Monday, March 31, 2014

Pennsylvania Oil Rush of 1859

Pennsylvanian Oil Wells (1862)
Oil is one of the most precious commodities in the planet. It powered trucks, cars, and power plants. It was the main foundation of the industrialized and modernized world. Without it, the world would remain backward. Technology would remain primitive. And the basic source of labor would remain animals and men. In the United States, the discovery of oil was a god send. 

The discovery of this black gold began in the state of Pennsylvania in the year 1859. Before the discovery of oil, the world only used manpower, mechanical power and animal power. Machines were powered by steam and coal. Cars were not existent; horses were the king of the road. For lighting in the very dark nights, fire illuminated the houses of many people. To have candle was a status symbol. Candles were still made from the wax and oil of giant swimming whales in the oceans. Whalers toiled to find and kill such huge creatures, thus a price of a candle was very expensive. Oil did have a role before its discovery to power the world. It was used by Native Indians for ointments in the skin and medicine for some diseases.

The status of oil, America, and the world itself would change with the start of the second half of the 19th century. In England, the invention of the steam engine propelled the island kingdom to be the richest nation in the world. The industrial revolution changed the landscape of cities and the society. Later on, other countries joined the revolution. Belgium, France, and Germany, created the bulk of the industrial might of Europe. With ships and trade crossing the Atlantic, it was not a surprise that the United States would also join the club of industrializing countries.

During the industrial revolution in the United States, oil was seen by some as either medicine or poison. In Pennsylvania, salt water miners struck some of the black gold accidently. Not knowing to the profitable prospects of the black fluid, they saw it as poison and hindrance to their salt business. To other people, they still haven’t unlock its potential as a future lighting source. Much of the lighting of the Americans came from kerosene distilled from rock oils that were products of oil shale. In addition, the processing of the rock oils were still expensive and cumbersome. In would be up to two businessmen to begin the discovery of the reserves and revealing to the world its true potential. 

During the early 1850’s, a partner would get support of a financier and a chemist and began to pursuit that would propel the world into a new era. A New York lawyer named George Bissell received a sample of oil rocks coming from a farm town of Titusville in Pennsylvania. He then contacted Jonathan Eveleth to become a partner for a company he planned that would supposed to process rock stone. The two then were able secure financial backing from a Connecticut banker named James Townsend. Finally, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was formed. The company then learned of gushing black fluid in Titusville and began a study of its profitable potential. They hired a well-known Yale University chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr. to study oil samples from Titusville. 

The result of the study revealed that distillation of the oil would produce kerosene, important for lighting, and further distillation would result for creation of lubricants. After knowing the potential of crude oil, they wanted to find its source. They hired a former railroad worker Edwin Drake to do the job. Drake was a man of publicity during his railroad days. He gave himself a title of “colonel” to give an impression of stature and respect. In 1857, Drake was sent by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company to Titusville to inspect the area for prospects of oil. The inspection of Drake revealed positive results. The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was reorganized to become the Seneca Oil Company with Drake as President. 

Drake began to drill in search for oil in May 1858. He asked from the Seneca Oil Company for $1000 worth of supplies. In addition, he also requested for drilling equipment. He received a steam power drilling equipment capable of drilling three feet into the ground a day. He then looked for a driller that would operate the equipment. Finding an operator proved to be difficult. For a year, he looked around for a drill expert but in vain. People began to judge his idea of looking for oil in the ground as insanity. Later on, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a blacksmith, took the job and drag also his son to work in the drill in May 1859. The spot they choose for the drilling was near Oil Creek. 

The whole drilling operation was frustrating. They faced several obstacles in search of oil. During their drilling, they hit a reservoir of water in the ground. Drilling through the reservoir and if oil was struck, contamination of clean water could occur. They had to find a way to get pass of the clean supply of water and continue the drilling. Smith, who was a blacksmith, made an iron pipe that would be placed through the water reserve. With the iron pipe, drilling could continue and any contamination could be avoided. 

The next challenge to Smith and Drake was more of patience than drilling. The slow pace of drilling resulted to no oil for several months. Locals began to complain of the noise that it created. Drake’s boss, James Townsend, was also losing patience from the zero results. Drake eventually received orders from Townsend to stop the operations. Drake ignored his orders and borrowed $500 from the locals to continue the drill. Both men were losing faith by mid-1859. Day and night they toiled but continued to hope for oil. On August 27, 1859, luck struck them. With the depth of 69 and half feet down below the group, oil seeped through the hole. He was lucky to have struck in a reserved closed through the ground. Smith amazed with the discovery began to fill several barrels with oil. It was only in Monday when Drake arrived in the seen and saw that Smith had already filled numbers of barrels and jars. Their whole would eventually produce 4,500 by the end of 1859. 

His discovery led to the Pennsylvania Oil Rush of 1859. Prospectors arrived in search of oil. The once sleepy and farm towns of Titusville and whole Pennsylvania was awaken by men drilling in search of oil and wealth. By the end of 1860, there exist 74 oil wells in the area and continued to rise. Towns and cities flourish through the sudden increase of customers. Cities rose and died because of the rush. In 1865, for example, the city of Pithole was having a population of 1500 when oil was being extracted in the area. A year later when the oil was gone, the city disappeared in the map. 

For the whole United States Economy, the discovery of oil was a wonder. Prices of oil dropped significantly. Numerous oil refineries established in Pennsylvania. The competition, however, was intense and caused unstable pricing of oil. In the 1870’s, one company and its owner would bring stability and monopoly to the oil industry. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil dominated the oil industry. It brought huge wealth to Rockefeller and also through brought benefits to the rise of industrialized America, especially after the end of the bloody Civil War. For the men who toiled and drilled in Titusville, however, was tragic. William Smith was not able to patent his pipe and was not able to earn royalties from it. For Edwin Drake, it was much worse. He was bought out of the Seneca Oil Company for $1000. He never tried to enter the oil business and became poor. In 1880, he died poor and sick.
Klein, P. & Ari Hoogenboom. A History of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 1980.

Pencak, W. Historic Pennsylvania: An Illustrated History. Korea: Historical Publishing Network, 2008. 

“Development of the Pennsylvania Oil Industry.” American Chemical Society. Accessed March 31, 2014.

“The World of Oil.” Museum of the Earth. Accessed March 31, 2014.  


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. There is never any mention of my 3rd GreatGrandfather, John Blood, whose Land is now State Property. He discovered the oil and had Drake drill for it. He sold his rights to Standard Oil Company and the Rockefeller’s. The stories have been passed down along with the papers for generations.


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