By Kenneth C. Wolensky
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 2 - Spring 2009
Crude oil, found in abundance in northwestern Pennsylvania, held out many possibilities by the mid-nineteenth century. It burned when ignited, served as a practical lubricant, was thought to have medicinal properties, and had been used for various purposes by generations of Native Americans. That it might be in ample supply became apparent to many locals when it oozed from the ground and discolored streams and waterways.
In 1859, Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880) successfully drilled the world's first oil well at Titusville, and speculators, chemists, and investors combined their efforts and skills to draw oil from the ground, produce markets for it, and form America's first oil company. It was not long before a major new industry-one that would dominate American and international energy markets for generations-was launched. And Pennsylvania reigned supreme in supplying the nation with oil and petroleum products. Besides accruing handsome profits and providing jobs, oil launched many related industries, such as natural gas, and proved crucial to the Industrial Revolution sweeping the western world. It also had a darker side-environmental degradation, pollution, and denuding of pristine forests.
Like many other American industries, oil experienced booms and busts. Entire communities, such as Pithole, were rapidly built to house speculators and workers and to supply basic necessities for thousands of people. Just as quickly they disappeared, reminiscent of the ghost town popularized in folklore of the American West. By the opening of the twentieth century, other regions of the nation had begun to eclipse Pennsylvania in oil production. Perhaps few could have imagined the revolution that oil would start in America and across the globe.
Today, humans-at least those in Western societies-are completely dependent on oil and fossil fuels. Oil is in the news everyday. Its price and supply dominate political debate, while its impact affects everything from the price of gasoline to household products such as plastic bags. The site where Drake struck oil in Titusville and launched this revolution is a National Historic Landmark and ranks among the most significant industrial history sites in the world. Drake Well Museum, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) as a popular destination along the Pennsylvania Trails of HistoryTM, tells the story of the launch of the modern petroleum industry with exhibits, orientation videos, operating oil machinery, historic buildings, educational programs, and the well where Drake realized his success. Local, state, and national efforts have enabled the museum, with its vast collections of artifacts, objects, and equipment to share this important story with generations.
In recognition of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Drake's successful drilling for oil on August 27, and in observance of PHMC's annual theme for 2009, "Energy: Innovation and Impact," Barbara T. Zolli, Drake Well Museum's engaging site administrator, was interviewed for Pennsylvania Heritage. She recounts the intriguing story of Drake's well, Pennsylvania's role in the oil industry, and preserving and interpreting this significant story.
How did you become the director of Drake Well Museum?
I began as the associates' museum educator in 1990, and the director position became available in 1992. I figured that it was probably the opportunity of a lifetime. I accepted the position and have been here as director ever since. No regrets. I came here from Boston and had been teaching art in the public schools of New England for about fifteen years after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I had a little experience with museums in terms of showing my own work as a sculptor and potter, as well as a teacher. I moved to Pennsylvania in 1981.
What happened at Drake Well in 1859 and why is that important?
Edwin L. Drake drilled the world's first successful oil well. But it actually goes back further than that. Let me set the stage by saying that the native civilizations in this area were aware of oil seeping to the surface around Oil Creek. That's how the creek got its name. The Senecas were traders in the area and they gathered oil. Somewhere in the process they discovered that cribbing [oil] pits with wood increased the amount they could gather. Some wooden cribbing has been carbon dated to around 1410-1415.
After the Senecas, a man in Pittsburgh named Samuel Kier had a father who owned salt wells. Salt wells had been drilled from the 1800s in this area, but those that were in production around the middle of the century were encountering a situation where they were contaminated by crude oil-oil-spoiled salt brine. However, it caught the attention of Kier, who had heard about the Senecas' use of oil medicinally, applying it to their skin, dressing their hair, and waterproofing their hides with it. He collected crude oil from his father's wells and bottled it, selling it as a patent medicine. Kier called it "Rock Oil." Some people actually drank it.
With the lack of repeat customers and the fact that it didn't cure deafness and several of the other maladies he promised it would, diminishing sales led him to explore distilling the crude oil into kerosene. Kier took advantage of the fact that it was much simpler to distill kerosene from crude oil than from coal. He established a healthy business-moving from a single one-gallon still to the five-gallon still that we have here at the museum. That set the stage for people developing an interest in how oil could be collected and used in large quantities.
How did oil become important so quickly?
Kerosene coincides with the declining whaling industry and the need for a replacement for whale oil as a lamp fuel. When Kier was successful, the people who owned the land where Drake Well is situated, Francis Brewer and Jonathan Watson, decided to take some samples of oil back to Dr. Brewer's college-he was an alumna of Dartmouth-to ask the chemists there to evaluate it. Word came back that it had a great deal of potential if large quantities could be found. George Bissell, also a Dartmouth alum, formed a company with several other partners. It was called the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York and they eventually reincorporated it as the Seneca Oil Company in Connecticut. That company hired Edwin L. Drake, a retired railroad conductor, to come to Pennsylvania to resolve problems with the deeds and come up with suggestions for how to get more oil out of the ground.
Drake arrived here in 1857, convinced that drilling was the answer. He and Bissell both share the credit for having come up with that concept, but it's very much based on the salt well drillers. If you find oil in wells drilled for salt brine, then drilling is a logical way to find more. He was held in ridicule by most of the community here because, for them, oil was something they expected to wander to the surface in its own good time and that was the only way to collect it. Drake was successful in drilling and that pretty much launched the oil industry.
Drake's significance was that he came to Titusville with enough knowledge about salt well technology to adapt it for oil, and was observant enough to choose the most productive oil seep to drill in. Because whale oil was also a lubricant, rock oil was explored for that purpose and found to be extremely successful. Brewer and Watson had used it to lubricate their saw mills' blades and burned it in lamps for illumination. But the potential for it as a grease or lubricant was a major part of the Industrial Revolution. High speed machinery required that kind of lubrication.
Then there was the medicinal element, the part known to the Native Americans. Robert A. Chesebrough came here as a scientist to explore distilling kerosene because he had been distilling whale oil in New York City. His curiosity about the black gunk on the [drill] rod lines led him to talk to the well drillers who said that it had the capability of softening skin and healing wounds. He took that back to his laboratories in Brooklyn and, by filtering it, extracted petroleum jelly which he sold as Vaseline(r). He discovered that it did, in fact, heal things. One of the things that we overlook about petroleum is that, until that point, all the medicinal salves were based in animal fats, and some Civil War-era casualties seemed to come not from the amputations so much as from infections. Petroleum-based jelly neither contains any bacteria nor supports any airborne germs. For the Civil War, that was a major improvement and continues to be. Petroleum jelly is a product known to all of us and still used by major populations of the world.
As time went on, chemists involved in refining oil discovered all sorts of possibilities at the molecular level where they could reconstruct the hydrocarbon molecules. They invented glue, synthetic fibers and, of course, gasoline. Over time, it seems that every time we no longer needed oil for something like kerosene, another opportunity came along, such as the internal combustion engine.
What impact did the successful drilling for, and marketing of, oil have on northwestern Pennsylvania's oil region?
There are some great images of the oil region in the second half of the nineteenth century that show oil derricks as far as the eye could see in some of the areas of Titusville and what is now Venango County. From these images, it's pretty clear that this industry quickly became pervasive and really strong here through 1880. Pithole, or Pithole City-we refer to it as oil's vanished boom town-began in 1865 when three major flowing wells-we don't have gushers, we have flowing wells-came in within ten days and started a stampede to what had been a family farm. That family farm grew to a community of fifteen thousand people in nine months. Among them were a number of Civil War veterans who came to the region hoping to strike it rich. It was a very transient population. There were fifty-seven hotels in Pithole. The post office at Pithole was the third largest in volume at one point in time, second only to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The oil being produced absolutely flooded the market. It was more oil than the region was prepared to use and, therefore, prices dropped as low as ten cents a gallon. In the late 1870s, John D. Rockefeller began to control oil refining and to form mergers with other organizations and independent oil producers. His goal was to control rapid swings in the market by preventing the situation that happened at Pithole-lots of oil at a low price. Some producers developed pipelines as a way of shipping oil without paying railroads. Rockefeller eventually either built his own pipelines or acquired others when they went bankrupt. The Standard Oil Company monopoly closed some of the avenues for oil production in this area and Rockefeller had enough control of the transportation systems to strangle Titusville's independent producers. Dramatic images in Drake Well Museum's collection show environmental scarring as a result of oil drilling.
Describe the environment in the oil region today. What has and hasn't changed?
It's very hard to reconcile photographs of layers of oil on the surface of the creek, devastation from deforestation on the hillsides, and the oil-soaked lives that people led with today's pristine beauty. Natural forces here have reclaimed the environment, but we helped them along with some government regulations. People who come to the region now are delighted with how beautiful it is. Our trout streams are stocked and have become the subject of CNN documentaries for superlative fishing. Even the bald eagles are back in the valley.
What about nitroglycerin and "shooting" an oil well? You actually "shoot" a well to produce oil?
Wells were traditionally drilled with cable tools, and because Pennsylvania grade crude oil is highly paraffin based, wax built up in the well walls. Removing paraffin was difficult. Colonel E. A. L. Roberts, a Civil War veteran, noticed that artillery shells falling into canals would explode without a violent upward motion. He came to the oil region and thought that, by fracturing the underground sandstone around the well with explosives, they could increase production as more oil was able to flow into the well. He convinced a couple of people who owned wells to let him try it.
They were fearful at first that it would destroy the well, but it had quite the opposite impact. Wells are now shot as soon as they are drilled. The method of shooting a well begins with lowering a torpedo-a long cylinder- into the well and then very carefully filling it with liquid nitroglycerin. Then water is poured into the well to keep the explosion force downward and outward. To detonate the nitro, you use a squib with a stick of dynamite or something called a go-devil, which is a heavy piece of metal in a cross shape that is dropped into the well and explodes nitro on impact. We demonstrate this at Drake Well with an exciting program called the "Nitro Show."
The McClintock Well has a very interesting history. McClintock is owned by the Commonwealth, isn't that correct?
Right, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is in the oil business! The McClintock Well Number 1, located two miles north of Oil City, is shallow-only six hundred feet deep- but it's been producing oil consistently since August of 1861. We're using McClintock oil to demonstrate how Drake's well pumped. It's great to have the world's first well and the world's oldest continuously producing well working in partnership. When the Quaker State(r) Corporation relocated to Texas in 1995-its corporate headquarters had been in Oil City since the company was formed-it offered McClintock to the Commonwealth, and PHMC accepted it officially in 2000. Quaker State had acquired McClintock in the 1950s and maintained it as an icon of the industry. They pumped it about four times a year and gave the oil that it produced to the local chambers of commerce to fill small souvenir glass bottles. We're doing the same thing now. When we harvest the thirty-six to forty barrels that it produces a year, generally six of those come back to this site and are used in the replica and other demonstration wells here.
Did Pennsylvania continue to produce oil throughout the twentieth century and even to today?
The Pennsylvania oil industry was eclipsed in terms of production in 1901 by wells in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, although it began migrating elsewhere as early as the 1870s. Pennsylvania still continued to produce and refine oil, however. As late as the 1970s, the Bradford fields experienced a second boom. The oil boom moved on, leaving adjunct industries behind. When I moved to Pennsylvania in 1981, USX was beginning to close down in Oil City. Not too terribly long ago, Cyclops Steel Company in Titusville closed. The foundries and forges are gone, but some of our local industry is still petroleum-based. We have very healthy plastic and wax companies. The oil industry seems to be coming back to our area. Many "mom and pop" independents who have continued to pump shallow stripper wells are attracting attention due to the fluctuating price of oil per barrel. [Oil wells producing ten barrels or less a day during any twelve month period are generally characterized as stripper wells.] Thirty percent of the oil produced in this country comes from these independently owned shallow wells.
Drake Well and the history of oil is coming up on a significant milestone, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Drake's successful drilling for oil. What does the museum have planned?
We are designing a new exhibit based on the notion that there is a drop of oil in everyday life. The exhibit examines the role that oil plays in our lives by asking compelling questions, such as when did oil dependence begin? Yes, there are boom and bust economic cycles in our global enterprises, and there were similar cycles in the history of oil. Are we using too much oil in transportation? Some displays focus on alternative energy sources and the food versus energy debate. By making the exhibit and the issues it explores relevant and connecting the past and the present, we have a much more dynamic exhibit than we would have had if we simply focused on time periods and events. To balance the exhibit, we've come up with new interpretative strategies for telling the story and exhibiting our rich object, document, and photographic collection.
Taking the objects and the events of the past and connecting them or updating them to the present makes them livelier and that is a major point of the exhibit. People get a much better understanding of why we're in the position we're in with regard to oil and energy. I personally think we will always need oil. We want an exhibit that will make us feel as good about this historic site thirty years from now as it has for the past thirty years. The goal for the site is to be world-class. Drake Well Museum has contemporary and international relevance and this anniversary is our opportunity to get the word out. As a museum, we have a wonderful way to educate and entertain visitors at the same time.
Kenneth C. Wolensky is a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's Bureau for Historic Preservation. He contributes and provides direction to a variety of the agency's public history programs and annual themes, including "Energy: Innovation and Impact," being observed through 2009. The author has written and presented widely on labor, industrial, political, and ethnic history, and on historic preservation.
The editor acknowledges and thanks Susan J. Beates, historian and curator, and Daniel J. Weaver, museum educator, of Drake Well Museum for their outstanding assistance in identifying and providing images to illustrate this feature and our special "energy edition."
FOR FURTHER READING
Custik, Sally Ryan. Images of America: The Bradford Oil Refinery. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
Giddens, Paul H. Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginning of the Industry. Titusville, Pa.: The Colonel, 2000.
McKinney, Gary S. Oil on the Brain: The Discovery of Oil and the Excitement of the Boom in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Chicora, Pa.: Mechling Bookbindery, 2008. McLauren, John J. Sketches in Crude Oil. Titusville, Pa.: M. A. Mong, 1999.
Sherman, Jon. Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide: Drake Well Museum and Park. Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg: Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002.