Travelers on U.S. 62 four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute, Pennsylvania, discover this Warren County roadside marker erected in July 1959.

Few remember the names of those who come in second – they often are relegated to the “also rans,” no matter how close to the finish. Petroleum history is the same.

Second-place finishers most often dwell in the fine print of history. Consider America’s first oil well.

Edwin L. Drake drilled his famous well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. As a result, the Drake Well Museum today draws thousands of visitors each year. The discovery’s 2009 sesquicentennial was commemorated in the “valley that changed the world.”

August 27, 1859, marks the date of America’s first oil well. But August 31 – just four days later – is ignored. It was on that day that a second oil well was drilled by a young man named John Livingston Grandin.

A few days after “Drake’s Folly” at Titusville surprised everybody by producing barrels of oil from a depth of 69.5 feet, the news arrived in Tidioute’s General Store, 20 miles away.

Each barrel was said to be selling for 75 cents and 23-year-old John Grandin, the owner’s son and an aspiring entrepreneur, saw an opportunity.

John Grandin

Grandin knew of an oil seep on the Gordon Run of the nearby Campbell Farm and rode south of town to buy the land. He bought 30 acres surrounding the oil spring at $10 per acre. Within a day he had employed blacksmith H.H. Dennis, said to be “the handiest man in the region,” to “kick down” a well using the time-honored spring-pole method.

Using a discarded tram axle, H.H. Dennis made a surprisingly workable reamer. It worked very well enlarging the borehole – until it became irretrievably stuck at 134 feet, “where it never saw daylight again!” as described in a contemporary account. A tool lost while specifically looking for oil.

An early technology for drilling brine wells – the “spring-pole” – was replaced by wooden derricks and steam-powered cable-tools. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the Department of the Interior.

This significant “first” in the history of stuck tools remains buried as a footnote in American oil history. Attempts to retrieve his tram axle drill bit failed.

Downhole Fishing

Long before the advent of rotary drilling, seismography, and a host of other inventions, the search for oil was less science and more art. In the early days of percussion drilling, the heavy cable tool assembly could sometimes get jammed in the borehole and could no longer be repeatedly lifted and dropped.

At a cable tool rig, the fishing tools were lowered in well, armed at their end with a “die” with a left-hand thread cut in it. This die fit over the end of the stuck tool, tapered inward slightly, and when turned to the left, cut a thread on the cable tool. Other devices included spears, clamps – and hooks.

Fishing technology has made great advances since. “Making hole” efficiently remains critical to a company’s success today – when rotary rigs drill miles beneath the surface.

Still, all was not lost at he Grandin well as far as blacksmith Dennis was concerned. He put together makeshift “torpedoes” from blasting powder and experimented with timing fuses in hopes of breaking things loose.

“The explosion was sensibly felt upon the surface,” notes a report of his third attempt. “Mr. Dennis says, “the ground trembled like an earthquake under his feet!”

With this noteworthy effort, the Grandin well was ruined in the first recorded “shooting” of an oil well – and its first failure. The petroleum industry thus had its first of many dry holes.

Grandin came from a wealthy lumber family in northwestern Pennsylvania. Despite his first well’s failure, he persevered and his family became prominent oil producers.

“Firsts” get the jubilees, centennials and sesquicentennials. “Seconds” get roadside markers – and even those can be very hard to find.

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