Edwin Drake struck oil at Titusville, Pennsylvania today in 1859, establishing the world’s first commercially successful oil well and the “modern oil industry.” Now WE know em

469px-Edwindrake Edwin Laurentine Drake was born March 29, 1819 in Greenville, New York. He grew up on family farms around New York State and Castleton, Rutland County, Vermont before leaving home at the age of 19. Edwin spent the early parts of his adult life working the railways around New Haven, Connecticut as a clerk, express agent and finally a conductor. During this time he married Philena Adams who died while giving birth to their second child in 1854. Edwin re-married three years later Laura Dowd, who was sixteen years his junior. During this summer, illness prevented Edwin from carrying on with his job. However, he was able to retain the privileges of a train conductor, including free travel on railroads. By 1858, the Drake family found themselves living in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Seneca Oil

While many knew of what we call today petroleum oil, there had been no appreciable market for it. Today, Samuel Martin Kier is credited as being the first person in the United States to refine crude oil into lamp oil (a kerosene he named “Carbon Oil”). Then Kier invented a new lamp that could burn his Carbon Oil in 1851. He never obtained a patent for his developments and many other inventors and businessmen developed this new marketplace. Then in 1853, Kier established America’s first oil refinery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Word of this new industry did not go unnoticed, because soon after George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth founded the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. They created the company after catching wind of a reported oil spring in Titusville, Pennsylvania that was also suitable for use as lamp fuel. Bissell surmised that this new ‘rock oil’ could compete with Kier’s ‘carbon oil’ as a practical alternative if a method could be devised to extract the oil from the ground. Interest in the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was initially low until a report commissioned by Bissell and Eveleth showed that there was significant economic value in petroleum. Due to a disagreement between the shareholders and the pair, the company was split with Bissell and Eveleth founding Seneca Oil in 1858. One night while staying in a hotel in Titusville, James Townsend, President of the new Seneca Oil Company met a retired railway man named Edwin Drake and offered him a job. Townsend chose Edwin partly because of his free use of the rails. Seneca Oil would offer company stock and pay Edwin a salary of $1,000 a year to investigate the local oil seeps and find a way to develop oil on land owned by Seneca Oil.

Drilling for oil

Edwin Drake set out in the spring of 1858, deciding to drill in the manner of salt well drillers. He purchased a steam engine in Erie, Pennsylvania, to power the drill. Ironically, Edwin Drake dug his first well on an island in the middle of Oil Creek. It took some time for the drillers to get through the layers of gravel. At 16 feet the sides of the hole began to collapse. Those helping him began to despair, but not Edwin Drake. It was at this point that he devised the idea of a drive pipe. This cast iron pipe consisted of 10-foot-long joints. The pipe was driven down into the ground, and at 32 feet they struck bedrock. Drilling tools were lowered through the pipe and steam was used to drill through the bedrock. The going, however, was slow. Progress was made at the rate of just three feet per day. After initial difficulty locating the necessary parts to build the well, which resulted in his well being nicknamed “Drake’s Folly”, Drake proved successful. Meanwhile crowds of people began to gather to jeer at the apparently unproductive operation. Edwin Drake was also running out of company money. Amazingly, the Seneca Oil Company had abandoned their man, and Edwin had to rely on friends to back the enterprise.

Oil Strike

By August 27, 1859, Edwin Drake had persevered and his drill bit had reached a total depth of 69.5 feet. At that point the bit hit a crevice. The men packed up for the day. The next morning Drake’s driller, Billy Smith, looked into the hole in preparation for another day’s work. He was surprised and delighted to see crude oil rising up. Edwin Drake was summoned and the oil was brought to the surface with a hand pitcher pump. The oil was then collected in a bath tub.

A historic recreation of a wooden oil derrick at Oil Creek State Park

A historic recreation of a wooden oil derrick at Oil Creek State Park

Within a day of Drake’s striking oil, his methods were being imitated by others along Oil Creek and in the immediate area. Drake’s well began producing 25 barrels of oil a day. Since Seneca Oil had pulled out leaving Drake the rights to his well, none other than Samuel Kier entered the picture. Kier offered to buy Edwin’s oil and the first shipment of oil from Drake’s well went not to Seneca Oil, but to Kier’s refinery in Pittsburgh. Soon, Edwin Drake set up a stock company to extract and market his oil. But, while his pioneering work led to the growth of an oil industry that made many people fabulously rich, Edwin Drake’s riches proved elusive. Edwin did not possess good business acumen. Again, he failed to patent his drilling invention. Then he lost all of his savings in oil speculation in 1863. America’s first oil millionaire was Jonathan Watson, a resident of Titusville. He owned the land where Edwin Drake drilled his well. He had been a partner in a lumber business prior to the success of the Drake well. At one time it was said that Titusville had more millionaires per 1,000 population than anywhere else in the world. Edwin Drake, however, was to end up as an impoverished old man. In 1872, Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500 to the “crazy man” whose determination founded the oil industry. Edwin Drake died on November 9, 1880 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he had lived since 1874. He and his wife are buried at Titusville, next to a memorial built in his honor.

Edwin Drake grave and memorial, in Titusville

Edwin Drake grave and memorial, in Titusville

Today, Edwin Drake is famous for pioneering this new method of producing oil from the ground. He drilled using piping to prevent borehole collapse, allowing for the drill to penetrate further and further into the ground. Previous methods for collecting oil had been limited. Ground collection of oil consisted of gathering it from where it occurred naturally, such as from oil seeps or shallow holes dug into the ground. Drake tried the latter method initially when looking for oil in Titusville. However, it failed to produce economically viable amounts of oil. Alternative methods of digging large shafts into the ground also failed, as collapse from water seepage almost always occurred. The significant step that Drake took was to drive a 32-foot iron pipe through the ground into the bedrock below. This allowed Drake to drill inside the pipe, without the hole collapsing from the water seepage. The principle behind this idea is still employed today by many companies drilling for hydrocarbons.

Now WE know em

Drake Well Museum

The Drake Well Museum is a 290-acre park where Edwin Drake successfully drilled for oil. It consists of a museum with artifacts, outdoor operating oil field equipment and a research library with photographs, manuscripts and more. The Drake Well Replica operates from May – September but the site and museum are open year round with frequent demonstrations and tours.


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