The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania
The most important oil well ever drilled was in the middle
of quiet farm country in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. For this was
one of the first successful oil wells that was drilled for the sole purpose
of finding oil. Known as the Drake Well, after "Colonel" Edwin Drake,
the man responsible for the well, it began an international search for
petroleum, and in many ways eventually changed the way we live.
The first oilmen
For hundreds of years, people had known about these seeps in western Pennsylvania.
In fact, there is strong evidence that Native Americans, at least as far
back as 1410 AD, had been harvesting the oil for medicinal purposes by
digging small pits around active seeps and lining them with wood. European
settlers had for years been skimming the oil from the seeps and using
the petroleum as a source of lamp fuel and machinery lubrication.
Is there money in this?
In the early 1850's, George Bissell, a New York lawyer, conceived a plan
to try and produce this oil commercially. Benjamin Silliman Jr, a chemist
at Yale University, and one of America's leading chemists, was hired to
analyze the properties of the "Seneca Oil" as an illuminant. He determined
that the oil could be distilled into several fractions, one of which was
a very high quality illuminant. With this positive information, Bissell
was able to get together some financial backers, including James Townsend,
president of a bank in New Haven, Connecticut, and formed the "Pennsylvania
Rock Oil Company".
The idea to drill
They hoped that "rock oil" could be recovered from the ground in large
enough quantities to be used commercially as a fuel for lamps. Oil had
already been used and refined and sold commercially for one of its byproducts:
kerosene. What made Bissell something of a visionary was that he would
try to extract the rock oil from the ground by drilling, using the same
techniques as had been used in salt wells. Bissell was simply looking
for a better, more reliable and plentiful source.
Why did Drake choose this spot to drill for oil? Well, the number one
beacon was the many active oil seeps in the region. As it turns out, there
had already been wells drilled that had struck oil in the region. The
only problem was, they weren't drilling for oil. Instead, they were looking
for salt water or just plain drinking water. When they struck oil, they
considered it a nuisance and abandoned the well. At the time, no one really
knew what to do with the stuff if they found it ....more