Titusville, Pennsylvania ( 41°37'36.98"N, 79°40'26.00"W) is credited as the birthplace of the modern oil industry in the United States. It was here that Edwin L. Drake drilled for oil in the summer of 1859 and founded America’s first oil-producing well. The operation, conceived by New York lawyer George Bissell and financed by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company (later the Seneca Oil Company), was visionary in both its aims and means. Although natives of Pennsylvania, followed by European settlers, had been utilizing the petroleum which seeped up through the rock-bed for centuries, it was Drake that first drilled in the area with the direct intention of finding mass quantities of oil.
After the discovery in the mid-19th century by Yale University chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr. that oil, if properly distilled, could serve as a powerful illuminant, George Bissell came up with a plan. His vision was to extract petroleum, then known as "rock oil", in large enough quantities to make viable its sale for use in lamps. Kerosene lamps were already widely-used, and Bissell hoped that his plan would integrate favorably into the market.
In addition to the aims of the project, the means and techniques of extraction were different than any previously used for collecting petroleum sources. While known for its numerous petroleum seeps, active drilling operations in the Titusville area were focused on salt water and fresh water extraction. With this knowledge, Bissell hoped to successfully extract oil with the same technology by drilling for oil through rock – an innovative proposal that would forever change the petroleum sector and ultimately our very way of life.
It was Edwin L. Drake, however, who would ultimately decide to explore for oil in Titusville. Financed by the newly-formed Seneca Oil Company – born through a reorganization of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company put in motion by Connecticut banker James M. Townsend – Drake was charged with managing the operation. Because of the area’s history, Drake chose to drill in Titusville. The operation was initially a grand failure and adopted the moniker ‘Drake’s Folly’ from the locals who thought Drake a fool for his ventures. This perception, however, slowly changed alongside the growing success of the drilling operation.
Upon Drake’s first drilling success in Titusville on August 27, 1859, the well produced 25 barrels of oil from a depth of only 69.5 feet. This discovery, although seemingly unimpressive by today’s standards, would soon grab the attention of the nation. A plan that had initially been viewed as preposterous and empty of promise had indeed proved successful. This realization would soon create frenzy and a boom of development often compared to the California Gold Rush. The Pennsylvania oil industry flourished and the state became the provider of one-half of the world’s oil until the discovery of Texan oil fields at the start of the 20th century. Drake’s well and the subsequent rush for oil would ultimately bring fame to Titusville, Pennsylvania as the birthplace of the modern oil industry.
- Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0801863171
- Drake Well Museum Homepage
- Paleontological Research Institute: The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
- Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. NY: Free Press, 1993. ISBN: 0671799320