The men of this time may have traveled roughshod to their goal, but after all, they opened up, in an amazingly short time, a mighty continent to the uses of mankind. The triumph of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad under Vanderbilt, a triumph which dazzled European investors as well as our own, and which represented an entirely different business organization from anything the nation had hitherto seen, appropriately ushered in the new business era whose outlines will be sketched in the succeeding pages.


When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, America's first great industrial combination had become an established fact. In that year the Standard Oil Company of Ohio controlled at least ninety per cent of the business of refining and marketing petroleum. A new portent had appeared in our economic life, a phenomenon that was destined to affect not only the social and business existence of the every-day American but even his political and legal institutions.

It seems natural enough at the present time to refer to petroleum as an indispensable commodity. At the beginning of the Civil War, however, any such description would have been absurd. Though petroleum was not unknown, millions of American households were still burning candles, whale oil, and other illuminants. Not until 1859 did our ancestors realize that, concealed in the rocky of western Pennsylvania, lay apparently inexhaustible quantities of a liquid which, when refined, would give a light exceeding in brilliancy anything they had hitherto known. The mere existence of petroleum, it is true, had been a familiar fact for centuries. Herodotus mentions the oil pits of Babylon, and Pliny informs us that this oil was actually used for lighting in certain parts of Sicily. It had never become an object of universal use, simply because no one had discovered how to obtain it in sufficient quantities. No one had suspected, indeed, that petroleum existed practically in the form of great subterranean rivers, lakes, or even seas. For ages this great natural treasure had been seeking to advertise its presence by occasionally seeping through the rocks and appearing on the surface of watercourses. It had been doing this all over the world--in China, in Russia, in Germany, in England, in our own country. Yet our obtuse ancestors had for centuries refused to take the hint. We can find much cause for self-congratulation in that it was apparently the American mind that first acted upon this obvious suggestion.

In Venango County, Pennsylvania, petroleum floated in such quantities on the surface of a branch of the Allegheny River that this small watercourse had for generations been known as Oil Creek. The neighboring farmers used to collect the oil and use it to grease their wagon axles; others, more enterprising, made a business of gathering the floating substance, packing it in bottles, and selling it broadcast as a medicine. The most famous of these concoctions, "Seneca Oil," was widely advertised as a sure cure for rheumatism, and had an extensive sale in this country. "Kier's Rock Oil" afterwards had an even more extended use. Samuel M. Kier, who exploited this comprehensive cure-all, made no lasting contributions to medical science, but his method of obtaining his medicament led indirectly to the establishment of a great industry. In this western Pennsylvania region salt manufacture had been a thriving business for many years; the salt was obtained from salt water by means of artesian wells. This salt water usually came to the surface contaminated with that same evil-smelling oil which floated so constantly on top of the rivers and brooks. The salt makers spent much time and money "purifying" their water from this substance, never apparently suspecting that the really valuable product of their wells was not the salt water they so carefully preserved, but the petroleum which they threw away. Samuel M. Kier was originally a salt manufacturer; more canny than his competitors, he sold the oil which came up with his water as a patent medicine.

The Age of Big Business Page 09

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