Thousands of glass-negative images preserve earliest scenes of U.S. petroleum industry.
Soon after the first American oil well of 1859 launched the U.S. petroleum industry in northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England made his living as a photographer among the wooden derricks and engine houses.
John A. Mather set up his first studio in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in October 1860. It was an ideal location for documenting the people and evolving technologies of the new petroleum industry.
Mather would become the oil and natural gas industry’s premier photographer, amassing a more than 20,000 glass plate negatives.
What famed photographers Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on Civil War battlefields, Mather accomplished in Pennsylvania’s oil region.
Like Brady, Mather (1829-1915) abandoned one-of-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in favor of wet plate negatives using collodion — a flammable, syrupy mixture also called “nitrocellulose.”
With one plate, many paper copies of an image could be printed and sold. Preparing, exposing, and developing such glass negatives was difficult and best suited for portraits of motionless subjects in a studio.
Mather photographed the newly famous as well as ordinary townspeople and babies.
But unlike others, Mather transported his studio camera and chemicals into the industrial chaos of early Pennsylvania oilfields. He became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”
Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio traveled up and down Oil Creek as he produced more than 16,000 glass negatives, later described by the trade magazine Petroleum Age as, “so perfect in finish it stands the test of time.”
Like most of western Pennsylvanians, Mather also was susceptible to “oil fever,” and he hoped to drill a few successful wells. Having narrowly missed the opportunity for a one-sixteenth share of the Sherman Well, which would be “best single strike of the year,” Mather and three associates invested in several wells near Pithole Creek.
Mather’s investment in exploratory wells proved to be “dry holes” with no commercial quantities of oil. He tried again unsuccessfully on the Holmden Farm off West Pithole Creek. His effort was among the last wells to be drilled at the infamous oil boom town of Pithole.
Years later, Mather acknowledged that excitement of the Pithole drilling boom was so great that he temporarily “forsook photography for the oil business.”
Many tried, but few people in the increasingly crowded oil region would rival the wealth of the celebrated “Coal Oil Johnny.”
Disaster at Oil Creek
On Sunday morning June 5, 1892, and after weeks of rain, Oil Creek’s overflowing Spartansburg Dam failed at about 2:30 a.m. A wall of water and debris swelled towards Titusville and its oil works, seven miles downstream.
“On rushed the mad waters, tearing away bridge after bridge, carrying away horses, homes and people,” one newspaper reported about the flood’s devastation. Then fire erupted from ruptured benzine and oil storage tanks.
Newspapers all over America carried stories of the disaster. In Montana, the Helena Independent headlines included: “Waters of an Overflowing Creek Become a Rushing Mass of Flames” mourning victims, reported the “Spared by the Deluge Only to Become the Prey of the Fire.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added: “The Waters Subside and The Flames Die Away, Revealing the Full Extent of the Calamity.”
Oil City and Titusville were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth.” Mather’s studio flooded to a depth of five feet, destroying most of his life’s work of prints from glass plates.
As the fires and flood continued, Mather set up his camera and photographed the disaster in progress with his bulky equipment — already rendered obsolete by new imaging technology.
A few years before the Titusville flood, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced celluloid roll film and created an entirely new market: amateur snapshot photography. Expertise in preparing fragile glass plates and dangerous chemicals were no longer required. Instead, Kodak offered, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”
The oil boom moved on to new discoveries and Mather worked little in his later years. His circumstances diminished with age and illness. Mather died poor and without fanfare on August 23, 1915, in Titusville (his death certificate reports the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage “complicated by suppression of urine”).
To preserve Mather’s legacy, the Drake Well Memorial Association was able to purchase 3,274 surviving glass negatives for about 30 cents each. Today, the Drake Well Museum and surrounding park preserve rare artifacts and this visual record of America’s early oil and natural industry. Visit it and other Pennsylvania petroleum museums.
More John Mather Resources
“Virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, and completely unappreciated — in these few words is a description of John Aked Mather, pioneer photographer, whose skill, devotion, and energy endowed the petroleum industry with one of the finest pictorial records of growth and development of any early all-American industry,” proclaimed Ernest C. Miller and T.K.Stratton in their January 1972 article, “Oildon’s Photographic Historian,” in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Volume 55, Number 1).
“Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions,” explain Stephanie David and Brennen French in “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio” for NWPaHeritage, documenting the history of Northwestern Pennsylvania.