American oil history began for certain in a valley along a creek in a remote area of northwestern Pennsylvania on August 27, 1859. There a well drilled, with the intention of profiting from the extraction of oil, by Edwin Drake reached 69.5 feet into the ground and filled with oil to within 5 inches of the surface. Numerous countries have claimed to have drilled the first commercial oil well but with far less documentation.

Historians have suggested that the most important component of Drake’s success was not the oil itself but the immediate wave of investment in oil drilling, refining and marketing that followed.

Petroleum found along the banks of properly named Oil Creek was known to Native Americans for centuries as a result of the natural oil seeps along its banks. Records in Europe about petroleum go back as far as the 1600s. It’s name is derived from Latin where “Petra” stood for rock and “oleum” for oil.

It was bottled from various locations as a by product of drilling for salt as early as 1814 in Ohio and 1818 in Kentucky. It was primarily sold for what were considered its medicinal uses. It was reputed to cure a variety of ailments including rheumatism and arthritis.

In the early days of America and the rest of the world, days ended when the sun went down. Some home made and commercial candles did keep evening activities alive. Industries were born to extend day into night including whaling. In 1846 more than 700 ships sailed the seas in search of whale oil for illumination, but commonly, a days pay could only earn a single pint of this oil.

Abraham Gesner, a Canadian chemist, in 1850, figured out and patented a method of extracting a new lamp fuel from coal. He called it kerosene. Before Edwin Drakes commercialization of oil well drilling the US Patent office had granted nearly 250 patents related to illumination.

In 1848 Samuel Kier recognized the potential of medicinal oil for illumination and distilled it to remove impurities and odor. He got opinions from chemists and geologists for its potential and together they bought a farm along Oil Creek and transferred it to a new corporation to be called The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Edwin Drake a retired railroad Conductor invested $200 in that company. Soon after the Seneca Oil Company was formed in Connecticut and hired Drake, a friend of one of the Seneca investors, to oversee the drilling of a well near Titusville, PA.. It helped that Drakes retirement from the New York and New Haven Railroad granted him free passage by rail between Titusville and Connecticut where the Seneca headquarters were located.

Drake was very inventive, making many improvements in the nascent cable tool drilling techniques. To avoid the hole from collapsing from inflow of groundwater he drove casing down to bedrock, 30 feet below, before continuing in his quest for oil at greater depth. The well took 5 months to get to the now famous 69.5 foot depth. But before it did the Seneca Oil Company lost faith in him and cut off further funding for the project. Drake, however, took out a personal loan of $500 which allowed for completion and success of the well on the now famous day of August 27, 1859.

Difficult times followed including a fire destroying the wooden derrick, a collapse of the price of oil and the ultimate sale of the property, but the die was cast and an oil industry was born. Drakes discovery arrived at a good time for US industrial manufacturers. Vast numbers of new machines were being invented in need of the lubrication derived from petroleum.

Drake’s life had been marred by personal tragedy and eventually very poor health. He returned to live in Titusville where in 1873 the community convinced the Pennsylvania General Assembly to award him an annual pension of $1500.

Drake died in December of 1880. In 1902 Standard Oil commissioned a statue to reside at his burial site in Titusville. It was refurbished and rededicated in 2011.

As the Democratic Party works to send oil back to the sandstone formation from which Edwin Drake found commercial quantities of it, it behooves us all to realize there goal is to erase a great moment in our history.


  • Dr. Jay Lehr

    CFACT Senior Science Analyst Jay Lehr has authored more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 36 books. Jay’s new book A Hitchhikers Journey Through Climate Change written with Teri Ciccone is now available on Kindle and Amazon.