The roots of the modern U.S. oil industry trace back to Titusville, Pennsylvania, a small farm town north of Pittsburgh. It was in Titusville that the first commercially intended oil drilling operation succeeded at extracting oil from within the earth. The events that followed gave way to the lucrative and widespread oil industry that the world is so reliant upon today.
The presence of oil in western Pennsylvania was not a new phenomenon. Native Americans are believed to have been using oil from seeps for medicinal purposes as early as the 1400s, and the use of oil for lamp fuel was also common far before oil was extracted from the earth through drilling. Oil had also been frequently been encountered during drilling for salt and fresh water, though at the time was seen as a nuisance rather than a commodity, and even led to abandonment of drilling operations in the location. It was not until 1859 that Drake Well, the Titusville oil well that came to be named after Edwin Drake, was drilled for the sole objective of extracting oil from underground.
A New York lawyer named George Bissell employed the help of chemist Benjamin Silliman Jr. to determine that oil could be distilled to create a quality illuminant, among other uses. Encouraged by the prospective profitability of oil, Bissell formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, a predecessor of the Seneca Oil Company, and hired Edwin Drake to inspect and report on the oil springs on their property and develop a way to produce enough oil to be profitable. After some failed attempts, Drake decided to try drilling for oil much like miners drilled for salt, and hired an experienced salt well driller named William “Uncle Billy” A. Smith to help.
The drilling project encountered many problems, and Drake soon ran out of financial backing. On August 27, 1859, Drake and Smith had drilled to a depth of 69.5 feet and retired for the night. The next morning, oil was found floating on top of the water inside the hole. Oil was successfully extracted at a time when many people, including investors, had denounced the operation as a failure.
Seemingly overnight, people quickly moved into the area to capitalize on the discovery in a boom that can be likened to the California gold rush. Oil derricks were erected close together and in mass numbers, and towns appeared throughout the formerly quiet farm community. Until the Texas oil boom in 1901, Pennsylvania produced half of the world’s oil supply. Drake Well marked a revolutionary discovery with a lasting impact on world commerce and spurred the inception of the automobile industry.
About the Author: Bob Jent is the CEO of Western Pipeline Corporation. Western Pipeline Corp specializes in identifying, acquiring and developing existing, producing reserves on behalf of its individual clients.