Search for new lamp fuel brings first U.S. oil exploration company — and start of petroleum industry.
The stage was set in 1854 for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps.
On November 10, 1854, the lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sold a parcel of land at the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The buyers were George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth. Earlier, Joel Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) had collected and sold medicinal “Seneca Oil” from an oil seep on acreage near the company’s sawmill.
Kerosene Lamp Fuel
Bissell and his business partners believed crude oil produced from wells could be refined into a lamp fuel competitor for whale oil, inexpensive but volatile camphene, and “coal oil,” invented in 1853 by Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner, who named it kerosene.
By 1860, dozens of U.S. refineries were producing kerosene using Gesner’s process for distilling cannel coal, a soft coal also called candle coal (and later, oil shale).
To find out whether Pennsylvania’s Seneca Oil could be inexpensively refined into a quality kerosene for lamps, Bissell hired a scientist friend, Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., to conduct lab experiments.
A skilled chemist and geologist, Prof. Silliman examined the oil samples and confirmed belief in the new resource. His report would lead to Bissell founding the first U.S. company established to explore and produce oil. After using a fractional distillation process, Silliman reported the refined oil was a powerful fuel for illumination.
“Gentlemen,” Silliman wrote in 1855, “it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive processes, they may manufacture very valuable products.”
According to historian Paul H. Giddens in the 1939 classic, The Birth of the Oil Industry, Silliman’s report was a petroleum industry milestone. With Silliman already a respected scientist, his report to Bissell and partners, “proved to be a turning-point in the establishment of the petroleum business, for it dispelled many doubts about its value.”
Silliman, who later became a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that kerosene could be distilled from oil as readily as coal. His research led to the first U.S. well drilled in search of oil to be refined into the popular lamp fuel (also used today as a powerful rocket fuel).
First Oil Company
Deciding to attempt to produce oil commercially, Bissell and partner Eveleth formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. America’s first petroleum exploration company. Having studied the latest steam-power cable-tools and derricks used for drilling brine and water wells, they decided to use the technology instead of mining or digging for oil.
However, delays soon began that would last for several years before new investors stepped in and reorganized the company.
The financial backers, who came from New Haven, Connecticut, decided to buy out the Titusville leases of Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company (a New York-based venture) for tax reasons.
Caught in the middle was the hiring of the man who would ultimately drill the well — Edwin L. Drake, a former railroad conductor who was familiar with the Titusville area. Investors liked the fact that his former occupation allowed him free train travel in area.
Seneca Oil Company
In March 1858, the Connecticut investors formed a new company after arguing with Bissell and Eveleth over finances — and about how much to pay Drake. The Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, was established on March 23, 1858, with Drake a share holder.
Bissell, who was removed from the company, would keep a business relationship with Seneca Oil — and find success in the new petroleum industry, including building a barrel-making factory, and investing in railroads, banks, and hotels.
The New Haven men then put the final piece of their plan into place with the formation of a new company,” noted oil historian William Brice, PhD, in a 2009 Edwin Drake biography.
The next year Drake, assisted by local blacksmith William Andrew “Uncle Billy” Smith, began drilling along Oil Creek using a steam-powered cable-tool rig. On August 27, with finances almost exhausted, oil was found 69.5 feet deep. Newspapers proclaimed the birth of an new industry in remote northwestern Pennsylvania as Drake found lasting fame for drilling the first commercial U.S. oil well.
“The successful commercial development of the oil seeps…was the fulfillment of a vision Bissell had five years earlier when he was first shown samples of petroleum taken from the site,” noted Pennsylvania oil historian Neil McElwee in 2017.
“Among the great oil pioneers of the first decades, Bissell was a giant,” concluded McElwee.
Recommended Reading: Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); The Birth of the Oil Industry (1939); Oil Boom Architecture: Titusville, Pithole, and Petroleum Center, Images of America (2008); 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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Citation Information: Article Title: George Bissell’s Oil Seeps.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/george-bissell-oil-seeps. Last Updated: March 20, 2022. Original Published Date: November 10, 2014.