Pennsylvania remains in the midst of an incredible natural gas boom, with dozens of companies flocking to its Marcellus Shale basin and giving the state — and the country — an economic jolt.But a hydrocarbon frenzy in Pennsylvania is not without precedent.
153 years ago today, a hard-up wildcatter named Edwin Drake drilled the country’s first oil well.
But while the event itself was momentous, Drake’s life remained tragic throughout.
For the first decade of his adult life, he held odd jobs, according to Penn State’s Urja Davé. His first wife died in child birth. Eventually he landed a gig with the New York and New Haven railroad but was eventually forced to retire when he became ill with muscular neuralgia.
Up until 1859, oil had been gathered by collecting whatever had seeped through to the surface — known drilling methods were deemed too dangerous.
Still, everyone knew that Pennsylvania had enormous potential.
Eventually, a group of chemists, lawyers, and others formed the first oil company in the United States, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, Davé writes. The company hired Drake “due to the sheer coincidence that he was out of work and staying at the same hotel as the founders of the company.”
Apparently frustrated with the methods at hand, Drake realised that if he could grind down the rocks before simply drilling through them, he could better access whatever flowed up from the ground.
On Saturday, August 27, 1859, Smith’s drill bit smashed through a rock ledge 75-feet deep. It then slipped another eight inches into a dirt crevice.
According to Kendall F. Haven, at this point the sun was setting and work halted.
The next morning, Drake discovered an enormous pool of oil covering the ground around the well, “as if the derrick was rising from the middle of a quiet, black lake,” Haven writes. “By noon on Monday, every container he could find was filled with oil — tubs, empty whiskey barrels, troughs and jugs.”
“Western Pennsylvania produced half of the world’s oil until the East Texas oil boom in 1901.”
Tragically, Drake failed to patent his method, and Seneca Oil had already laid him off.
Drake dug just two more wells, and by the 1870s, they’d stopped producing.
For a brief time, Drake became a Justice of the Peace in 1860 but poor health again scuttled his work. Eventually, Davé says, “The caring residents of Titusville started a collection for him in 1870 and convinced the General Assembly in 1873 to provide Drake’s family with an annual pension of $1,500.”
Drake died in Bethlehem, PA in 1880, and was later moved to Titusville, where he remains today. In 1902, a Standard Oil Executive built a statue of Drake at his burial site.
The original tools that Drake used for Oil Creek Well can be found at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.