The Dark Side of Silas Paine

silas-paine-playSilas Paine is venerated as a founder of the Silver Bay Association, the man who sold Silver Bay to the SBA for half its value, as the author of Stories of the Great Hymns of the Church (1925), as the donor of 5,000 volumes of hymns and liturgies to the Hartford Theological Seminary Library, as the donor of $100,000 to found the Silver Bay School for Boys, and as the host of many religious conferences.

On the occasion of one of those conferences, “Young People and Missions,” held at Silver Bay in July of 1902 and attended by delegates from 18 denominations and 21 states, Paine noted the appropriate nature of the gathering place by saying the first white man to walk its shores was a missionary, consequently the site was holy ground. He quoted the words of Champlain after looking at the missionary and the savages to whom he had come, “It is of greater importance to save a soul than to found an empire.”

It is said that when Silas Paine left home at the age of 12, his mother gave him a piece of paper on which she had written, “Thou, God, seest me,” and that this paper remained in his possession up to the time of his death.

Silas Paine did, however, have a dark side. Paine made his considerable fortune in oil, and much of his fortune with Standard Oil, the trust that held a near monopoly over the U.S. oil industry from 1870 to 1911. Through elimination of competitors, mergers, and control of rail shipping, it controlled the refining of more than 90% of the oil produced in the U.S. In 1892, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the trust dissolved, but it continued to operate from headquarters in New York and later New Jersey.

In 1879, Paine went to Cleveland, Ohio, to work for John D. Rockefeller. Cleveland was the oil capital of the world with 88 refineries.


Standard Oil Refinery No. 1

In 1884, Paine moved to New York City and became head of Standard Oil’s lubricating oil and candle department. He also served on the board of the Waters-Pierce Oil Company of Missouri, holding one of three seats (of five) reserved for Standard Oil executives who controlled the company as a way of circumventing antitrust court decisions in Texas.

Before the U.S. courts broke up the Standard Oil trust in 1911, other states tried, in vain, to deal with the company’s monopoly. One such action in 1906 caused Paine and other executives to take sudden vacations:

“As soon as it was ascertained that the Supreme Court of Missouri had determined to summon Standard Oil officials to testify in regard to certain charges there was a hasty flight of the multimillionaires. Among the men wanted who suddenly exiled themselves from their places of business to evade summons servers are the following as reported by the New York American: John D. Rockefeller, William Rockefeller, H.M. Flagler, James R. Taylor, Robert H. McNoll, Charles R. Nichols, Richard P. Tinsley, Walter Jennings, C.M. Pratt, Silas H. Paine, W.C. Teagle, Wesley Tilford, H.M. Tilford, W.E. Bemis, Charles T. White, George B. Wilson, M.H. Van Beuren, H.R. Payne, W.P. Cowan and H. Clay Pierce.”

It is perhaps ironic but not surprising that Silas Paine sought green shores, blue waters, clear skies, and a retirement spent in philanthropy after his working life was done.


Standard Oil on the shores of Lake Erie, 1910

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Sources: The Assembly Herald published by Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly, February 1903; “The Standard Oil Company at the Bar” in The Arena magazine (1906) edited by Benjamin Orange Flower; “Obituary,” The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, v. 20, 1922


One thought on “The Dark Side of Silas Paine

  1. Pingback: The Stone Tower of Silas Paine « Faithful Readers

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