The U.S. petroleum industry began in 1859 when a former railroad conductor drilled a well in Pennsylvania.
American oil history began in a valley along a creek in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. Today’s exploration and production industry was born on August 27, 1859, near Titusville when a well specifically drilled for oil found it.
Although crude oil had been found and bottled for medicine as early as 1814 in Ohio and in Kentucky in 1818, these had been drilled seeking brine.
Pioneer drillers often used an ancient technology, the “spring pole” (see Making Hole – Drilling Technology). Sometimes the salt wells produced small amounts of oil, an unwanted byproduct.
Investors in the first U.S. oil company would be rewarded in the summer of 1859 when a former railroad conductor used innovative technologies to complete the country’s first commercial oil well. News spread about the viscous, easily refined petroleum (from the Latin “petra,” rock, and “oleum,” oil). The Pennsylvania well that launched America’s petroleum age was 69.5 feet deep.
Coal Oil fuels Lamps
In the early days of America, when the sun went down, there was only dim light to resist the darkness. Candles could be made at home or manufactured, and other animal and vegetable oils could also be used as makeshift illuminants.
To extend day into the night, entire industries were born, including whaling. Whale oil could be burned in everyday lamps, and by 1846 a fleet of more than 700 ships sailed in search of this bounty. But men could work all day and not earn enough for a single pint of whale oil. The most popular lamp fuel was camphene, a highly volatile mixture of turpentine and alcohol. It was cheaper than whale oil, but often started deadly fires.
For most Americans, when the sun went down, the day was done.
Then, in the early 1850s, a Canadian chemist introduced a revolutionary new lamp fuel. Abraham Gesner’s patent read, “I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene.”
Gesner patented his “Improvement in Kerosene Burning-Fluids” — realizing the usefulness of kerosene as a cleaner-burning fuel in lamps to replace whale oil. Because his new lighting fluid was extracted from coal, consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.
Two years before the American Civil War, more than 30 companies used Gesner’s process to produce coal oil. It was cheap, easy to produce and could be burned in existing lamps.
The U.S. Patent Office recorded almost 250 different patents for all manner of lamps, wicks, burners, and fuels to meet America’s growing demand for illumination.
Samuel Kier’s Petroleum Curative
The Canadian chemist’s revolutionary coal-based product soon got a competitor from an unexpected source: a patent medicine. About the time when Gesner invented kerosene, Mrs. Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contracted consumption (today known as tuberculosis), a dreaded killer of millions in the 19th century. Her husband, Samuel Kier, dosed her with a popular cure-all bottled in Kentucky and known as “American Oil,” which sold for 50 cents a pint.
When his wife’s health seemed to improve, Kier noted that the medicine was made from the same black substance that often contaminated his Pennsylvania brine wells. Always an entrepreneur, Kier soon began skimming oil from natural seeps and packaging his own bottles of a curative for all manner of aches and pains.
Kier started a refining business in Pittsburgh and began selling his distilled oil labeled as “Kier’s genuine petroleum! Or rock oil! A natural remedy, Procured from a Well 400 feet deep, and possessing wonderful Curative Powers in diseases.”
Kier patent medicine newspaper ads featured brine-well wooden derricks that would soon inspire another entrepreneur to wonder if the same apparatus could be adapted to extract quantities of rock oil from which kerosene could be distilled.
Learning of Kier’s flourishing Pittsburgh refinery selling distilled “carbon oil,” George Bissell, a New York lawyer, saw a business opportunity. Bissell knew that near Titusville was a site of prolific petroleum seeps (learn more in George Bissell’s Oil Seeps).
Bissel formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and hired Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman to prepare an analysis of Titusville’s oil. A positive assessment and Professor Silliman’s highly prized endorsement would be a powerful lure to venture capitalists and potential investors. When the professor delivered a resounding endorsement, investors were convinced.
The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York (considered the first American oil company) was soon followed by the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, as the investors maneuvered for maximum business and tax advantage.
Seneca Oil hired Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880), a former train conductor, who was an acquaintance of one of the investment partners. It helped that Drake’s railroad experience allowed free train passage to and from New Haven and remote northwestern Pennsylvania.
Father of the Oil and Gas Industry
Company executives often addressed their letters to “Colonel” Drake in an effort to bolster his reputation in Titusville, where drilling took longer than anticipated, despite using a six-horsepower steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig. As local opinions grew more skeptical, Drake pioneered several new drilling technologies, including a method to protect the integrity of the well bore.
“Drake faced difficulties from the beginning, the known methods of drilling for oil at the time only ended in failure,” explained historian Urja Davé of Penn State University in a 2008 article. “He spent five months trying to recover oil, and people had lost their trust in him and some began calling him ‘Crazy Drake.’ Even his primary driller, William ‘Uncle Billy’ Smith, also began to feel dejected. In order to overcome the hurdles before him, he invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor,’ an invention he unfortunately did not patent.”
On a hot Saturday afternoon, after the cable-tool bit had reached 69.5 feet deep, “Uncle Billy” visited the site and noticed oil floating on top of the water in the hole. Drake borrowed a kitchen water pump to retrieve the oil. Drake’s first customer would be Sam Kier, who paid about $20 per barrel for oil delivered to his Pittsburgh refinery. The resulting “Carbon Oil” fuel for lamps sold for almost $40 dollars.
August 27, 1859, became a date on which the world changed, according to William Brice, Ph.D., professor emeritus of geology and planetary sciences at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. “Drake’s Folly,” was not such a folly after all, because Drake had shown oil could be found by drilling for it.
“Drake is known as the ‘father of the petroleum industry’ because the technology he devised revolutionized how crude oil was produced and launched the large-scale petroleum industry,” noted Brice, author of the 2009 biography, Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Drake and the Early Oil Industry.
“About part of his life we know a great deal, while other parts of it are more obscure, but it was an interesting life, and his actions changed our modern world forever,” Brice added. “Although Drake was born in Greenville, New York, March 20, 1819, to Lyman and Laura Drake, during his early childhood his family moved to another farm near Castleton, Vermont,” he explained. “Of his early education we know very little, though it is assumed he had a standard (for that time) country school education in Castleton.”
According to Brice, prior to becoming a conductor for the New York & New Haven Railroad, Drake worked in the dry goods business in New York.
“No doubt this 25 year old, 6 feet 1 inch man in his new suit cut quite a figure as he walked along Broadway with a jaunty step and a smile and tipping his top hat to the ladies he passed,” Brice explained.
Drake met Philena Adams from Springfield, Massachusetts, and they were married on December 16, 1845, adds Brice. Their first son, Arthur, was born in 1847, but he died a little over a year later. A second son was born in 1849, but he, too, only lived a few months.
During these tragedies, in 1849 Drake resigned from the Boston & Albany line to become a conductor on the New York & New Haven Railroad. When his wife died in 1854, Drake and his surviving child, a four-year-old son, moved to New Haven – where he became acquainted with George Bissell.
Drake re-married three years later to Laura Dowd, sixteen years his junior, in 1857. During this summer, illness prevented him from carrying on with his railroad job – but he retained the privileges of a train conductor, including free travel on the railroads. By 1858, the Drake family found themselves living in Titusville. While there, Drake and his Seneca Oil Company investors began their search petroleum.
“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,” Brice proclaimed.
Following his famous oil discovery, Drake became a justice of the peace in 1860 before illness would force him to quit and leave Pennsylvania. After several years of financial hardship, Drake and his family returned to Titusville with little money and with his health failing. In 1873, residents convinced the general assembly to provide the family an annual $1,500 pension.
Drake died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on November 9, 1880. His remains were later moved to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville. In 1902, Standard Oil Executive Henry Rogers commissioned a statue for his burial site. A monument – including the bronze statue by Charles Henry Niehaus – was dedicated on October 4, 1901. It was refurbished and rededicated in 2011.
The original drilling site also is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark with stone and plaque that notes: “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.”
In addition to leading to the new science of petroleum geology, Drake’s discovery arrived at a good time for U.S. industrial manufacturers; in addition to kerosene lighting, vast numbers of new types of machines needed oil for lubrication. More useful products followed, including the invention of a 22-year-old chemist from New York City.
In 1865, Robert Chesebrough visited Titusville’s oilfields before returning to his Brooklyn laboratory to experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well-heads. Chesebrough later patented a method that turned the paraffin into a balm; he called it “petroleum jelly.” Chesebrough in 1872 patented a new product, Vaseline (learn more in A Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes).
During a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Drake’s discovery on August 27, 1959, the U.S. Postal Service issued 801,859 commemorative stamps mailed from and cancelled in Titusville (learn more in Centennial Oil Stamp Issue). Many of these “first day of issue” stamps included a special cachet illustration, “Born in Freedom, Working for Progress,” by artist Norman Rockwell. Almost 116 million of the four-cent stamps were issued, according to Petroleum: A Philatelist’s Story.
By the 150th anniversary in August 2009, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry had drilled more than four million wells when a postal service advisory committee declined requests for a commemorative stamp.
The original tools used to drill the first American oil well can be found at the Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville. An exact replica of the cable-tool derrick and engine house stand today on the original site along Oil Creek. The museum also preserves thousands of rare photographs by John A. Mather and artifacts from Pennsylvania’s “Valley that changed the World.”
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First American Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/american-oil-history. Last Updated: June 20, 2019.