When Edwin L. Drake drilled the first U.S. oil well in 1859 along a creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania, he transformed the bucolic landscape — and America’s energy future. The former railroad conductor’s discovery launched an industry as investors and drillers rushed to cash in on the new resource for making kerosene for lamps.
Northwestern Pennsylvania grocery store owner John Wallace formed the Wallace Oil Company in 1865. Detail from Wallace Oil Company stock certificate.
The ensuing scramble fueled the first of many exploration booms. Newspapers reported “black gold” discoveries on farms clustered in Northwestern Pennsylvania’s newly born “oil region.” America’s earliest oil companies rushed to construct wooden derricks with steam-powered cable-tools for “making hole.” Drillers came to John Rynd’s farm at the junction of Oil Creek and Cherry Tree Run, the Blood farm to the north, and the widow McClintock farm to the south.
Operating a grocery store on the Rynd farm in 1859, Irish immigrant John Wallace witnessed the excitement firsthand. When the first of many wells found oil on the Rynd farm in 1861, derricks already had crowded the region’s hillsides. Four years later, the ambitious 24-year-old entrepreneur could not longer resist catching oil fever.
With the science of petroleum geology its infancy, “creekology” and oil seeps often were the only tools for finding promising locations to drill. Some exploration companies turned to dowsing (hazel or peach tree rods preferred) to find oil.
After witnessing the oil region’s drilling boom from his Rynd farm grocery store, John Wallace caught oil fever (see Wallace store and two wells, upper left). “Oil Region of Pennsylvania,1865” map courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, F.W. Beers & Co.
Wallace acquired a 3/32 royalty interest in a 200-acre tract on the neighboring McClintock farm (previously owned by investors Curtiss, Haldeman, and Fawcett). He incorporated Wallace Oil Company in 1865 with an office at 319 Walnut Street in Philadelphia and issued stock certificates.
Wallace’s speculation put him in the exploration business, which also required technologies for pumping oil. When producing wells drove leases prices up, the Wallace Oil Company prospered and expanded.
A circa 1875 building in the Pennsylvania oil region hosted an attorney, lease agents, a small oil exchange, and petroleum companies Wallace Oil Company, Allegheny & Pittsburgh Oil Co., Oil Basin Petroleum Co., Buchanan Royalty Oil Co.,and the Rouseville Oil Co. Detail from stereograph “Pleasant morning – Rouseville,” courtesy Library of Congress.
Purchasers of Wallace’s stock stood to gain from both royalties and appreciation. The financial horizon looked promising. In 1865, a 42-gallon barrel of oil sold for for $6.59 a barrel (nearly $100 in 2013 dollars).
The gamble to find oil spread, as Pithole Creek and other spectacular discoveries inspired more drilling — and speculation at oil exchanges in Titusville, Oil City, and elsewhere. Those seeking petroleum riches in 1864 included John Wilkes Booth, whose Dramatic Oil Company drilled on a 3.5-acre lease on the Fuller farm.
Nevertheless, by the end of 1869, Wallace Oil Company ‘s McClintock farm leases produced an average of 200 barrels of oil daily from 32 wells. The company dutifully paid the state an annual “Tax on Stock,” and in 1871 paid its first ever “Tax on Income.” A circa 1875 Library of Congress stereograph of a small building includes signs for the “Wallace Oil Company,” the “Allegheny & Pittsburgh Oil Co.,” the “Oil Basin Petroleum Co.,” the “Buchanan Royalty Oil Co.,” and the “Rouseville Oil Co.”
It took three more years before Wallace Oil Company paid its first and only dividend to investors, who received one cent per share in 1874. But by then, one industry publication noted, “oil had left the territory.”
By the early 1890s, Wallace Oil Company’s expanded oil-region holdings were reduced to the original 3/32 royalty from its McClintock property, which no longer produced commercial quantities of oil. Overproduction had drained profitability from the countryside.
In August 1895, American Investor reported Wallace Oil Company had lost its wells and property and could not even muster resources to pay legal fees associated with formal dissolution of the company. The grim assessment concluded, “the company is in a hopeless condition. The stock has no market value.”
Early petroleum exploration began near oil seeps in Indian Territory.
Drilled in 1889 and completed a year later near oil seeps at Chelsea in Indian Territory, the story behind the another first Oklahoma oil well is not as well known as the Bartlesville gusher seven years later.
Under President Andrew Jackson, Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly relocating native American tribes westward to what would later become known as Indian Territory.
The Cherokee Nation town began as a stop on the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1881.
Land west of Arkansas, “remote from white settlements,” seemed a good place to send them at the time, explained a 1900 report by the American Geographical Society of New York (Vol. 32). “It was intended to settle them there for all time, whereby they could live to themselves, according to their own pleasure, with self-government, under the protection of the general Government.” (more…)
African American entrepreneurs began their Oklahoma oil venture in 1917.
Discovery of Oklahoma’s giant Healdton oilfield in August 1913 about 20 miles northwest of Ardmore launched years of investment as petroleum companies competed to secure leases and drill.
Oil production from the Healdton field was shallow, averaging about 1,000 feet, and the low cost of drilling attracted many small ventures that operated on capital raised by aggressive stock sales. “Blue Sky” laws had yet to restrain advertising excesses and competition for investors was fierce (see Homestead Oil Company).
Decades of production from the Healdton oilfield would yield more than 200 million barrels of oil – but leave hundreds of forgotten petroleum companies buried in its history.
Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company
When a group of foundering Coffeyville, Oklahoma, investors gave up on their 100-acre oil lease in 1917, four African American entrepreneurs bought out the venture and its unfinished 1,360-foot-deep well, which had encountered “several light sands” and a water-filled borehole. Wilson Newman, J.C. Pratt, S.M. Holland, and Heston Welborn formed the Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company, capitalized at $50,000, and set up offices on East 2nd Street in Oklahoma City.
Today, East 2nd Street is the heart of the “Deep Deuce” district and is known for its historic jazz and culture. But in 1917, that part of downtown was exclusively for “coloreds,” segregated to the other side of the Santa Fe railroad tracks. It was the era of Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray’s Jim Crow laws (the Civil Rights Act was still half a century away), but along East 2nd Street African-American businesses and neighborhoods prospered.
Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company moved into offices at 319 and 321 East 2nd Street, across from the Black Dispatch weekly, established two years earlier by Roscoe Dunjee. Advertised as the “Largest circulation Negro journal in Oklahoma,” the paper soon carried Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company promotions encouraging readers to invest.
“Buy Stock in a Home Company – With Men Whom You Know at its Head…100 acres leased and shallow wells producing the high-grade of oil,” declared one ad. The company announced plans “to deepen our 1,360 foot well to the lower pay.” Early investors could get in for the bargain price of $1 a share.
As Ardmore Lubricating Oil operations continued into June 1919, news reports for stockholders were mixed. The company completed a producing well on its 100-acre lease that yielded one barrel of oil a day of “high grade lubrication oil.” The company’s chemist predicted it would be worth $10 a barrel at a time when ordinary oil was selling for $2 dollars per barrel.
In 1920, Ardmore Lubricating Oil began moving equipment to drill a well just outside Tatums, about 80 miles south of Oklahoma City. The company announced it would build its own refinery there to process its especially valuable oil from the Healdton field. Tatums was one of about 50 all-black towns in the former Indian Territory that grew from post Civil War reconstruction. These self-segregated communities were reflective of the times; they remain as reminders of America’s struggle with race and identity.
The superintendent, manager and stock salesman of the Ardmore Lubricating Oil, H.E. Baker, published a telegraphed message about the Tatums well site: “We have three wells producing the highest grade and most valuable oil found in the United States, the great drug Icthyol Oil, one of the most sought for and needed products of the world today.”
“Icthyol” was a popular European skin ointment produced from dry distillation of sulfur-rich oil shale, but Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company executives declared they could refine it from Tatums’ crude oil and process it in their own laboratory. In February 1920, the company announced a four-day grand opening to celebrate their new lab upstairs.
“The general public is cordially invited to come and see Kerosene, Automobile Oil and Icthyol,” noted an Ardmore Lubricating Oil promotion. Other ads proposed mutually beneficial business arrangements with merchants, investors, farmers, and consumers.
Increasingly creative financing and uninterrupted stock sales were needed for Ardmore Lubricating Oil to remain solvent. The Black Dispatch in 1921 praised H.E. Baker, noting his company’s “development grows by leaps and bounds…You can get into this company now on the ground floor, $10 is all that you can invest at this time for each member of the family, this will insure at the outset an equal opportunity for all, later on the hundreds of stock holders can get together and determine as to the larger plan of organization.”
However, construction of the Ardmore Lubricating Oil refinery in Tatums still had not begun by August 1921. News about the company’s oil wells grew scarce as Baker sold his own leases. The last appeals for new investors appearing in the Black Dispatch were nevertheless optimistic:
“Wonderful Opportunities In Larger Faith And Deeper Hole,” proclaimed the newspaper. “To anyone with a limited amount of brains it can be seen that a little more faith and a deeper hole will bring into the hands of the Negro landholders in this section the millions of dollars, which their white neighbors all around them are reaping hourly from the derricks that have lunched great holes in the earth and are spouting liquid treasure everywhere.”
A few years later, but too late for Ardmore Lubricating Oil, the area around Tatums did experience an oil boom that was celebrated on the big screen. In 1927, townspeople hosted the making of Black Gold, a silent picture produced by Norman Studios and distributed to all-black theaters the next year. The Florida-based studio described its movie as a “stirring epic of the oil fields” with a cast including, “U.S. Marshall L.B. Tatums. and the entire all-colored City of Tatums, Oklahoma.”
The action-packed melodrama featured Ace Brand, his sweetheart Alice, and a one-legged cowboy (named Peg), who overcame both adversity and injustice in the oil patch. While the film’s happy ending delivered an oil gusher, Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company did not.
Few financial records remain about the company, but Gateway to Oklahoma History and the Black Dispatch’s archives offer more context to this almost forgotten story from U.S. petroleum history.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/ardmore-lubricating-oil-company. Last Updated: May 9, 2020. Original Published Date: July 4, 2019.
Failed oilman turned assassin. The 1864 oil well drilled by John Wilkes Booth.
Not finding his fortune in booming Union oilfields, did this actor seek fame as a martyr to the Confederacy?
John Wilkes Booth’s dreams of Pennsylvania oil wealth ended in July 1864. Photo by Alexander Gardner courtesy Library of Congress.
As the Civil War approached its bloody conclusion, in January 1864 John Wilkes Booth made the first of several trips to Franklin, Pennsylvania, where he purchased an oil lease on the Fuller farm.
Maps of the day reveal the three-acre strip of land on the farm, about one mile south of Franklin and on the east side of the Allegheny River.
Hidden in the woods, a small concrete marker can be found (with some effort) at the actual site where the future assassin drilled for oil. The well’s location is about 20 miles south of another marker – and an oil museum – where the first commercial U.S. oil well was drilled by Edwin Drake.
Drake’s August 27, 1859, discovery launched a drilling boom that made newspaper headlines (the industry’s first “dry hole” a few days later did not). (more…)
Going broke where a billion-barrel oilfield would be discovered in the 1870s.
When the Seneca Oil Company completed the first U.S. oil well along Oil Creek at Titusville, demand for crude oil from northwestern Pennsylvania boomed. The 1859 oil discovery launched a new industry, which soon constructed refineries to produce kerosene from oil instead of coal (coal oil) as a safe, inexpensive lamp fuel.
Engineer’s Petroleum Company, one of the early companies to explore east of Titusville, decided to search in the hills around the remote town of Bradford, near the New York border. Armed with detailed geologic studies, the company believed it had an edge for finding oil.
In 1836, famed scientist Samuel Prescott Hildreth published a geological study on the possibilities for salt production in southeastern Ohio. The respected pioneer physician and scientist had left Massachusetts in 1898 to settle in Marietta, along the banks of the Ohio River. His expertise helped salt well drillers, who were familiar with the “making hole”technologies the new petroleum industry needed.
Oil, Bane of Brine Drillers
Hildreth’s geological study, “Observations on the Bituminous Coal Deposit for the Valley of the Ohio, and the Accompanying Rock Strata,” identified anticlinal structural traps as features linked to drilling successful brine wells. Intended to help the search for that valuable food-preserving resource, his report’s revelation about the anticlines later would be important for many Ohio oil discoveries.
Importantly, Hildreth reported anticlinal rock formations were frequently associated with oil deposits. This was a warning for Ohio salt well drillers, who considered petroleum a problem, not a resource (see this article about a Kentucky salt driller’s oil well).
“This dale is evidently formed by upheavals which have taken place towards the end of the Devonian period,” explained the geologist seeking a site to drill for oil near Bradford, Pennsylvania. Prospective site’s topography image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources online mapping.
After Pennsylvania oil discoveries, exploration companies like Engineer’s Petroleum rushed to the state – where drilling equipment and lease prices soared. Hundreds of exploration companies organized in Titusville, Franklin, and Oil City as financiers, speculators, and drillers sought to invest in this new “black gold” industry.
In 1865, after a United States Oil Company oil discovery created the notorious boom town of Pithole, half-acre leases nearby sold for $3,000 each (about $45,000 in 2020 dollars). Fortunes were made or lost or squandered – most famously at the time by “Coal Oil Johnny”.
Under-capitalized speculators had to look to more distant, unproven territory, including Engineer’s Petroleum Company. About 65 miles northeast of Pithole (thorough today’s scenic Allegheny National Forest), a few exploratory wells had been drilled in McKean County, but few believed commercial quantities of oil could be found; leases could be had for at little as six cents an acre.
Falling into Anticlinal Traps
To attract investors, Engineer’s Petroleum Company cited geological reports about likely sites for successful oil wells, accompanied by this document offering lease units for sale. Document image courtesy Charles Laser.
To attract investors, Engineer’s Petroleum Company cited the best geological science of the day. Company executives also sought the well-regarded expertise of former Mississippi State Geologist Lewis Harper. The geology professor used Hildreth’s long-standing structural trap guidance to select a promising 30-acre site, “giving ample room for more than 100 oil wells.”
The exploration company selected a site southwest of Bradford Township, on a tributary of the West Bank of Tunungwant Creek. “This dale is evidently formed by upheavals which have taken place towards the end of the Devonian period, it is not simply a dale formed by the flowing of water run down from the hills,” Harper noted, further explaining:
“If now, before the upheaval of these hills from a horizontal position, petroleum had been formed or such animal or vegetable matter had been accumulated which gives origins to petroleum, this must have run down from the inclined planes and accumulated in the ground which has not been upheaved in the dale formed by the three hills.”
Unfortunately for Engineer’s Petroleum Company and its investors, Professor Harper and his colleagues’ theories were wrong about Pennsylvania’s anticline petroleum geology. Pennsylvania oilfields were mostly found in formations very different from those in Ohio. Historian and author Ray Sorenson has noted the misinterpretation (see Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology) by pointing out, “theories of trapping did not work in the absence of anticlines.”
Early exploration company executives had learned geologists’ theories for finding oil were often no better than traditional creekology (and helpful oil seeps), dowsers, witching, or blind luck. James C. Donnell, later president of the Ohio Oil Company, began his career in Bradford’s early oilfields and declared, “The day The Ohio has to rely on geologists, I’ll get into another line of work.”
Experience and the science of petroleum geology advanced together over coming years, improving the odds of drilling and completing a successful well. Donnell had to revise his opinion of “college boys” when Ohio Oil Company’s first geologist, C.J. Hares, discovered 19 oil and natural gas fields. Donnell declared Hares to be, “the greatest geologist in the world.”
Engineer’s Petroleum Company, which never found oil at its “dale formed by the three hills,” would go bankrupt. But it would be proved right to have looked in the Bradford area. In 1871, another speculative venture, the Foster Oil Company, drilled a series of small producers east of the Main Branch of Tunungwant Creek, about five miles north of the old Engineer’s Petroleum site.
The Penn-Brad Museum and Historical Oil Well Park is located just south of Bradford on Route 219, near Custer City. Photo by Bruce Wells.
The Foster Oil Company wells revealed what ultimately led to America’s first billion-barrel oilfield. Production from the Bradford field peaked in 1881 when it produced more than 27 million barrels of oil – more than 75 percent of the world’s total output that year.
Today, in Custer City, a few miles south of Bradford, the Penn-Brad Oil Museum preserves “the philosophy, the spirit, and the accomplishments of a little-known oil country community — taking visitors back to the early oil boom times of ‘The First Billion Dollar Oil Field.'”
In addition to its historic oilfield – and being home to Zippo Manufacturing Company since the early 1930s – Bradford also boasts the world’s oldest continuously operating petroleum refinery; the American Refining Group, Inc. began processing 10 barrels of Pennsylvania crude oil a day in 1881.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Engineers Petroleum Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/engineers-petroleum-company. Last Updated: March 24, 2020. Original Published Date: March 24, 2020.
As World War I neared its end, Maj. Gordon William Lillie entered the petroleum business in Yale, Oklahoma.
Although not as famous as his friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody of Wyoming, Maj. Gordon W. “Pawnee Bill” Lillie was “widely known as a showman, a teacher and friend of the Indian,” according to his biographer.
Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill combined their shows from 1908 to 1913 as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East.”
Maj. Lillie also was admired for being a “colonizer in Oklahoma and builder of his state,” noted Stillwater journalist Glenn Shirley in his 1958 book Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie.
The two Bills joined their shows in 1908 to form “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East,” promoted as “a glorious cavalcade of dazzling brilliancy,” Shirley proclaimed, adding that the combined shows offered “an almost endless procession of delightful sight and sensations.”
However, times were changing and public taste was turning to a new form of entertainment, motion pictures. By 1913, the showmen’s partnership was over and their show foreclosed. Lillie turned to other ventures – real estate, banking, ranching, and like his former partner Cody, the U.S. petroleum industry.
Oil discoveries near Yale (population of only 685 in 1913) had created a drilling boom that made it home to 20 oil companies and 14 refineries. In 1916, Petrol Refining Company added a 1,000-barrel-a-day-capacity plant in Yale, about 25 miles south of Lillie’s Oklahoma ranch.
Obsolete financial stock certificates with interesting histories like Pawnee Bill Oil Company are valued by collectors.
The trade magazine Petroleum Age reported that for Pawnee Bill, “the lure of the oil game was too strong to overcome.” He founded the Pawnee Bill Oil Company on February 25, 1918, and bought Petrol Refining’s new “skimming” refinery in March.
An early type of refining, skimming (or topping) removed light oils, gasoline and kerosene and left a residual oil that could also be sold as a basic fuel. To meet growing demand, refineries built west of the Mississippi River often used the inefficient but simple process.
Maj. Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie.
Lillie’s company became known as Pawnee Bill Oil & Refining and contracted with the Twin State Oil Company for oil from nearby leases in Payne County.
Under headlines like “Pawnee Bill In Oil” and “Hero of Frontier Days Tries the Biggest Game in All the World,” the Petroleum Age extolled that “Pawnee Bill, sole survivor of that heroic band of men who spread the romance of the frontier days over the world…who used to scout on the ragged edge of semi-savage civilization, is doing his bit to supply Uncle Sam and his allies with the stuff that enables armies to save civilization.”
By July 30, 1919, Pawnee Bill Oil (and Refining) Company had leased 25 railroad tank cars, each with a capacity of about 8,300 gallons. But the end of “the war to end all wars” drastically reduced demand for oil and refined petroleum products.
By 1921, most Oklahoma refineries were operating at about 50 per cent capacity, with 39 plants shut down.
Although Lillie’s refinery was among those closed, he did not give up. In February 1921, he incorporated the Buffalo Refining Company and took over the Yale refinery’s operations. He was president and treasurer of the new company.
However, by June 1922 the Yale refinery was making daily runs of 700 barrels of oil, about half its skimming capacity.
Yale, Oklahoma, in 1909, just a few years before the oil boom that attracted Pawnee Bill from his ranch 20 miles away.
“At the annual stockholders’ meeting held at the offices of the Pawnee Bill Oil company in Yale, Oklahoma, in April, it was voted to declare an eight per cent dividend,” reported the Wichita Daily Eagle.
“The officers and directors have been highly complimented for their judicious and able handling, of the affairs of the company through the strenuous times the oil industry has passed through since the Armistice was signed,” added the Kansas newspaper. “Many of the Independent refineries have been sold at receivers’ sale. The financial condition of the Pawnee Bill company is in fine shape.”
What happened next remains a mystery since financial records of Pawnee Bill Oil Company are rare, but a 1918 stock certificate signed by Lillie is valued by collectors (it can be found online selling for about $2,500). Lillie’s Wyoming friend Cody also formed several oil exploration ventures, including the Shoshone Oil Company.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Pawnee Bill Oil Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/pawnee-bill-oil-company. Last Updated: February 23, 2020. Original Published Date: February 24, 2017.