World’s First Successful Oil Well—Drilled in 1859!
News about oil drilling, the price of gasoline, and the petroleum industry in general often dominates today’s headlines. It may surprise some people, however, to learn that the oil drilling industry made big headlines way back in 1859—when the first commercially successful oil well was drilled. On Aug. 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled that well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, beginning the Pennsylvania oil rush of the second half of the 19th century.
Titusville was a sleepy little town of 250 residents when Drake made his discovery, but that all changed very quickly. The town’s population swelled to 10,000, as eight oil refineries were built between 1862 and 1868 and oil industry support businesses mushroomed. Jonathan Watson, the man lucky enough to own the land where Drake was drilling, became history’s first oil millionaire.
The correspondent of the article below, who identifies himself as “Medicus,” was in California when that state’s gold rush began in 1849—and reports the Pennsylvania oil discovery is causing just as much excitement. There was lots of money to be made in Titusville, and Watson was soon followed by a host of oil millionaires.
This newspaper article was published by the Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on Sept. 16, 1859:
Discovery of a Subterranean Fountain of Oil
(Correspondence of the New York Tribune)
Titusville, Penn., Sept. 8, 1859.
Perhaps you will recollect that in 1854 there was organized in the city of New York a company, under the name of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, which, for some good reasons, passed into the hands of some New Haven capitalists, and was by them removed to New Haven. In 1858, the directors leased the grounds and springs to Mr. E. L. Drake, well known on the New Haven Railroad. He came out here, and in May last commenced to bore for salt, or to find the source of the salt, which is so common along the banks of Oil Creek. Last week, at the depth of 71 feet, he struck a fissure in the rock through which he was boring, when, to the surprise and joy of everyone, he found he had tapped a vein of water and oil, yielding 400 gallons of pure oil to every 24 hours (one day).
The pump now in use throws only five gallons per minute of water and oil into a large vat, when the oil rises to the top and the water runs out from the bottom. In a few days they will have a pump of three times the capacity of the one now in use, and then from ten to twelve hundred gallons of oil will be the daily yield.
The springs along the stream, I understand, have been mostly taken up or secured by Brewer & Watson, the parties who formerly owned the one now in operation.
The excitement attendant on the discovery of this vast source of oil was fully equal to what I ever saw in California, when a large lump of gold was accidentally turned out.