The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania (continued)

Who was "Colonel" Drake?
The truth was, Edwin Drake was not a "Colonel" of anything. He and his financiers simply invented the title to impress the locals, many of whom laughed at what was, for a time, known as "Drake's Folly". With the financial backing of the newly formed Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company (soon to be renamed Seneca Oil Company), Drake set off to Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1857 to survey the situation. Drilling began in the summer of 1859. There were many problems with this well, and progress was slow and financially costly. The initial money the investors had fronted Drake ran out, and he had to borrow more to keep drilling.

"The Yankee's Struck Oil!"
On August 27, 1859, Drake and Smith drilled to a depth of 21.18 m (69 1/2 feet). It was not until the next morning, on August 28, when the driller, "Uncle Billy" Smith, noticed oil floating in the hole they had pulled the drilling tools from the night before. By today's standards, it was a pretty unremarkable hole, probably producing 20 barrels or less of oil per day.

.....and just in time
The timing could not have been better. Most of the financial backers had given up on the project, and James Townsend, after having financed the operation out of his own pocket, had sent Drake the order to pay the remaining bills and close up shop. Drake received this order on the very day that he struck oil.

The oil boom
Almost overnight, the quiet farming region changed in much the same manner as the gold rush towns of the Wild West. The flats in the narrow valley of Oil Creek, averaging only around 330 m (~1000 feet) wide were quickly leased, and hastily constructed derricks erected. Towns sprang up out of nowhere with people coming from all over looking to make their fortunes. This once quiet area suddenly became louder than anyone could have imagined, with steam engines and other types of machinery necessary to run the hundreds of wells that sprang up in the valley in the first couple of years. And the mud was fast becoming legendary. Horses were the main means of transporting machines and oil in these early days. As soon as a trail became too muddy to travel, the trail was simply widened. Soon, the width of the trails stretched from the stream to the foot of the hills, with the entire area having been transformed into mud. Horses, which were worked to beyond exhaustion, would often sink up to their bellies in the stuff.

Triumph Hill, 1871

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

The dangers of early oil
Due to the lack of geological knowledge of the rocks beneath which were actually producing the oil, wells were drilled almost at random in those first few years. Photographs show that derricks were built at extremely close proximity to one another in an attempt to get as much oil out of the ground as fast as one could. Frequent fires often raged out of control. In fact Drake's initial well only last a few months before it burned to the ground. A second well was erected shortly thereafter.

The birth of an industry
Still not convinced that the Oil Regions in Pennsylvania were important in the early days of oil? Consider this - Pennsylvania was responsible for 1/2 of the WORLD'S production of oil until the East Texas oil boom of 1901.

Spectators watch Pond Freshet, Oil City, 1864

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

Go back to page one of Pennsylvania's Oil History

Learn about the geology of the Pennsylvania Oil Regions

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