Home / Energy / Aug. 27, 2014 marks 155th anniversary of America’s first oil well
Although the original wooden derrick, equipment and engine house were destroyed by fire two months after his historic oil discovery along Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, Edwin L. Drake rebuilt at the original site, which today is a park and museum. Drake, right, stands with his friend Peter Wilson of Titusville. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Aug. 27, 2014 marks 155th anniversary of America’s first oil well

Zach Koppang | Shale Plays Media

Today, August 27, 2014 marks the 155 year anniversary of the beginning of petroleum exploration in America. In a forested valley beside a creek in northwestern Pennsylvania, the first well drilled specifically in the search for oil proved itself to be viable.

The operation, purely hypothetical at its beginnings, was organized and provided the necessary financial boon by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, which is considered to be America’s first oil and gas company. Having enlisted the help of Edwin L. Drake, the first commercial oil well proved itself at a depth of 69.5 feet.

Although oil had been found in Ohio as early as 1814 and in Kentucky in 1818, the discovery was always a byproduct of searching for other resources, such as drilling for brine water and its salty properties, essential for food preservation.

In early America, after the sun set, darkness washed over the land and caused a surge of burgeoning industries trying to illuminate the night. Candles were manufactured as well as made at home. Animal and vegetable oils were used as fuel for lamps. Whale oil was used most frequently, but a day’s work often didn’t provide enough income for many workers to purchase it. An alternative was Camphene, a highly flammable mixture of turpentine and alcohol. Although it was cheaper than whale oil, it had a tendency to ignite deadly fires.

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Then, in the 1850’s, a Canadian chemist by the name of Abraham Gesner invented and patented a new type of hydrocarbon and dubbed it Kerosene. He realized the product, derived from oil heavy rock such as coal, was useful as a cleaner burning fuel. It was used in lamps and as a replacement for whale oil. Due to the product being extracted from coal, the average consumer would often refer to it as ‘coal oil’ just as often as calling it ‘kerosene.’

Two years prior to the American Civil War, over thirty companies had begun using Gesner’s patented process as a means to produce kerosene. About 250 different patents for related kerosene products testified to American’s pursuit of bringing light to the overwhelming darkness of the night. Gesner, though, soon found competition from an unlikely industry.

Around the same time as Gesner’s invention of kerosene, a Mrs. Samuel Kier from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contracted what is now known today as tuberculosis. Her husband, Samuel Kier, gave her “American Oil,” a cure-all medicine bottled in Kentucky. Mrs. Kier’s ailments began to improve and her husband soon realized that the product was made from the same black substance found in his salt brine wells. He soon began to bottle his own “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil,” a product able to remedy all types of aches and pains.

Having learned of Kier’s blossoming refining business, George Bissell quickly recognized the Titusville area as being prone to petroleum seepage. He formed the “Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company” and brought on board a prolific professor from Yale, Benjamin Silliman, to analyze the crude oil. Upon Professor Silliman’s endorsement of the oil, investors began to position themselves for business and tax advantages. The company was soon succeeded by the “Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut” which called upon Edwin Laurentine Drake to head the drilling for oil in Titusville.

Drake, previously a train conductor, utilized a steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig to drill the first oil well. Drilling technology of the time usually ended with failure, and although the odds were stacked against him, Drake became a pioneer of new drilling technology. One such convention he pioneered included the use of iron pipes as a means to protect a well’s integrity. Facing many difficulties and having spent five months without recovering any oil had resulted in the unfortunate misnomer of ‘Crazy Drake.’

But despite the hardships and uncertainty of the operation, his discouraged primary driller, William ‘Uncle Billy’ Smith, had invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor’ which would prove the drillers’ worth, as well as the worth of the resource. The drill bit dropped into the crevice on that day in August, which resulted in oil floating atop the water in the well. Using a water pump, the new resource was retrieved. Drake’s first customer, Samuel Kier, paid $20 per barrel delivered to his refinery in Pittsburgh.

The original tools used by Drake and his cohorts are available for viewing at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville. A replica of the original wooden cable-tool derrick and engine house is also available for visitors to tour.

To read more about the beginnings of America’s petroleum industry, visit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society.