Along Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the wooden derrick and engine house of America’s first commercial oil well erupted in flames – becoming the first oil well fire?
This historic well, which caught fire on October 7, 1859, was completed at 69.5 feet deep the previous August by a determined “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake.
To increase efficiency, Drake had invented (but did not patent) a “drive pipe.” He and his driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, used steam-powered cable-tool technology, an advancement from the ancient spring-pole.
Maligned by many as “Drake’s Folly,” the discovery well’s initial oil production came from a hand-operated water pump borrowed from a local kitchen.
Drake – who had received his military title in letters addressed to him by his employers, the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut – will become known as the father of the American petroleum industry. Titusville and Oil City today annually celebrate his August 27, 1859, find.
The discovery launched the first drilling boom in Northwestern Pennsylvania that soon fueled Pittsburgh refineries producing a new and highly coveted consumer product: kerosene.
“It is estimated that his well produced between 20-40 barrels daily, using all the whiskey barrels in Titusville.” writes historian Urja Davin a 2008 article, Edwin Drake and the Oil Well Drill Pipe.
“In fact, Western Pennsylvania produced half of the world’s oil until the East Texas oil boom in 1901,” Davin adds.
However, the fire at the first well site comes slightly more than a month after the discovery. “The first oil well fire was started by ‘Uncle Billy,’ who went to inspect the oil in the vat with an open lamp, setting the gases alight,” explains Davin. “It burned the derrick, all the stored oil, and the driller’s home.”
Drake will rebuild his wooden derrick and engine house, which contained production equipment, including a boiler and six-horse power “Long John” engine purchased from the Erie Iron Works.
A famous image by oilfield photographer John Mather in often mistakenly identified as Drake and Smith standing in front of the historic derrick. In fact, it is Drake and his friend Peter Wilson, a Titusville druggist, standing in front of the second derrick.
To learn about another first – in fact, several of them – in the new oil region, read The First Dry Hole.
Fire kills Warren County Leading Citizen Henry Rouse
As Pennsylvania’s petroleum boom continued to grow, a fatal fire occurred in 1861 that would add impetus for inventing new technologies to make the oil patch safer.
A gushing oil well exploded in flame on April 17 on the Buchanan Farm on Oil Creek – killing a leading oilman and more than a dozen bystanders .
The Little and Merrick well, drilled by respected oilman Henry R Rouse, unexpectedly hit a highly pressurized oil and natural gas formation at 320 feet.
Given the technology of the day, the well’s 3,000-barrels-per-day production quickly grew out of control. Perhaps ignited by the steam-engine’s boiler, the well erupted into flames, which engulfed Rouse, eventually killing him and 18 others, seriously burning many more.
Henry R. Rouse was the typical poor boy who grew rich through his own efforts and a little luck. He was in the oil business less than 19 months; he made his fortune from it and lost his life because of it. He died bravely, left his wealth wisely, and today is hardly remembered by posterity. – from the Rouse Estate.
A marble 1865 monument was rededicated to Rouse’s memory during a family reunion in 1993.
According to historian Michael H. Scruggs, the knowledge gained from this 1861 disaster along with other early oilfield accidents brought better exploration and production technologies. The first “Christmas Tree” – an assembly of control valves – was invented by Al Hamills after the 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill, Texas.
Although the Little and Merrick well fire cause devastation, “the knowledge gained from the well along with other accidents has help paved the way for new and safer ways to drill,” Scruggs writes in a 2010 article.
“These inventions and precautions have become very important and helpful, especially considering many Pennsylvanians are back on the rigs again, this time drilling for the Marcellus Shale natural gas,” he concludes.
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.