. On August 2 3, 1015, Mather died, nearly penniless, almost forgotten. The Drake Well Memorial Association purchased his negatives for $100, and when the Drake Well Memorial Park was established just outside Titusville in 1934, they were moved there. Not far away, in a small, rural, unkempt graveyard, rests the man who captured for all time the beginnings of one of the world’s great industries.

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