America's first oil well poured forth its rich treasure on August.28' 1859. Its rickety wooden tower stood near Oil Creek, not far from the sleepy little Pennsylvania village of Titusville. Within three months, the little village was a settlement of 10,000 and in two years it was a thriving community of 50,000. Ten years later, the oil ran dry and the boom town was almost deserted.
This was the first oil well to yield in the United States. But the presence of petroleum or rock oil, was discovered long before this. In certain areas, the buried reservoirs of oil seep to the surface. This surface oil may mix with the water in briny springs, float on creeks or ooze up to form puddles of sticky asphalt.
The first settlers in the New World found that the Indians had already discovered petroleum. Soon it was used as a patent medicine cure all. The settlers skimmed the oil from certain creeks, boiled it and sold it as a medicine called Seneca Oil. So no one can say for sure when petroleum was discovered in America or who discovered it.
The settlers soon found that petroleum could be used as a lamp oil. But the flame it gave was smokey and smelly far inferior to the precious whale oil which the settlers used to light their lamps, But there were experimental scientists, even in those days. One of these determined experimenters was Samuel Kier, a druggist of Pittsburgh. He was sure that petroleum could be refined and its,smelly, smokey qualities removed. to make it suitable for lamp oil. The result of his and other experiments. was kerosene.. By 1847: . it was known that petroleum could .be refined to make both lamp oil and lubricating oil . People saw ,its value and went hunting for it.
But they did not dream of the great part their old Seneca Oil was to play in the dawning Age of Industry.
One of the businesses organized to find oil was called the Seneca Oil Company. Oil Creek, Penna., was selected as a likely spot and surrounding property was leased. The idea was to drill for oil vxhich was obviously seeping from underground. Edwin Drake was hired to plan the job. His helpers were Uncle Billy Smith and his two sons who were known experts at drilling brine wells.
The old brie well methods, however, did not work. The Smiths idea was to dig a pit down to bed rock, pierce a hole and pump up the fluid. Their pits caved in. Drake solved the problem by using a steam engine to drive a drill straight down through the ground. The drill was encased in a sturdy pipe to prevent cave ins. From pictures taken at the time, it seems that Drake supervised this project wearing a tall black. hat and a thick black beard. But this did not hinder' him from becmlng the fira4 man t o drill successfully for petroleum.