The Drake Oil Well, drilled by Edwin Drake, August 27, 1859
The Drake Oil Well Museum is where Edwin Drake drilled North America's first oil well in 1859, though
Drake never made any money from his oil.
There was never any great discovery of oil. Petroleum has been known for thousands of years, gurgling from oil springs or seeps bubbling to the surface. It gave off a nasty odor in its natural state but was used for light and even medicine. By the 1850s a number of people began experimenting with procedures to refine this crude oil to improve its burning properties and eradicate its foul smell. They met with enough success that the demand for refined kerosene began to outstrip the supply of oil seeping naturally through the cracks in the earth. One such place where this surface oil was plentiful was western Pennsylvania. In 1858 the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut leased some Pennsylvania land and sent Edwin L. Drake to the area to find a way to increase production. Drake first tried digging into the earth near Titusville but soon decided to employ a technique used in excavating saltwater - drilling through the rock. Progress was slow as Drake's holes in the soft glacial till around Oil Creek kept collapsing. Drake's solution was to drive a pipe down to the bedrock and turn his drill bit around inside the pipe. It was not long before Drake's ingenuity paid off. On August 27, 1859, 69 feet inside the earth, Edwin Drake struck paydirt in Noth America's first oil well. Drake was lucky. Had he drilled just a few yards in any direction along the creek he would have had to go down another 100 feet to tap into his reservoir of oil. But as it was, a pump was quickly attached to his well and Drake was soon producing about 20 barrels of oil a day, double the rate of production of all existing sources at the time. He was not alone for long at Oil Creek. The derricks and pumps of speculators soon stretched beside Drake's well for as far as the eye could see. The world had never seen anything like it. Boomtowns burst into existence overnight. One town, Pithole City, went from a farmstead to a city of 15,000 people to a ghost town all in a span of 500 days. Drake himself made no fortune from oil. The glut of oil drove the price so low by 1862 that he and his partners fled the business. He processed leases for speculators and later lost money in oil speculation. He died 30 years after his first oil strike, a poor and forgotten man.
This history and more is captured at the Drake Well Museum, first started in 1911. The main museum building contains over 80 exhibits on the origin of oil, the first oil companies and the drilling of wells. The museum library includes 10,000 early photographs of the oil region during the boom era. A 28-minute film, with Vincent Price in the lead as Edwin Drake, tells the tale of the world's first oil well. In the Production Center are early oil field tools, a nitroglycerine wagon with oil torpedoes, and explanations of drilling technology. The Refining Section shows how refining developed as an industry overnight. The first refineries were little more than five-gallon stills, the second oldest of which is on display. The evolution of oil transportation is depicted from the days of the teamster and riverman to the first pipeline. On the 219-acre grounds of the Drake Well Museum sit pieces of drilling equipment, from a rudimentary spring pole to the largest drilling rig ever used, rising 85 feet high and capable of drilling a mile into the earth. Also on display are a mobile Sanderson Cyclone Drilling Rig and an original Densmore Railroad Car used to haul oil in 1865. Edwin Drake's original derrick and engine house burned to the ground only two months after the world's first oil well came in. There are no known photographs of the first well. A replica based on photos of Drake's second well was assembled in 1946 and operates opposite the main museum building. A marker has been placed on the exact spot where the oil industry began along the Oil River. The Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania is open everyday from May until October and closed Mondays the rest of the year.
Written by : Doug Gelbert