Early Pennsylvania oilfield tragedy leads to new technologies, a monument – and a work of art.

Along Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the wooden derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well erupted in flames on October 7, 1859, perhaps America’s first oil well fire. The well had been completed the previous August by Edwin L Drake, how had been hired by the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut.

first oil well fire drake derrick

Edwin L. Drake, right, stands with friend Peter Wilson of Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the drilling site – but not the original derrick – of America’s first commercial oil well of 1859. From the Drake Well Museum collection.

Today, residents of Titusville and nearby Oil City annually celebrate the 1859 oil well. Visitors to the Drake Well Museum in Titusville can tour a reconstructed cable-tool derrick at its original location along Oil Creek. The discovery launched the first drilling boom in Northwestern Pennsylvania that soon fueled Pittsburgh refineries producing a new and highly coveted consumer product: kerosene.

However, the fire at the first well site came slightly more than a month after the discovery. It started when Drake’s driller inspected oil in a vat with an open lamp, setting the gases alight.

Drake would will rebuild the 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.

Fatal Oil Well Fire of April 17, 1861

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 and natural exploration safer.

first oil well fire

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.

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.

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.

The deadly Pennsylvania well was immortalized by the Philadelphia artist James Hamilton, a mid-19th century painter whose maritime paintings today are in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian in 2017 acquired Hamilton’s Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania, circa 1861, oil on paperboard. 

first oil well fire

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

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.

first oil well fire

A detail from James Hamilton’s painting of the fire that killed Henry Rouse.

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 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 BOP (Blow Out Preventer), in Ending Gushers – BOP.



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. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First Oil Well Fire.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-oil-well-fire. Last Updated: April 13, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.

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