Tragedy would lead to new oilfield technologies and a work of art.

 

America’s first oil well ignited slightly more than a month after finding oil on August 27, 1859, becoming the new U.S. petroleum industry’s first oil well fire.  More well infernos followed as the Pennsylvania oil region’s wooden derricks multiplied. But the fatal explosion and fire at Rouseville in 1861 added urgency to inventing technologies for making oil exploration and production safer.

Historical marker for Henry Rouse of Warren County, Pennsylvania.

A marker dedicated in 1996 on state hwy. 8 near Rouseville by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Henry Rouse’s reputation made him one of the most respected leaders of the early industry.

On April 17, 1861, a well gushing a geyser of oil exploded in flames on the Buchanan Farm at Rouseville, killing the well’s owner and more than a dozen bystanders. Journalist Ida Tarbell had lived in Rouseville as a child.

Sometimes called “Oil Well Fire Near Titusville” but more accurately, Rouseville, the early oilfield tragedy was overshadowed by the greater tragedy of the Civil War. Fort Sumter fell on April 13, 1861; Henry Rouse’s oil well exploded four days later.

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The Little and Merrick well at Oil Creek, drilled by respected teacher and businessman Henry Rouse,  unexpectedly had hit a highly pressurized oil and natural gas geologic formation at a depth of just 320 feet. Given the limited drilling technologies for controlling the pressure, the well’s production of 3,000 barrels of oil per day was out of control.

The Rouse Estate later reported, “A breathless worker ran up to him, telling him to ‘come quickly’ as they’d ‘hit a big one.’ According to the best accounts of the time, the ‘big one’ was the world’s first legitimate oil gusher. As oil spouted from the ground, Henry Rouse and the others stood by wondering how to control the phenomenon.”

The towering gusher also had attracted people from town, covering many in the oil when. Perhaps ignited by the steam-engine’s boiler, the well suddenly erupted into flames, which engulfed Rouse, killing him and 18 others, seriously burning many more.

Detail from “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania”

Detail from “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” a painting by James Hamilton of the 1861 oil well fire that killed Henry Rouse today is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Historian Michael H. Scruggs of Pennsylvania State University found a dramatic account from an eyewitness, who reported:

“One of the victims it would seem had been standing on theses barrels near the well when the explosion occurred; for I first discovered him running over them away from the well. He had hardly reached the outer edge of the field of fire, when coming to a vacant space in the tier of barrels from which two or three had been taken, he fell into the vacancy, and there uttering heart-rending shrieks, burned to death with scarcely a dozen feet of impassable heated air between him and his friends.”

Oval portrait of Henry Rouse.

Henry R. Rouse, 1823-1861.

In his 2010 article, Scruggs noted the 37-year-old Henry Rouse was dragged from the fire severely burned, and expecting the worst, dictated his Last Will and Testament, “to the men surrounding him as they fed him water spoonful by spoonful.”

Engraved on an 1865 marble monument (re-dedicated to Rouse’s memory during a family reunion in 1993) is this tribute: 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.

The 1865 Atlas of the Oil Regions of Pennsylvania by Frederick W. Beers described this early petroleum industry tragedy in detail:

It was upon this farm (Buchanan) that the terrible calamity of April 1861, occurred, when several persons lost their lives by the burning of a well. The “BURNING WELL” as it has since been called, had been put down to the depth of three hundred and thirty feet, when a strong vein of gas and oil was struck, causing suspension of operations and ejecting a stream from the well as high as the top of the derrick.

Cover of Oil Region Atlas, 1865

“Atlas of the Oil Regions of Pennsylvania,” published by Frederick W. Beers in 1865.

Large numbers of persons were attracted to the scene, when the gas filling the atmosphere took fire, as is supposed, from a lighted cigar, and a terrible explosion ensued, which was heard for three or four miles. The well well continued to burn upwards of twenty hours destroying the tanks and machinery of several adjacent wells, and several hundred barrels of oil. The scene is represented as terrific beyond comparison.

The well spouted furiously for many hours, and the column of flame extended often two and three hundred feet in height, the valley being shut in, as it were, by a dense and impenetrable canopy of overhanging smoke. Fifteen persons were instantly killed by the explosion of the gas, and thirteen others scarred for life.

Among the persons killed was Mr. Henry R. Rouse, who had then recently become interested in that locality, and after whom Rouseville takes its name. The well continue to flow at the rate about one thousand barrels per day for a week after the fire, when it suddenly ceased, and has since produced very little oil as a pumping well.

These fires have not been unfrequent, and it is a little remarkable that in every case where wells have been so burned they have never after produced save in very small quantities.

Stereograph of circa 1860s PA oil well.

Late 1860s stereograph by William J. Portser showing men and women standing on a storage tank and two men at the top of an oil derrick in Pennsylvania, courtesy Library of Congress.

According to historian Michael H. Scruggs, the knowledge gained from the 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 deadly Rouseville 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 wrote 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 concluded.

Learn more about another important invention, Harry Cameron’s 1922  blow out preventer in Ending Gushers – BOP.

Burning Oil Well at Night

The deadly Pennsylvania oil well fire was immortalized by Philadelphia artist James Hamilton, a mid-19th century painter whose maritime works are in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C.

The deadly Pennsylvania oil well fire was immortalized by Philadelphia artist James Hamilton, a mid-19th century painter whose maritime works are in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C.

"Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania," by James Hamilton (circa 1861), on display at the Smithsonian Art Museum.

“Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” by James Hamilton (circa 1861), was on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in 2018. Photo by Bruce Wells.

In 2017, the Smithsonian museum acquired Hamilton’s “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” circa 1861 (oil on paperboard, 22 inches by 16 1⁄8 inches, currently not on view).

“Rouseville, Pennsylvania, lay within a few miles of Titusville and Pithole City, two of the most famous boom towns in Pennsylvania ’s oil fields,” notes the museum label for the painting. “From 1859 until after the Civil War, new gushers brought investors, cardsharps, saloons, and speculators into these rural settlements. As quickly as they grew, however, the towns collapsed, often from the effects of fires like the one shown here.

In the 1860s, American industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was in the thick of this oil boom, maneuvering to establish the Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller’s investments in railroads and refineries would make him one of America’s richest men, long after the wildcatters in the Pennsylvania fields had gone bust.”

Detail from "Burning Oil Well at Night" painting of Rouseville tragedy.

“Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” by James Hamilton, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

“Rouseville, Pennsylvania, lay within a few miles of Titusville and Pithole City, two of the most famous boom towns in Pennsylvania ’s oil fields,” notes the museum label for the painting. “From 1859 until after the Civil War, new gushers brought investors, cardsharps, saloons, and speculators into these rural settlements. As quickly as they grew, however, the towns collapsed, often from the effects of fires like the one shown here.

In the 1860s, American industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was in the thick of this oil boom, maneuvering to establish the Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller’s investments in railroads and refineries would make him one of America’s richest men, long after the wildcatters in the Pennsylvania fields had gone bust.”

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Recommended Reading: Warren County (2015); Atlas of the oil region of Pennsylvania (1984); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania (2000). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Fatal Oil Well Fire of 1861.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-oil-well-fire. Last Updated: April 15, 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.

 
 

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