Pennsylvania's Black Gold

Whales in Vanity Fair magazine. National Park Service.

A political cartoon that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1861 depicting the whales rejoicing. They were no longer the sole source of oil after it was discovered in Pennsylvania. National Park Service.

In Tarentum, a town 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, Samuel Kier and his father owned salt wells that produced an annoying quantity of oil along with the desired salt brine—a problem that plagued salt-well operators in the 19th century. To get rid of the oil, in 1852 Kier started marketing it as a medicinal product under the name “Kier’s Petroleum, or Rock Oil.” Kier claimed his “medicine”—sold in 8-ounce jars for 50 cents—cured burns, ulcers, cholera, asthma, indigestion, rheumatism, and blindness.

Seeking other uses for his oil, Kier sent a sample to James Curtis Booth of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and later president of the American Chemical Society, who suggested distilling petroleum as an illuminant. Armed with a drawing provided by Booth, Kier built a one-barrel, cast-iron still on Seventh Avenue in Pittsburgh and sold kerosene, which he called “carbon oil,” for $1.50 per gallon. But the difficulty of getting it out of the ground limited its utility.

One hundred miles north in Titusville, Pennsylvania, for reasons not entirely clear, Colonel Edwin Drake decided to solve this problem. In 1859 he succeeded in drilling the first oil well, though much about Drake and his well was accidental. Even his title—colonel—came not from military advancement but because one of his sponsors thought it lent prestige to his quest for oil.

To accomplish his goal, Drake decided that he needed two things: equipment and someone with experience boring into salt wells. He ordered an engine and built a pump house, then hired William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a blacksmith with drilling experience. 

Smith arrived in Titusville in May 1859 to find that Drake’s men had dug a hole 150 feet from Oil Creek. Sitting below the level of the stream, the hole kept filling with water. Smith tried pumping it out with little success. Finally, Drake and Smith obtained cast-iron pipe, which they drove about 32 feet into the bedrock and 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, 27 August, with the drill at a depth of 69 feet, work stopped. The next day “Uncle Billy” inspected the well and saw an oily fluid at the top of the pipe. News soon spread along Oil Creek and into Titusville, but Drake did not get word of the discovery 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.

Judah Ginsberg is manager of the National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program at the American Chemical Society.