Before foreign oil, the U.S. relied on domestic oil discovered in 1859 in western Pennsylvania. Through that discovery, Americans learned the many uses of oil.
Titusville is a small town located in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. It was first settled by Jonathan Titus in 1796. The lumberjacking was the main source of employment until the discovery of oil.
What Led Big Oil Companies to Pennsylvania
Oil companies were using whale oil which was becoming difficult to find and expensive were looking for another oil source. They were aware of Hamilton McClintock, a farmer, who owned property where the oil was seeping to the top of his water and gathered 20 to 30 barrels of oil in one season. The problem was that no one knew how to dig for the oil.
Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, later known as the Seneca Oil Company, owned land in western Pennsylvania, the owners found the property to be unproductive financially since there was no way to drill for oil. Wanting the land to pay for itself and wanting to make a profit, Drake was hired to figure out a technique that would pump the oil to the surface.
Who Was Edwin Drake?
Drake, known to be a drifter, was born in Greenville, New York in March of 1819. He picked up various jobs to support himself prior to his oil discovery in Titusville.
In 1849 he got a job as a conductor for the New York & New Hampshire Railroad. Later he became ill and had to leave his position as conductor. During this time, he crossed paths George Bissell, owner of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and soon Drake was on his way to Titusville.
Drake settled in Titusville in 1857. In 1858, he gave himself the title of “Colonel”. The purpose of giving himself the title was so the locals would take him more seriously. They like Drake; they just did not believe that he could figure out a way to get the petroleum out of the ground.
Designing a New Oil Drilling Technique
While discussing with George Bissell the technique of drilling oil the two men came up with the idea to use the same method as salt drilling.
Drake hired William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a blacksmith, who knew how to work a salt well driller.
The goal was to drill down 1000 feet, but the drilling had to stop at 16 feet due to the earth collapsing inside the hole.
Drake reevaluated the situation and came up with the idea to design a drive pipe, aka a conductor. The drive pipe is described as having “joints ten feet long and made from cast iron”. The drill bit was located inside the pipe in order to prevent the earth from collapsing around the bit. “Uncle Billy” drilled approximately three feet at a time breaking through rock and shale.
Town Goes Wild after Petroleum Discovery
The task of drilling for oil was challenging and Drake hit many obstacles. After months of drilling without success he lost his financial backing and forced to find money elsewhere. The town’s people began to call him “Crazy Drake”, still he persevered. Then on August 27, 1859, after drilling seventy feet, Drake’s diligence paid off.
After the first oil drill success, thousands of people flocked to Titusville as was done during the 1849 gold rush. The small town pumped out 25 barrels a day and in some instances 3,000 barrels a day. Until 1901, Pennsylvania produced half of the world’s oil.
“Colonel” Drake Receives Little Compensation
The Seneca Oil Company did not compensate Drake until years later, which was not much, and unfortunately, Drake never patented the drive pipe he designed. He was financially in a crisis, especially after an oil stock investment.
After drifting from town to town, “Colonel” Drake returned to Titusville where he was helped out financially. The Pennsylvania State Legislature voted to give him compensation of $1500 for his role in promoting Pennsylvania’s oil industry.
Edwin Drake died on November 8, 1880 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where he spent his later years. He was buried there until eleven years later when his body was moved to Titusville. The town erected a monument to him at Woodlawn Cemetery.
- “Edwin Drake.” Who Made America? 2004. PBS. 7 July 2008.
- Dobler, Lavinia G. Black Gold of Titusville. NY, Dodd, Mead, 1959.