On This Day

Titusville oil, drake well, drake oil well
Associated Press
Edwin Drake, right, stands with Peter
Wilson in front of the Drake Well.

On This Day: Drake Well Strikes Oil

August 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 27, 1859, the Drake Well in Titusville, Pa., became the first well in the United States to strike oil, sparking the rise of America’s multibillion-dollar oil industry.

“Birthplace of the Oil Industry”

Titusville, Pa., was a small town near Oil Creek, a river known for the oil found in its banks. For years residents had skimmed the river for oil and used it for its curative properties, but it was not considered a valuable substance.

In 1850, western Pennsylvania salt mine owner Samuel M. Kier developed a method to distill crude oil into a product he called “carbon oil.” The new product didn’t give off the black smoke and foul odor of crude, and it began replacing whale oil as an illuminant.

The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, later the Seneca Oil Company, was formed to profit off the rising value of oil. It sent “Colonel” Edwin Drake, an out-of-work train conductor, to Titusville in 1858 to find a way to extract large quantities of oil.

He spent the first half of 1858 trying to dig up the oil, but he could only extract several gallons a day. In July, he decided to try drilling for oil in the same manner as salt well drillers, who had mistakenly hit oil before but deemed the substance useless and disposed of it. Drake employed William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a blacksmith who had worked on many salt wells, to begin drilling.

Drake spent the remainder of the year erecting an engine house for his steam engine. When drilling commenced, he encountered a major problem: gravel and water would fill the hole as it was drilled.

It appeared that Drake would never be able to reach oil, and locals nicknamed him “Crazy Drake” for continuing to try. In April 1859, his contract with Seneca expired and the company gave up on the well, but he was given $500 by a company board member to continue.

He devised a plan to deal with the water and gravel by driving a large iron pipe into the ground and running the drilling tools down through the pipe. The pipe protected the tools and the hole from water and gravel, and allowed the drilling team to make good progress.

At the end of the day on Saturday, Aug. 27, as the drill reached 69 feet, it dropped a half-foot into a crevice. Smith returned the following day and saw oil lying on top of the water. By Monday, Drake was pumping anywhere between 10 and 40 barrels a day, and the American petroleum industry was born.

The Rise of the Oil Industry

"The excitement attendant on the discovery of this vast source of oil was fully equal to what I ever saw in California when a large lump of gold was accidentally turned out,” declared the Sept. 13, 1859, edition of the New York Daily Tribune.

Soon after Drake’s success, new companies were created to begin drilling throughout western Pennsylvania. Within 15 months, there were 75 oil wells operating near Oil Creek.

The early oil industry was disorganized and only moderately successful. Many potential customers were unsure of how well the unfamiliar substance would work, and much of the oil on the market was unrefined. It would take a year before more refineries were built to cope with the flow of oil.

The industry had many small drillers and refiners, but that would change with the rise of John D. Rockefeller and the formation of Standard Oil in 1870. Rockefeller bought out many of the smaller oil companies and created a large corporation that moved oil from the ground to consumers cheaply and efficiently.

The American oil industry grew into one of the largest and most powerful industries in the world. In 2009, the Oil Region Alliance (ORA) celebrated the 150th anniversary of Drake’s discovery.

“The Drake Well near Titusville, Pennsylvania represents the start of the life-changing events that would not be possible without petroleum,” writes the ORA. “Achievements by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, the Seneca Oil Company, and ‘Colonel’ Edwin L. Drake at Drake Well ignited a triumph of American ingenuity, inventiveness, and diligence in developing new technologies, new business models, and new industries which remain an inspiration for Americans.”

Reference: Drake Well Museum


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