The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania

The most important oil well ever drilled was in the middle of quiet farm country in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. For this was one of the first successful oil wells that was drilled for the sole purpose of finding oil. Known as the Drake Well, after "Colonel" Edwin Drake, the man responsible for the well, it began an international search for petroleum, and in many ways eventually changed the way we live.

Woodford and Phillips wells, Tarr Farm, 1861

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From Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, PA

The first oilmen
For hundreds of years, people had known about these seeps in western Pennsylvania. In fact, there is strong evidence that Native Americans, at least as far back as 1410 AD, had been harvesting the oil for medicinal purposes by digging small pits around active seeps and lining them with wood. European settlers had for years been skimming the oil from the seeps and using the petroleum as a source of lamp fuel and machinery lubrication.

Is there money in this?
In the early 1850's, George Bissell, a New York lawyer, conceived a plan to try and produce this oil commercially. Benjamin Silliman Jr, a chemist at Yale University, and one of America's leading chemists, was hired to analyze the properties of the "Seneca Oil" as an illuminant. He determined that the oil could be distilled into several fractions, one of which was a very high quality illuminant. With this positive information, Bissell was able to get together some financial backers, including James Townsend, president of a bank in New Haven, Connecticut, and formed the "Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company".

Empire Well, Funkville, 1863

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From Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Drake Well Museum Collection, Titusville, PA

The idea to drill
They hoped that "rock oil" could be recovered from the ground in large enough quantities to be used commercially as a fuel for lamps. Oil had already been used and refined and sold commercially for one of its byproducts: kerosene. What made Bissell something of a visionary was that he would try to extract the rock oil from the ground by drilling, using the same techniques as had been used in salt wells. Bissell was simply looking for a better, more reliable and plentiful source.

Why Titusville?
Why did Drake choose this spot to drill for oil? Well, the number one beacon was the many active oil seeps in the region. As it turns out, there had already been wells drilled that had struck oil in the region. The only problem was, they weren't drilling for oil. Instead, they were looking for salt water or just plain drinking water. When they struck oil, they considered it a nuisance and abandoned the well. At the time, no one really knew what to do with the stuff if they found it ....more

 

 

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