An ancient drilling technology – the spring pole. Drawing by S. T. Pees and Associates.
Although oil would not be drilled for – and found – in Pennsylvania until three decades later, officially launching America’s petroleum industry, Kentucky claims the first oil gusher.
Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device (used in ancient China) on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty strikes an oilfield. Drilled for a local doctor, the March 11, 1829, gusher shoots “to the top of the surrounding trees.”
According to one Kentucky historian, the Old American Well, as it came to be called, “was the first commercially operated oil well in the United States, predating the establishment of the oil industry by some thirty years.”
The Kentucky State Geology Survey preserves an 1865 map “embracing about 16 miles square of Cumberland County.” The 1829 well drilled seeking salt water results in the “American Oil Well,” which produces oil that is bottled and sold for “medicinal” purposes.
Beatty drilled his Cumberland County well with “an apparatus consisting of a spring pole made from a strong sapling, set in the crotch of a tree, with a short ‘bit’ fastened to the free end of the pole.”
The driller manipulated this bit by his own foot power – and what a slow task this must have been, according to the Burkesville Riverfront Lodge Motel today located nearby. Its promotional article adds:
“The Old Oil Well led the parade in 1829, and so it will continue to mark the spot where the world’s greatest industry was born.”
The well’s marker – a large mill stone topped by a bronze tablet – was erected in 1934 by the Kentucky Legislature:
The history and subsequent events of the First Great American Gusher have been kept alive through a few interested citizens who have never, for any length of time, let go this birth of what has come to be a necessary part of the world today.
The 50,000 barrel, Old Oil Well, led the parade in 1829 and so it will continue to mark the spot where the world’s greatest industry was born.
Unfortunately, soon after its discovery, oil from the 171-foot-deep well reached the Cumberland River – where it ignited and burned for three weeks, halting riverboat traffic 50 miles downstream, according to the Kentucky Geological Survey (KGS).
Petroleum drilling, production and control technologies had not been invented.
“The salt borers were greatly disappointed,” reported an 1847 account of the discovery. “The well was neglected for several years, until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities.” Petroleum’s uses in medicine, which continues today, began as a cure-all bottled in large quantities and “extensively sold in nearly all the states in the Union.”
The 1810-1960 Burkesville Sesquicentennial booklet cites an August 22, 1919, article from the Burkesville Leader:
The well was a continuing puzzle to the curious travelers who succeeded in winding tortuous journey over bed of the creek…There was a reputation as a cure all which spread around among the various adventurers through the years. The fluid was bottled and sold under the caption of “American Rock Oil.”
The writer knew personally, in later years, one man who vouched for its curative powers for baldness. He stated that when he left the oil field on Saturday night he always took his double handful of crude oil and thoroughly douzed his head in it massaging it into his scalp. When he died at the age of 91 he had a beautiful shock of white hair!
Kentucky today produces oil and natural gas in 52 counties. Oil production (green) is in the western and south-central areas. Most natural gas (red) is produced in eastern counties. Cumberland County is on the Tennessee border in the middle of the state.
Kentucky Medicinal Oil Heritage
Some claim Kentucky oil ended up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1840s, where Samuel Kier sold it as medicine.
In the mid-1850s Kier will refine Pennsylvania oil into a his newly invented lamp fuel, which many called coal oil.
The well produces oil until about the Civil War. Salt makers will then take over operation of the well – because brine has become the well’s primary output.
Records gathered as part of a centennial celebration in 1929, “documenting the first commercially operated oil well in the United States,” are preserved at the University of Kentucky Special Collections.
Oil was a cure for many ills.
However, another even earlier Kentucky well – drilled for brine in 1818 in what is now the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in McCreary County – also found oil that that was bottled and sold for medicinal purposes.
As early as 1815 settlers in Wayne County had abandoned a brine well – because oil ruined it as a source of salt water. Still earlier, in Noble County, Ohio, drillers seeking brine near Caldwell in 1814 discovered oil – which they soaked up with rags, bottled and sold.
The Caldwell chamber of commerce proclaims this to be “the first oil well in America.”
Today in Kentucky, petroleum is produced from 52 out of 102 counties – from rock formations dating from the Cambrian to Pennsylvanian ages. Oil production generally includes the state’s western and south-central region. Most natural gas is produced in eastern counties. Almost 1,000 wells were drilled in 2009 - including 304 “dry holes.”
Drilling for oil – not brine – near Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin L. Drake is credited with launching the American petroleum industry on August 27, 1859.
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