Birth of an industry

Titusville marks the 150th anniversary of the first successful oil well


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When Seneca Rock Oil Co. officials sent Edwin L. Drake into the oil region of Pennsylvania, they were not looking for a way to transform the world's use of energy.

But Mr. Drake found one, on Aug. 27, 1859, when a well he dug for Seneca became the first to strike oil, at 691?2 feet.

The economic transformation resulting from Mr. Drake's well may have a counterpart in today's exploration of natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale, said Leslie Haines, editor in chief of Oil and Gas Investor, a Houston-based trade journal.

"The difference is that the first oil wells used very primitive technology, and people didn't really know what they had," she said. "This time around, Pennsylvania is very fortunate because we have 150 years of technology advancements to bring to bear. … People in Pennsylvania will be surprised by the amount of natural gas that can be recovered."

The Seneca Rock Oil Co., which was based in New Haven, Conn., was looking for medicine when it sent Mr. Drake to Pennsylvania.

A Pittsburgh merchant named Samuel L. Kier had established the market for petroleum, or rock oil, which he sold in 1-ounce bottles as a cure for "everything from baldness and blindness to diarrhea," said Marilyn Black, vice president for heritage development with the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry and Tourism in Oil City, Venango County.

Assigned to Titusville, Mr. Drake joined others in trying to figure out how to extract oil from the earth through a well, rather than skimming it from the area's creeks and lakes.

When he succeeded, he unleashed an economic boom. In 1859, a total of 4,450 barrels of oil were captured; the following year, more than 220,000 barrels.

The use of oil as a lubricant, and as the base for kerosene for lamps, outstripped medicinal use (which never went away -- Chapstick, anyone?).

Revenues from oil sold to Europe helped to finance the Union's campaign in the War Between the States. Wells were dug in California, Ohio, West Virginia, Canada and Russia, especially by Standard Oil of New York, which controlled 90 percent of the nation's refining capacity by 1878. In 1880, the year that Mr. Drake died, some 31 million barrels were pumped, 26 million in Pennsylvania.

One of the waste byproducts of the refining process was some smelly stuff called gasoline, which was dumped. German engineer Karl Benz did not build the first internal combustion engine vehicle until 1885; the first American car, built by the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Mass., came in 1893.

The tipping point, when gasoline replaced kerosene as the primary product from oil, came around 1905, Ms. Black said.

Titusville, Crawford County, the place where it all started, has prepared for the 150th anniversary of Mr. Drake's achievement with a series of events, and today will celebrate with a Drake Day Extravaganza, an all-day offering of food, music, storytelling and discussion about energy.

The Drake Well Museum, a reconstruction of the original well built at the same location, will receive a plaque from the American Chemical Society, declaring it a national historical chemical landmark.

As for the man who started it all? In an irony of cinematic proportions, Mr. Drake not only did not share in the profits from the first well, he lost most of his money. According to a Drake Well Museum brochure, in 1869, "a Titusville acquaintance found the family 'without the comforts of life and living on a bare floor.'"

In response to a petition from the people of Titusville, the state General Assembly established a pension for Mr. Drake in 1873 of $1,500 a year (about $26,000 in 2008 dollars), which after his death went to his wife Laura, who died in 1916.


Elwin Green may be contacted at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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