Photo above: John Brown. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Engraving of U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort led by Robert E. Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Timeline - The 1850s
Expansion and the Looming Divide
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Detail - 1859
August 27, 1859 - The first productive oil well for commercial use is drilled by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Yes, today, if you asked most residents of the United States where the first commercially viable oil well was drilled, they'd likely say Texas. But Texas, with its Spindletop gusher and oil boom past, would not occur until over forty years later in 1901. And if you asked John Titus, the founder of Edinburgh, his name for what would become Titusville, in 1896, if a bit more than sixty years later that there would be oil found in his town at such an amount that it would not only become commercially viable, but that the entire region of this small Pennsylvania community would be at the forefront of oil production for decades, he wouldn't have known that either.
It had become known that the area had oil rich soil, but the production of and use of oil had been limited by the knowledge to extract it. It had medicinal properties, it was thought, in those limited quantities. Samuel Martin Kier, however, a salt miner near Pittsburgh, was discovering oil pools within his quarries and discovered, by accident, that it had other uses. He developed what he named Carbon Oil, kerosene, and a lamp to burn it in 1851. By 1853-4, Kier established an oil refinery in Pittsburgh; that refinery continued to grow, with a need to find more supply by the end of the decade.
The Titusville Well
Seneca Oil had been formed in 1858 from the remnants of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and owned land near Titusville where oil seeped. They hired Colonel Edwin Drake, a retired railway man, in the spring of 1858 to investigate. Drake, using the steam engine drill technique for salt wells, traversed onto an island of Oil Creek, and with hired expert, William A. Smith, started to drill. At sixteen feet, the hole collapsed, but with ingenuity, Drake attached a ten foot pipe in joint sections as the first drill pipe. He pushed the drill into the pipe, thus preventing the hole from caving in to itself.
They struck bedrock at thirty-two feet, but continued drilling, succeeding at the pace of only three feet per day. Drake continued to drill into 1859, exhausted the company money, and added five hundred dollars of his own. Finally, on August 27, 1859, at a depth of sixty-nine and one half feet, they stopped for the day. When they came back the next morning, oil was rising through the pipe. They collected it in a bath tub.
Importance of the Find
The Drake well produced a modest amount, twenty-five barrels of oil a day, then less, until running out of oil in 1861, but his technique was the real star of the show. Within days, other wells along Oil Creek were being drilled. By 1872, the Titusville area was producing fifteen thousand nine hundred barrels of oil a day. The oil industry had been born.
Teamsters transported the oil to barges on Oil Creek and floated them down to Oil City and the Allegheny River, then to the oil refineries in Pittsburgh, including that of Samuel Martin Kier. By 1870, the population of Titusville had grown to 8,639. It was a boom town. The Titusville census of 1860 had shown only four hundred and thirty-eight.
While there had been oil production of some capacity prior to the Drake Well, in the United States and in Europe, it was the Drake Well and his technique to extract that made the industry profitable. Unfortunately, Colonel Drake himself did not profit from it, failing to patent the drill technique as well as making other poor business decisions.
Today you can visit the site of the find at the Drake Well Museum and Park, including a replica of the Drake engine house and derrick, as well as interior and exterior exhibits at the two-hundred and forty acre park. It also sits next to the over six thousand acre Oil Creek State Park, where you can hike the thirty-six mile Gerard Hiking Trail past historic sites, or bike, fish, and spend time in the nature of the area. The state park itself is home to exhibits about the oil industry, holding sites of the first oil boomtown as well as the lumber industry that followed.
Image above: Montage of two photos; (left) Edwin L. Drake (right) fronting the Drake Well Engine House, 1861. Courtesy Drake Well Museum, and (right photo) another Titusville oil well, circa 1901, Mather. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Reconstruction of the Drake Well and Engine House at the Drake Well Museum, 2019, Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; Drake Well Museum; Oil Creek State Park; "First Oil Well in America Was Drilled 158 Years Ago," 2017, Alex Mills, Standard Times, USA Today Network; Wikipedia Commons.