Stories from PA History
Striking Oil
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Striking Oil
Overview: Striking Oil

A curious dark liquid that occasionally oozed from the ground in northwestern Pennsylvania began attracting attention in the mid 19th century. In 1851 Dr. Francis Brewer, a Vermont physician and native of Titusville, returned to his adopted state with five gallons of "crude oil" and pondered its potential use. Nearly a decade earlier one S.M. Kier of Tarentum knew of the existence of the substance, learned that it could burn, and suggested that it might have medicinal purposes.
A group of men and women pose within the fenced perimeter of a back yard. Directly behind the fence is a tall oil derrick. More men have climbed the derrick and are posing at varying heights.
Oil Derricks near Lamartine, PA, circa 1865.

Petroleum, as the substance would become more commonly known, is a naturally thick, sticky substance that has had a number of uses. Pre-historic or Paleo-Indians who ventured from settlements along the Mississippi River to the area around present-day Pittsburgh had discovered pooling oil and used it for decoration, skin coloring, medicinal purposes and various religious practices. European explorers in the Oil Creek Valley found about two thousand ceremonial troughs dug along the banks of Oil Creek, in the northwest corner of present-day Pennsylvania. American settlers soon understood oil's utility as medicine and local manufacturers used it to lubricate their machinery and for lighting.

Brewer and many others knew that oil existed in Titusville, particularly around a local stream called Oil Creek, where it occasionally bubbled from the ground. During a trip to Titusville in 1851 he contracted with a local man, J.D. Angier, to collect oil for him. This was the first time anyone signed a formal oil lease. Brewer hired Angier to gather oil bubbling on the surface of Oil Creek. Angier dug trenches to convey oil and water to a central basin, where he separated the oil from the water and gathered about three to four gallons a day.

Brewer soon took a drum of oil to Dixi Crosby, a chemist at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, who in turn gave some to businessman George Bissell. Bissell, an attorney with ties to the coal business, immediately realized that the oil could serve as an illuminant. In the 1850s whale oil, or sperm oil, remained the most popular illuminant in the world. Although quite expensive, it was used both in lamps and candles. Businessmen such as Bissell introduced alternatives in the early to mid-19th century including coal oil, coal gas, camphene and animal-based oils. Entrepreneurs realized that a commodity that could be the least expensively produced and found in abundance would create light for the masses. It would also create a fortune for its developers. Albert H. Crosby, the chemistry professor's son, and Brewer soon signed a lease with Bissell to "dig" for oil on a tract of land near Titusville. The lease included a clause that required Bissell to raise $250,000 to back the project.
A head and shoulders portrait of Dr. Francis Brewer.
A head and shoulders portrait of Dr. Francis Brewer.

Potential investors demanded scientific verification that rock or crude oil would be an abundant, cheap source of fuel that could produce light. Bissell turned to the world famous chemist, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale University who, in April 1855, released a report estimating that at least 50 percent of crude oil could be distilled into a satisfactory illuminant for use in camphene lamps and 90 percent could be distilled into products holding commercial promise. As a result, Bissell incorporated the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of Connecticut, on September 18, 1855.

Two years later, Bissell's successor as president of the company, James M. Townsend, a New Haven banker, contracted with Edwin L. Drake, a recently retired employee of the New Haven Railroad, to oversee an effort to drill for greater reserves of crude. In 1857 Drake began drilling in Titusville. Over the next several years the efforts of Drake and others built an industry around "black gold" in northwestern Pennsylvania. During the 1860s and 1870s Pennsylvania dominated in production of the world's supply of oil and petroleum-based products in a fashion that has not yet been matched. Historian Daniel Yergin writes, "Never again would any single region have such a grasp on supply of the raw material." This region moved with the evolving industry through an initial period of boom and bust to an era of expanding scope and organization. Oil also spurred related industries, including natural gas, which became a profitable enterprise by the early 1900s.

By the 1880s, other parts of the country had unseated Pennsylvania as the world's largest oil producer. The pursuit of black gold spread throughout the Midwest and eventually reached Texas and California. During the twentieth century, the mania for oil literally remade the globe. Yet no matter which region hosted the next oil frontier, it was in Oil Creek that the industry got its start.

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