George Bissell’s Oil Seeps
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, 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.
Bissell and his partners strongly believed oil could be used to produce kerosene for lamps (a safer fuel than the popular but volatile camphene). Inexpensive to refine, it would compete with oils made from coal. Bissell hired a scientist friend – a professor at Yale – to conduct experiments.
Benjamin Silliman Jr., a skilled chemist and geologist, confirmed belief in the new resource. After using a fractional distillation process, Silliman reported that the refined oil was a powerful illuminator. He later would become a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Deciding to attempt to produce oil commercially, Bissell and his partner Eveleth formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company – and hired former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake, who was familiar with the Titusville area.
But in March 1858, the company’s New Haven, Connecticut, investors formed a new company after arguing with Bissell and Eveleth over finances – about how much to pay Drake. The Seneca Oil Company was established on March 23, 1858, with Drake a share holder.
The next year Drake 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. Drake and his discovery became famous as the First American Oil Well.
Although knowledge of Bissell’s contributions faded over the years, his influence on petroleum exploration has remained.
“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,” notes Pennsylvania historian Neil McElwee.
“Among the great oil pioneers of the first decades, Bissell was a giant,” concludes McElwee. “The oil men and writers of the nineteenth century as one recognized George Bissell as the patriarch of their industry.”
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