Immigrants and Oil Wells

Edwin Drake (right)stands  before his oil well in1859, Titusville PA  Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

Edwin Drake (right)stands before his oil well in1859, Titusville PA
Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

 

On the way to Maine last year, we visited our daughter in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Along rural roads beside thickly wooded hills we drove to Titusville where we toured the Drake Well Museum. There, in 1859, Edwin Drake founded the U.S petroleum industry when he drilled a well to a depth of 69 feet.

For years people had searched for an alternative lighting fuel to replace the whale oil that had reached the exorbitant price of $100 a barrel. Over whaling had driven the right whale to near extinction. Crude oil could be refined, and an improved lamp burner had been developed that enabled kerosene to burn with a clean flame.

American Indians descended from Cornplanter, chief of the Seneca Nation, had showed encroaching immigrant settlers the many oil seeps throughout Venango County Pennsylvania.

Edwin Drake, a retired railroad conductor, picked a low spot on an oil seep near Titusville’s Oil Creek and drilled a 69-foot well. That well spewed forth more oil than had ever been seen.

Wildcatters soon defaced the valleys near riverbanks with wells. Following Drake, they denuded the tightly forested hills and replaced the trees with derricks. Prospectors abandoned their jobs and families and rushed to destroy the landscape with their drilling. The closely spaced wells at first produced between 1,000 and 4,000 barrels per day.

Plenty of oil in other places made the boom short-lived. Fortunes were made and lost as Pennsylvania promoters spread the word.

Edwin Drake, who failed to patent his well, died a pauper.

Today the hillsides have returned to their former wooded glory.

2 responses

  1. In the 1960’s, we had an oil derrick behind our house in Bradford, Pa. It was still pumping oil, slowly, but surely, in the parking lot of the synagogue. Bradford was past its glory days, but you could see the evidence of the boom, in the many elegant mansions along Jackson Avenue.

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