150th Anniversary of Edwin Drake’s First Oil Well in Pennsylvania

Michael Giberson

Here’s wishing a happy 150th birthday to the oil industry!

On August 27, 1859, Edwin Drake and his steam engine succeeded, after weeks of work, in drilling a successful oil well.  Actually, more like “chipping” than “drilling.”  Alex Madrigal has the story and several old stereograph images:

A western Pennsylvania river valley seems an unlikely place to go looking for momentous change, but the historical fact is that the Oil Creek valley, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh, was the world’s very first oil field. From 1859 to 1873, this was the largest oil field in the world. During that time, 56 million barrels of oil came out of the ground.

Take note of the description of the stereograph [MG: see it on Madrigal’s site]: “Source of the world’s most gigantic fortunes — pumping wells in the oil country — western Pennsylvania.” It took a few years to really get going and really only produced near capacity for half a decade, but it made millionaires. In just the six years from 1859-1865, $17 million was made in this backwater part of the country.

But as quickly as it flowed onto the world scene, Oil Creek valley went dry and everyone packed up and went home. Or to Texas.

(In case you’re interested: The first producing oil well in Texas was drilled in 1864, but the action didn’t really get going until a big discovery in 1894.  And then, on January 10, 1901, Spindletop.  Natural oil seeps were known to Indians in Texas well before Spanish explorers arrived.)

2 thoughts on “150th Anniversary of Edwin Drake’s First Oil Well in Pennsylvania

  1. It’s not true that this “was the world’s very first oil field.” There were producing wells in Canada and Baku before Drake’s well, and people had been consuming oil from surface seeps for centuries.

  2. I read Madrigal’s “oil field” claim as one of scale; the Canada and Baku sites were not what I think we would recognize as an “oil field”, while Titusville certainly became that.

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