First Dry Hole
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 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, each year the Drake Well Museum draws thousands of visitors from all over the world. The discovery’s sesquicentennial in 2009 was commemorated for a week in the “valley that changed the world.”
Although August 27, 1859, marks the date of America’s first commercial well drilled specifically for oil, August 31 – just four days later – is less known. It was on that day that a well was spudded by a young man named John Livingston Grandin.
This well, America’s second to be drilled for oil, will produce petroleum industry firsts, including:
♦ First Dry Hole
♦ First Well in Which Tools Stuck
♦ First Well in Which an Explosive Charge Was Used
Two 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 of oil was said to be selling for 75 cents and 22-year-old John Grandin, the owner’s son and an aspiring entrepreneur, saw an opportunity. Using more primitive equipment, he will drill almost twice as deep in search of oil riches.
Grandin knew of petroleum seeps on 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 Henry H. Dennis, said to be “the handiest man in the region,” to “kick down” a well using the time-honored spring-pole method.
Drake’s drilling effort had the financial backing (and patience) of the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut and its investors. The former railroad man used the latest technology – a steam-powered cable-tool rig. He also added his own innovation.
When water from Oil Creek threatened his progress, Drake came up with the idea of inserting a cast iron pipe to protect the wellbore - another petroleum industry first. Read more about Drake and his well in Birth of the U.S. Petroleum Industry.
For their well, Grandin and Dennis constructed a rough 20-foot derrick above a spring pole. Using a discarded tram axle, Dennis made a surprisingly workable reamer.
Drilling with the axle as a chisel worked well enlarging the borehole – until it became stuck at 134 feet, “where it never saw daylight again!” as described in a contemporary account. All attempts to retrieve the axle drill bit failed.
A drilling tool lost while specifically looking for oil.
This significant “first” in the history of stuck tools remains buried as a footnote in petroleum history.
In fact, in the early days of percussion drilling, heavy cable tool assemblies often got jammed in the borehole and could no longer be repeatedly lifted and dropped. Read more in Fishing Petroleum Wells.
Still, all was not lost at he Grandin well as far as blacksmith Dennis was concerned.
Dennis put together several 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.
Read about early technologies to increase petroleum production in Shooters – A “Fracking” History.
With the failure of Grandin’s well, the industry had its first of dry hole. Many more followed in the almost four million U.S. wells drilled since 1859.
Even with advances in seismic surveys, geology and petroleum engineering, more than one-third of modern exploration wells drilled – costing millions of dollars each – end up as dry holes.
Of the 2,803 exploratory wells drilled in 2009, natural gas was discovered by 1,188 and oil found by 626 wells. There were 989 dry holes.
Grandin eventually became wealthy. In addition to his father’s store in the booming oil region, the Grandin family found wealth in the lumber industry as wooden derricks multiplied. Drilling activity in Warren County centered at Tidioute and by July 1860 more than 60 wells were being drilled.
Petroleum drilling has made great advances since 1859, especially as inventions like rotary drilling allowed exploration miles beneath the surface. Learn more in Making hole – Drilling Technology.
“Firsts” get the jubilees, centennials and sesquicentennials. “Seconds” get roadside markers – and even those can be very hard to find. In 1959, during the centennial of Drake’s discovery, Grandin’s well was not neglected.
A privately funded stone monument was erected at the site with this inscription:
THE GRANDIN WELL – Worlds second oilwell, commenced August 31st 1859. It was the First Dry Hole, First Well in Which Tools Stuck; First Well in Which an Explosive Charge Was Used; First Well in Warren, County, PA. Erected July 22, 1959, by Oil Centennial Inc.
Today, a roadside marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission can be found on U.S. 62 four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute in Warren County.
Editor’s Note - According to the Warren County Historical Society, on September 4, 1860, a well on Tidioute Island in the Alleghany River, “commenced flowing and as far as is known, this was the first successful well ever drilled on an island.”
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.