The Richest Man Who Ever Lived in Greenpoint: Henry H. Rogers

Mark Twain and Henry H. Rogers in 1908 (via Wikipedia)

Today Henry H. Rogers is a largely forgotten figure in American history, but this self-made tycoon became one of the twenty-five or so richest men ever in the history of the United States. In fact, Rogers was richer in his day than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet area today and he started his road to accumulating his massive wealth right here in Greenpoint.
Rogers was born in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, on January 29, 1840, but quickly moved to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a town he would later bestow much of his wealth on. Born into a family of limited means, at first Rogers worked a series of low-paying jobs. But like his future business partner Charles Pratt, Rogers realized that the newly opened oil fields of Pennsylvania offered an opportunity to strike it rich. So in 1861, the 21-year-old Henry pooled his savings with a friend and set out for western Pennsylvania. Borrowing money, the young partners began a small refinery at McClintocksville. The refinery made $30,000 their first year and when Rogers returned home he was greeted as a success. However, it is adversity that tests the true metal of a person and Rogers would shortly face a test of his metal.

In Pennsylvania, Rogers first met Pratt (1830–91) who like Rogers was from poor Massachusetts’ family. Although Rogers and his partner had no oil wells and foolishly depended upon purchasing other people’s crude oil to refine and sell to Pratt, the two young men agreed to sell the entire output of their 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. Rogers and his partner started to lose money heavily. They were wiped out before long and were heavily in debt to Pratt.
Rogers’ partner skipped out on the large debt he owed Pratt; but Rogers, a man of amazing integrity told Pratt he would take personal responsibility for the entire debt. Pratt was so impressed that he immediately hired Rogers for his refinery, the Astral Oil Company, located on North Fourteenth Street in Greenpoint. It was a brilliant hiring decision.

Pratt made Rogers foreman of refinery, with a promise of a partnership if sales ran over $50,000 a year. Rogers worked fiendishly and moved steadily from foreman to manager, and then to refinery superintendent. He far exceeded Pratt’s substantial sales goal and as promised in 1867 Rogers became a partner in 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.”

Eventually, John D. Rockefeller, the oil tycoon and America’s richest man, forced Pratt and Rogers to merge with his company Standard Oil. The negotiations were tense because Rockefeller had the upper had, but Rogers coolly formulated terms, which guaranteed financial security and jobs for Pratt and himself. Rockefeller thought Pratt weak and a pushover, but he greatly admired Rogers’ tenacity and negotiating skills. Rockefeller quietly accepted the offer on the exact terms Rogers had laid out. 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 Rogers, who had emerged as its top financial strategist. By 1890, Rogers was a vice president of Standard Oil and chairman of the organization’s operating committee. Rogers would become the driving force in Standard Oil, America’s richest corporation.

Henry Rogers would further develop an idea that revolutionized 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 made him an even wealthier man, but Rogers was far from through in making money. 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.

Rogers was much more than a robber baron. He was a charming man, and extremely generous. He became friends with his favorite author—Mark Twain. When Twain went bankrupt it was Rogers who gave him $6k 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 frequently visited Rogers’ estates. Rogers was equally generous to Booker T. Washington and to Helen Keller whose education he paid for. Both Keller and Washington became friends of the tycoon.

When Rogers died in 1909, just shy of his sixtieth birthday, he was one of the richest men in the world. He had traveled far from his start as a foreman at the Astral Oil Refinery on The East River.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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