August 27, 1859 – Birth of U.S. Petroleum Industry

“August 27, 1859, is one of those special dates that changed the world,” notes one historian. “Edwin Drake’s quest to find oil by drilling was a success, and the modern oil and gas industry took a giant leap forward.”

The modern American petroleum industry is born in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The Seneca Oil Company’s highly speculative pursuit of oil is rewarded when Edwin L. Drake and his blacksmith driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, bring in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. They launch a new industry.

For many Americans, western Pennsylvania in the 1850s was considered wilderness. When a group of New Haven, Connecticut, investors sought someone to drill in a region known for its oil seeps, they turned to a former railroad conductor already familiar with the area. It also helped that Drake was allowed free passage on trains.

Although earlier cable-tool drillers of brine wells had found small amounts of oil – an unwanted byproduct – “Colonel” Drake’s 1859 discovery well along Oil Creek would launch the modern petroleum industry. As a result of his perseverance, many new products, including newly invented kerosene, would create the demand for oil and natural gas that continues to this day.

Ceiling paintings display scenes of the industry’s earliest stories in the Titusville Trust Building, which opened in 1919. The Drake portrait by artist Alfred Valiant depicts the pioneer oilman flanked by two men holding five-foot cable tools – symbols of early oilfield technology.

The site, now home of the Drake Well Museum, 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. A series of revolutionary technological changes, unforeseen even by the most prophetic, followed. An emerging source of concentrated energy and abundant chemical compounds, petroleum supported sweeping changes in our modes of illumination, power development, transportation, and industrial chemistry. Few events in history have so transformed the face of civilization.

Located at the site of the historic discovery near Oil Creek, a replica of Edwin Drake’s derrick is among the many outdoor exhibits at the Drake Well Museum.

A Drake biography published as part of the 2009 celebration of the 150th anniversary includes more than 200 pages of reference material and dozens of rare images. William Brice, PhD, professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the  University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is the author of the Myth, Legend, Reality -  Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.

August 27, 1859, is one of those special dates that changed the world, Brice explains. “Edwin Drake’s quest to find oil by drilling was a success, and the modern oil and gas industry took a giant leap forward. Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future.”

Curator Susan Beates, at left, leads a tour of the Drake Well Museum’s grounds. Exhibits tell the story of the beginning of the oil industry with operating oil field machinery and historic buildings in a park setting.

An August 2009 “Rock Oil 2009 Tour” brought top energy economists to Titusville. Among the participants were John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Branko Terzic and Adam Sieminski – head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The commemorative stamp serves “as a reminder of what can be achieved by the combination of free enterprise and the vision and courage and effort of dedicated men,” declares U.S. Postmaster Arthur Summerfield.

Visit the exhibits at the Drake Well Museum.

August 27, 1959 – Centennial Stamp Issue

“No official act could give me greater pleasure than to dedicate this stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry,” declares U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield on this day in 1959 during his keynote speech at “Oil Centennial Day” in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

During his introduction of the four-cent commemorative postage stamp, he adds,
“The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry. It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.”

Fifty years later, after granting commemorative status to Kermit the Frog (and friends), the U.S. Postal Service Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee twice rejects attempts to create a sesquicentennial stamp recognizing the 150th anniversary of the U.S. petroleum industry. Read more in the “Centennial Oil Stamp Issue.”

Aug 27, 2009 – Communities celebrate 150th Anniversary of Petroleum Industry

Titusville, Pennsylvania, annually celebrates it famous 1859 oil discovery — including this parade during the 1934 jubilee.

Titusville, Pennsylvania, celebrities participated in the 2011 parade during America’s oldest annual oil festival.

Week-long festivities take place in Oil City, Titusville, Bradford and many other northwestern Pennsylvania communities honor the sesquicentennial of Edwin Drake’s historic oil discovery.

Thousands attend the annual Titusville Oil Festival parade on Saturday — part of a 2009 Drake Day Extravaganza with the theme “Oil 150: America’s Energy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

The parade includes 75 floats and 10 marching bands along a 1.7-mile route through Titusville. Seven queens from seven area cities participate along with representatives from six volunteer fire departments, who bring 10 trucks. An annual Antique Car Show is held at Drake Well Park while an Oil Man’s Barbecue takes place at the Cross Creek Country Club.

Titusville annually hosts Oil Festival events, most recently August 10-12, with arts and crafts, vendors, flea market, auction, live music, brew festival, family activities, a 5-K race, parade, fireworks and more. Other communities in the Oil Region, including nearby Oil City, celebrate their petroleum heritage.

August 28, 1927 – Tool Company founded

Brothers Arthur and Kirby Penick establish the Oil Center Tool Company in Houston to supply drilling equipment to East Texas oilmen. Within six months, they file their first patent for improvement in well performance and safety.

In 1931, Oil Center Tool Company supplies the East Texas Oilfield boom. The company introduces the first factory-assembled and tested completion systems of assembly of valves, spools, and fittings – today known as “Christmas trees.”

By 1957, when Oil Center Tool is acquired by FMC Corporation, it has more than 50 patents.

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 tar. Irish immigrant Peter Donahue, his brother James, and engineer Joseph Eastland build their coal gasification plant on San Francisco Bay.

Within two years the company illuminates “town gas” street lamps; by 1915 there are almost 8,500 lamps — each hand lit and shut off every day. The last gas lamp is extinguished in 1930. San Francisco Gas Company is now part of Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation.

August 31, 1859 – The Petroleum 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 Livingston Grandin.

John Livingston Grandin

Although Edwin Drake used a steam-powered cable-tool rig to find oil at 69.5 feet, Grandin, assisted by blacksmith H.H. Dennis, 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 many attempts.

Instead of being remembered as America’s second commercial oil discovery, the Grandin exploratory well results in the petroleum industry’s first “dry hole.” Grandin’s drilling attempt might also 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).

Travelers on U.S. 62 about four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute, Pennsylvania, will find an historic marker erected in July 1959. The marker reads: “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 of this little-known story in “The First Dry Hole.”

September 1, 1862 – Union taxes Manufactured Gas

Paying for the Civil War brings new energy taxes.

To help fund the Civil War, new federal taxes take effect — up to 15 cents tax per thousand cubic feet of manufactured gas (coal gasified by heating).

Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorials accuse the local gas company of passing on the tax, which “shifts from its shoulders its share of the burdens the war imposes and places it directly on their customers.”

“Not so,” replies the Brooklyn Gas Light Company.  “(We) do not contemplate anything of the kind.” The gas company pays the tax without adding to customers’ bills.

September 2, 2009 – Gulf of Mexico Oil Discovery

The ill-fated Deepwater Horizon sets the world oil well depth record.

A major oil discovery is made at a world-record depth 250 miles southeast of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico. The Tiber Prospect of BP is estimated to hold more than four billion barrels of oil in place – a “giant” oilfield.

Although commercial prospects have not been fully evaluated, the Tiber produces light crude oil, according to Dow Jones News. “Early estimates of recoverable reserves are around 20 percent to 30 percent recovery, suggesting figures of around 600 to 900 million barrels.”

The discovery well – drilled by the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible rig – sets the world oil well depth record by drilling 30,923 feet into seabed from a platform floating 4,132 feet above. Seven months later at its next drilling site, the Deepwater Horizon will explode and sink while drilling the Macondo well.

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