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Old drawing of a great whale attacking the Essex in 1820

There was one less whale ship butchering whales in 1820. A rightfully angry whale turned on the wooden ship, rammed it below the water line and sank it. Some called it poetic justice.

The ship was called the Essex and the story of how some of the crew got to safety from the middle of the Pacific Ocean (1500 miles from land) is the subject of our Listen2Read audiobook “Narrative of the most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale ship Essex” an eye witness account written by the first mate of the Essex, Owen Chase.

Nobody knew it in 1820, but whaling was on its way to be as doomed as the Essex. A discovery in a small town in Pennsylvania, only 30 years after the Essex met her demise eliminated the need for any whale ships at all.

Oil seeping from underground with water

Everyone in Titusville knew there was oil under the ground. It kept seeping to the surface just enough to be annoying. The problem was what to do with oil and how to bring oil to the surface when and where you wanted it. The automobile and the internal combustion engine hadn’t been invented yet.

A petroleum company called Seneca Oil scraped up surface oil from trenches dug in the earth which was used as liniment for people and horses.

There were around Titusville underground salt mines connected with salted springs. It was possible to drill into ground and the salty spring water would push to the surface, where, through evaporation, it would leave the valuable commodity of salt.

Edwin Drake, driller and inventor

Was it possible to drill for oil in the same way? To find out, a former railroad conductor named Edmund Drake was employed by the Seneca Oil Company to solve the problem of bringing oil up from under the ground. To give Drake a little more dignity, James Townsend, president of Seneca gave Drake the honorary title of “Colonel” and a salary of $1,000.per year.

Most people in Titusville thought drilling for oil was a nutty idea.  People gathered at the drilling site to just make fun of Drake and the silly scheme. They called him “Crazy Drake”.

Using salt drilling techniques, Drake would drill for oil with a drill bit at the end of a long shaft. As the drill bored down into the earth, the dirt around it caved in, filling in the just drilled hole. Drake was getting nowhere fast- another thing for the crowd to laugh at.

Modern drilling bit surrounded by pipe, the concept invented by Drake

Then, Drake had an inspiration. He placed a long round pipe in the ground and lowered the drill bit and shaft into the center of the pipe so that as the drill bit cut through the earth, the long pipe followed around it, preventing the cave in.

Drake invented the drilling technique used by oil drilling companies to this day. Sadly, Drake never bothered to patent his technique His new well-produced 25 barrels of oil a day, enough for liniment.

The next chapter in the death of whaling came three years after Drake’s new technique was invented. A physician and scientist named Abraham Gesner developed a technique for distilling thick oil into a new liquid he called Kerosene.

Kerosene Lamp

Kerosene was something special. Placed in a special lamp with a wick, Kerosene could burn just like whale oil, except it was brighter, provided better illumination, the supply was more reliable, much cheaper, and sure smelled a lot better.

As the demand for Kerosene grew, Titusville grew too, from a population of 450 people in 1860 to a bustling place of over 12,000 people in 1890. Titusville is considered the “Birthplace of the American Oil Industry” and it was said that Titusville had more millionaires than any other place in the county. 

Oil field in Pennsylvania in 1859 after the use of kerosene was discovered


Now that petroleum could be used for lighting, it was in great demand. There was increased exploration throughout the US and the world as Kerosene replaced whale oil. Alas, the Titusville oil fields ran out of oil around 1870 and its boomtown population began a long decline. Today, it is home to around 5,000 people.
The number of whale ships also declined from a high of over 700 whale ships worldwide to less than 65 at the close of the American Civil War in 1865.

So, Titusville and Kerosene, effectively saved the whales.

While whaling is mostly gone these days, the stories and lore of the whaling era live on, including the story of the Essex and the ordeal of its crew members trying to survive. It is one of the great classic adventures tales of American history in our Listen 2 Read American Adventure Library you should experience.

You can listen to our audiobook by downloading it here:

Andre Stojka
Listen2Read Audiobooks
© 2022


“Narrative of the most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex” written by the first mate of the Essex, Owen Chase.

and all 18 of our Listen 2 Read American Adventure Library audiobooks are available for download here or wherever you download audiobooks, including:, Apple Books,,, Google Play, NOOK Audiobooks, iTunes, Scribed, Tune-in, Bibliotheca, Playstar, Folliett and
your local public library through the Overdrive system. CD versions are available at Amazon and here at

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