August 27, 1859 – Pennsylvania Oil Well launches U.S. Petroleum Industry
The modern American petroleum industry is born August 27, 1859, in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The Seneca Oil Company’s highly speculative pursuit of oil is rewarded when Edwin L. Drake and his driller William Smith, a blacksmith, bring in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. It produces 25 barrels a day.
Northwestern Pennsylvania in the 1850s is considered a wilderness by most Americans.
When a group of New Haven, Connecticut, investors look for someone to drill in an area known for oil seeps, they turn to a former railroad conductor who has traveled there. It helps that Drake is allowed free passage on trains.
Although earlier “spring pole” and cable-tool drillers of brine wells have found small amounts of oil – an unwanted byproduct – Drake specifically drills for it. His investors want to refine the oil into a highly demanded new product, kerosene.
Drilling at Oil Creek, Drake pioneers new drilling technologies, including a method of driving an iron pipe down to protect the bore’s integrity. But after five months of financial setbacks and drilling problems, the locals begin calling the attempt “Drake’s Folly.” To improve his reputation, Connecticut investors address their letters to “Colonel” Edwin Drake.
Finally, on a hot summer day in 1859, Edwin Drake’s driller “Uncle Billy” Smith notices oil floating at the top of the pipe. The derrick’s percussion drill bit has reached what will become known as the First Venango Sand. Drake borrows a common water pump from nearby a Titusville kitchen.
Now on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum, Drake’s drilling site includes a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark that records: “The drilling of this oil well, by Edwin L. Drake in 1859, is the event recognized as marking the modern phase of the petroleum industry…Few events in history have so transformed the face of civilization.” Read more in First American Oil Well.
August 27, 1959 – Stamp commemorates Petroleum Industry 100th Anniversary
“No official act could give me greater pleasure than to dedicate this stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry,” declares the keynote speaker in 1959.
U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield addresses a large crowd gathered for “Oil Centennial Day” in Titusville, Pennsylvania..
During his introduction of the new four-cent commemorative postage stamp, he describes the vital role of petroleum in war and peace.
“”The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry,” Summerfield proclaims. “It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.”
Fifty years later, the Postal Service Stamp Advisory Committee in 2009 rejects requests for a stamp recognizing the 150th anniversary of the U.S. petroleum industry (after granting commemorative stamps for Kermit the Frog and nine other Muppets).
Read more in the Centennial Oil Stamp Issue.
August 30, 1919 – Natural Gas Boom and Bust at Snake Hollow
About 300 petroleum companies spring up not far from Pittsburgh within months of a natural gas discovery – the “Snake Hollow Gusher” of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
The discovery well, drilled by S. J. Brendel and David Foster near the Monongahela River, blows in at more than 60 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. It prompts an exploration frenzy that sees $35 million invested in a nine-square-mile area.
“Many residents signed leases for drilling on their land,” notes a local reporter. “They bought and sold gas company stock on street corners and in barbershops transformed into brokerage houses.”
The excitement ends in seven months. By the beginning of 1921, production is declining in 180 producing wells – and more than 440 wells are dry holes. Of the millions invested during the boom, only about $3 million comes out. The McKeesport natural gas field is reported as “the scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.” Read more about the field’s history in McKeesport Gas Company.
August 31, 1850 – “Town Gas” Company forms in San Francisco
The San Francisco Gas Company is incorporated to produce and distribute manufactured gas extracted from coal. It is now part of Pacific Gas & Electric.
In 1850, Irish immigrant Peter Donahue, his brother James and engineer Joseph Eastland build their coal gasification plant on San Francisco Bay. Their plant distills coal, manufacturing a gas suitable for lighting. The company illuminates its first “town gas” street lamps in 1852.
According to PG&E, “over the next half-century, the company merges with rival energy pioneers and competitors to form new companies, ultimately concluding in the merger of the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company and the California Gas and Electric Corporation to form Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1905.”
By 1915 there are almost 8,500 San Francisco street lamps – each hand lit and shut off every day. The last coal-gas lamp is extinguished in 1930. To learn more about early gas-light utility companies, see Con Ed – America’s Largest Utility.
August 31, 1859 – The Oil and Natural Gas Industry’s First Dry Hole
Just four days after America’s first commercial oil discovery at Titusville, Pennsylvania, a series of far less known “firsts” are achieved by local entrepreneur John Grandin.
Although Edwin Drake has used a steam-powered cable-tool rig to find oil at 69.5 feet, Grandin uses the simpler, time-honored spring-pole “kick down” method for his well at nearby Gordon Run Creek. The well reaches a depth of 134 feet – but produces no oil despite desperate attempts.
Not to be remembered as America’s second commercial oil discovery, Grandin’s dry hole brings other petroleum industry milestones. His drilling attempt could be credited with the first stuck tool, the first “shooting” of a well with black powder (and first well ruined by a failed shooting attempt).
A 1959 historic marker at Tidioute, Pennsylvania, notes: “At oil spring across river at this point J. L. Grandin began second well drilled specifically for oil, August 1859, after Drake’s success. It was dry, showing risks involved in oil drilling.”
Read more in The First Dry Hole.
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