The Development of the Pennsylvania Oil Industry
Development of the Pennsylvania oil industry started in 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first oil well.
Long before Texas gushers and off shore drilling, and a century before oil wells dotted Arabian sands and rose out of Venezuelan waters, the center of petroleum production was western Pennsylvania. In the middle of the 19th century two developments occurred that guaranteed Pennsylvania’s dominance: the construction, in Pittsburgh, of the first still to refine crude oil into kerosene for use in lighting and the drilling of the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Col. Edwin Drake is famous for drilling the first oil well in 1859. An expert he hired, William Smith discovered that a hole – located close to a creek and below the level of a stream – kept filling with water. He tried pumping out the water, with little success. Finally, Drake and Smith obtained cast iron pipe which they drove about 32 feet into the bedrock – past the water – using a white-oak battering ram. In mid-August Smith began drilling his well, through the pipe, with steam power, averaging about three feet a day.
On Saturday, August 27, with the drill at a depth of 69 feet, work stopped. Everyone expected to have to drill at least several hundred feet deeper. The next day, “Uncle Billy” inspected the well and saw fluid at the top of the pipe. Smith realized it was oil. News soon spread along Oil Creek and into Titusville, but Drake did not get the word until Monday morning when he arrived at the well and saw Smith surrounded by barrels, tubs, and jars of oil. No one realized it at the time, but Drake had drilled in the only spot in the region where oil could be found at such a shallow depth as 69 feet.
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Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program