Stories from PA History
Striking Oil
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Striking Oil
Chapter One: Discovery and Early Development

During the industry's early stages few people knew how to find oil. Neither was there much knowledge on the tools and equipment necessary to begin exploration. At best, finding oil was speculative. James M. Townsend, president of Seneca Rock Oil Company of Connecticut (renamed from the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company), picked markerEdwin L. Drake to oversee the first well drilling. A former conductor on the New Haven Railroad, Drake had recently left his job on the railroad but maintained a rail pass that enabled him to travel anywhere for free.
Two gentlemen dressed in suits, one in a top hat, stand in front of a tall oil derrick that is enclosed with wooden planks.
Two gentlemen dressed in suits, one in a top hat, stand in front of a tall oil...

Drake soon traveled to Titusville. The historical record disagrees on Drake's level of practical knowledge and ability. Some critics said that he didn't even know what oil looked like. Drake later reported that on that first day in Titusville, "within ten minutes after my arrival upon the ground... I had made up my mind that [petroleum] could be obtained in large quantities by Boreing as for Salt Water. I also determined that I should be the one to do it."

Regardless of his knowledge or lack thereof, Drake proved patient and resourceful. Some local folks thought that Drake's speculation was ridiculous; others came to the site to jeer. Though several blacksmiths refused to assist him, markerWilliam Smith, agreed to aid Drake. Following several months of exploration Drake and Smith still had not struck oil. Investors in New Haven grew particularly restless when, in late summer 1859, Drake wired them seeking more funding. Despite their suggestion that he look elsewhere for oil, Drake refused to quit. His perseverance paid off. On August 27, 1859, a day that Drake had taken off to observe the Sabbath, Smith detected a greenish-black substance oozing from a well. With the innovative use of a "drive pipe" Drake and Smith had indeed found oil (the drive pipe spurred the industry's growth; had Drake patented the idea, he probably would have died a wealthy man).

Word spread quickly throughout northwestern Pennsylvania, resulting in a rush of potential prospectors sweeping through markerOil Creek and further down the Allegheny River to Franklin. Folklore has it that townspeople discussed which of their neighbors' drinking water tasted most like oil or they remembered which of the region's traditional salt wells had been markerOil Producing Salt Wells. Though it was far from a "gusher" Edwin L. Drake and William Smith's first well unleashed a period of dramatic changes on the region, Pennsylvania, and the nation.
Head and shoulders portrait of Edwin L. Drake.
Head and shoulders portrait of Edwin L. Drake.

The markerOldest Producing Oil Well, known as the "McClintock No. 1", in Venango County, demonstrated that a single well could be a money-maker for over 100 years. Businesses benefited from the boom in oil, especially those connected to refining and transportation. Initially oil was carried to market by horse-drawn wagons. The markerFirst Oil Pipeline marked a new stage in the transport of crude by sending it through a pipeline directly to a train or refinery.

Once piped, the oil needed to be processed, or refined. Refineries were established to separate impurities from the crude oil in order that it would burn more effectively. While the markerKier Refinery was one of the earliest, others soon followed in the oil fields such as the markerEarly Refinery or markerHumboldt Refinery. Despite the fact that the early petroleum industry was subject to boom-and-bust cycles, artifacts were preserved to tell its unique story. markerJohn A. Mather was so taken with the petroleum revolution that he dedicated his life to preserving a related photographic record. His images, as well as many other historic items, are now preserved in the Drake Well Museum, which is located at markerDrake Well Park.
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