Heny H. Rogers is a largely forgotten figure in American history, but he was a self-made oil tycoon who became one of the twenty five or so richest men ever in the history of the United States. He was richer in his day’s wealth than Gates or Buffit is today. He started his road to wealth as the director of The Astral oil Refinery in Greenpoint.
He was born in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, on January 29, 1840, but early on moved to Fairhaven, a town he would later shower with architectural gifts. He was born into a family of limited means and he worked a series of low-paying jobs, but like his future business partner, Charles Pratt, he was hard-working, ambitious and entrepreneurial. Rogers realized that there was money to be made in the newly opened oil fields of Pennsylvania. In 1861, 21-year-old Henry pooled his savings of approximately US$600 with a friend, Charles P. Ellis. They set out to western Pennsylvania and its newly discovered oil fields. Borrowing another US$600, the young partners began a small refinery at McClintocksville near Oil City. They named their new enterprise Wamsutta Oil Refinery.Rogers and Ellis and their refinery made US$30,000 their first year. When Rogers returned home to Fairhaven for a short vacation the next year, he was greeted as a success. However, it is adversity that tests the true metal of a person and Rogers would soon face it.
In Pennsylvania, Rogers was introduced to Charles Pratt (1830–91) who like Rogers was from a modest family from Massachusetts. When Pratt met Rogers at McClintocksville on a business trip, he already knew Charles Ellis, having earlier bought whale oil from him back east in Fairhaven. Although Ellis and Rogers had no wells and were dependent upon purchasing crude oil to refine and sell to Pratt, the two young men agreed to sell the entire output of their small Wamsutta refinery to Pratt’s company at a fixed price. This worked well at first. Then, a few months later, crude oil prices suddenly increased due to manipulation by speculators. The young entrepreneurs struggled to try to live up to their contract with Pratt, but soon their surplus was wiped out. Before long, they were heavily in debt to Pratt.
Charles Ellis gave up and ran away from the large debt he owed Pratt , but Rogers was a man of amazing character. In 1866, Henry Rogers went to Pratt in New York and told him he would take personal responsibility for the entire debt. This so impressed Pratt that he immediately hired him for his own organization, the Astral Oil Company, located on North Fourteenth Street in Greenpoint.
Pratt made Rogers foreman of his Brooklyn refinery, with a promise of a partnership if sales ran over $50,000 a year. The Rogers’ family moved to Brooklyn. Rogers moved steadily from foreman to manager, and then superintendent of Pratt’s Astral Oil Refinery. He accomplished and exceeded the substantial sales increase goal which Pratt had set when recruiting him. As promised, Pratt gave Rogers an interest in the business. In 1867, with Henry Rogers as a partner, he established the firm of Charles Pratt and Company. Rapidly, Rogers became, in the words of Elbert Hubbard, Pratt’s “hands and feet and eyes and ears” While working with Pratt, Rogers invented an improved way of separating naphtha, a light oil similar to kerosene, from crude oil. He was granted U.S. Patent # 120,539 on October 31, 1871.
Pratt’s Astral Refinery was, however, a prime target of the Tycoon John D. Rockefeller who wanted to create a monopoly and would crush his competitors to achieve total domination of oil. In 1871 Pratt and Company and other refiners became involved in a life and death business struggle with Rockefeller ) and one of his firms The South Improvement Company. In developing what would become Standard Oil, Rockefeller, a manager of extraordinary abilities, and Henry Flagler, an exceptional marketer, recognized that the costs and control of the shipment of crude oil would determine which oil firms would survive and which ones would go bankrupt. The railroad that transported crude was key. They came up with a nefarious plan , which was basically a mechanism to obtain secret favorable net rates from Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and other railroads through secret rebates from the railroads. The Railroads were somewhat like a modern utility, inasmuch as it was expected to serve the public good and treat its customers equally. Rates in that era were published in what was called “tariffs” and were public information, but the rebate scheme was done secretly.
H.H. Rogers was a fighter and he would not stand for bullying by Rockefeller. He learned of the rebates and informed Newspapers which publicized the scheme, outraging many independent oil producers and oil refiners. Rogers led the opposition among the New York refiners who formed an association, and about the middle of March 1872 they sent a committee headed by Rogers, to Oil City to consult with the Oil Producers’ Union. Working with the Pennsylvania independents, Rogers and the New York delegation managed to forge an agreement with the railroads, which agreed to charge uniform rates to all and promised to end their shady dealings with South Improvement.
Rockefeller was deeply impressed by the fight in Rogers. In 1874, Rockefeller approached Pratt with an offer to consolidate their businesses. There was an implied threat that if Astral Oildid not merge with Rockefeller’s Standard oil, the Greenpoint based firm would be driven out of business. Pratt discussed it with Rogers, and Rogers convinced the nervous Pratt that the combination would benefit them. They were studies i contrast. Pratt was a neervous wreck who would lose his cool during the negotiations, while Rogers coolly formulated terms, which guaranteed financial security and jobs for Pratt and himself. Rockefeller thought Pratt weak and a push-over, but he had apparently admired Rogers’ talents and negotiating skills, which he had seen earlier during the South Improvement conflict. He quietly accepted the offer on the exact terms Rogers had laid out. In this manner, Charles Pratt and Company (including Astral Oil) became one of the important independent refiners to join the Standard Oil Trust.
In 1881 Standard Oil was reorganized as the Standard Oil Trust. By 1885 the three main men of Standard Oil Trust had become John D. Rockefeller, his brother William, and Henry Rogers, who had emerged as a key financial strategist. By 1890, Rogers was a vice president of Standard Oil and chairman of the organization’s operating committee.
Henry Rogers would further develop an idea that would revolutionize oil production. Although he did not invent the pipeline, he was one of the first people to realize how it could transform the industry. Rogers conceived the idea of long pipelines for transporting oil and natural gas. In 1881, the National Transit Company was formed by Standard Oil to own and operate Standard’s pipelines. The National Transit Company remained one of Rogers’ favorite projects throughout the rest of his life and made him an even wealthier man, but Rogers was far from through in making money.
Rogers was much more than a robber baron. He was a charming man who was extremely generous. He became friends with his favorite author- Mark Twain. When Twain went bankrupt is was Rogers who gave him six grand to get out of debt and helped the great writer to invest his money wisely. They became close friends and Twain often sailed on Rogers yacht and was a frequent guest at Rogers’ estates. Rogers was equally generous to Booker T. Washington who he helped to start his school and to Helen Keller whose education he paid for. Both Keller and Washington became friends of the tycoon.
Rogers learned that McClure’s Magazine was going to publish an expose on Standard Oil. He asked Twain to find out who the author of the article would be. Twain learned that a woman whose father was crushed by Rockefeller, Ida Tarbell, was going to write the article. One might expect that Rogers would try to destroy the journalist who threatened to expose Standard’s hard ball tactics. However, Rogers determined that he would help Tarbell write her work. It became a classic of Muckraking journalism and led to the eventual Break-up of Standard Oil in 1911. Rogers charmed Tarbell and they met regularly over the next two years. Rogers opened the books of Standard Oil to Tarbell and shared all the secrets of how the corporation became a monopoly and openly admitted to contributing to politicians in return for political payback.
Why was Rogers so honest with Tarbell? Some have said that it was a form of revenge against Rockefeller with whom he had fallen out, but Rogers himself suggested that since she would write it any way it made sense to present Standard in the best light possible. Tarbell called Rogers,”As fine a pirate as ever flew his flag on Wall Street.”
Rogers was wise enough to turn his wealth into massive wealth. He invested in United States Steel and sat on its board. He developed railroads along with Harriman and became a copper baron as well. When he died in 1909 just shy of sixty he was one of the richest men in the world. He had traveled far from his start as the director of the Astral Oil Refinery on The East River.