Rock Oil, Petroleum Butter and the First Oil Well
The 1850s witnessed a great deal of development in the fledgling petroleum industry. During the first 50 years of the 1800s, many new discoveries and methods for using petroleum products were introduced to a sometimes-skeptical public. One of the more creative secondary petroleum marketers had to be Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh.
A canal boat operator, salt merchant and pharmacist, Kier was drilling for salt water in 1849 when he hit oil. But instead of water, which would evaporate and leave a profitable residue of agricultural salt, Kier was stuck with some black gooey stuff. Not to be thwarted, he set up a distillery and refined the crude into a lamp oil he sold as 'carbon' oil. The secondary use Kier found for the Pennsylvania oil was marketing it as a patent medicine, and his techniques put the serpent in 'snake oil.'
He called it 'Kier's Rock Oil' and advertised it with a pamphlet that promoted the product as a miracle cure for almost every malady known to man. The bottle sported a label similar to a bank note, a common form of currency at the time. It was no coincidence the label bore a striking resemblance to a $400 bill drawn on the First National Bank of Chicago, since Kier wanted it to be eye catching. On the label there was actually more fact than fiction about the discovery of the 'rock oil,' but the pamphlet was pure fabrication.
Kier also introduced another fantastic cure-all he called 'petroleum butter,' which had the consistency and properties of axle grease.
The oil and grease, on top of the sales of 'carbon oil,' made Kier a wealthy man, and his good fortune did not go unnoticed. While he was making his fortune, however, other events continued independent of Kier's activities.
In 1853 Francis Beattie Brewer took a bottle of crude oil collected from an oil seep on the land of the Brewer, Watson and Co. lumber mill near Titusville, Pa., to Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., to have it analyzed. George Bissell, a Dartmouth graduate, saw the bottle at the office of a Dr. Crosby at Dartmouth and was immediately interested in the product's commercial potential. Bissell, a junior partner in the law office of Jonathan Eveleth, confered with Eveleth and in 1854 Bissell and Eveleth bought the oil spring along with 100 acres of the Brewer, Watson and Co. farm in the area known as Oil Creek.
Previous oil production in the Oil Creek area was profitable on a small scale, but relied on crude methods to retrieve the oil. Oil Creek got its name from the oil seeping into it, and some enterprising soul created a dam so the oil would rise to the surface. Cloth articles and blankets were used to soak up the oil, which was then squeezed out into receptacles. A laborer could gather 10 gallons a day this way, and with oil selling for $2 a gallon it was an enterprising business for those who didn't mind getting dirty.
Bissell and Eveleth didn't mind getting dirty, but they elevated the production methods several degrees. On their 100 acres they dug narrow ditches that the surface oil could seep into. This made retrieval a relatively easy process. They leased another 100 acres north of Titusville, and they sent a sample of oil to Yale College in New Haven, Conn., for analysis. Yale professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. told Bissell that in a refined form it would make a dandy lighting fuel, and Silliman even hazarded a guess other uses would probably materialize in the future. Since the professor enjoyed a deservedly keen reputation as a chemist at the time, Bissell accepted all this information without reserve.
In 1854 Bissell and Eveleth formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. For two years the partners plodded on in this fashion; making some money from their ditches, but not the bonanza they wanted. Although Eveleth was a key player in the quest with Bissell to retrieve and market oil, oddly enough his name was not on the incorporation papers for the Rock Oil Co. Throughout the early years, however, Eveleth was deeply involved in the company proceedings and the responsibility for many company decisions rested with him.
George Bissell pirated the idea of drilling for oil from Samuel Kier, as Kier's success came from a foiled attempt to find salt water. What really got Bissell's attention was Kier's claim that his oil came from some 400 feet beneath the surface of the Pennsylvania soil. There is no doubt there was oil that deep, but Kier's well was not much deeper than a hand-dug water well. It was this misconception that provided the impetus for what followed, because immediately the company leased a farm near Titusville with the full intention of sinking an oil well there.
The major stockholders of Pennsylvania Rock Oil soon formed a new company called the Seneca Oil Co. after disagreements among all the Rock Oil Co. stockholders made it difficult to get any drilling started. The following events are what precipitated the first oil boom in U.S. history.
One of the Seneca Oil Co. shareholders was a banker named James Townsend. Townsend was a gambler who showed a keen interest in taking a chance on the oil business, and after Bissell outlined his ideas regarding using the same methods employed by Kier, Townsend concluded on the spot that the Seneca Oil Co. had to find a well driller.
Townsend engaged Edwin L. Drake to work for Seneca Oil. They had met in New Haven, Conn., and Townsend had convinced Drake to buy some oil stock. At the time, Drake was retired from the railroad, where he had worked as a conductor. There is some credence to the assertion that Drake's status with the railroad, which was a source of travel passes, was one of the main reasons he was hired. Drake was able to obtain free travel for Seneca Oil personnel to travel from New Haven to Pennsylvania, and back. As luck would have it, Drake also possessed a level of tenacity that served Seneca Oil well when the time came.
One artful fabrication (not the first, and certainly not the last) by these early oilmen was to tag Drake with the moniker 'Colonel,' thinking an army colonel probably could command more respect than a retired conductor. Drake was quickly convinced of this as well after a little persuasion from the lawyers, and he adopted the title enthusiastically. He was so pleased with it he presented himself as 'Colonel' Edwin Drake until he died. It was a harmless enough pretense, but says a lot about the character of the early oil merchants.
Drake left for Pennsylvania to drill a well for Seneca Oil, and once there he enlisted the aid of a local blacksmith, a man appropriately name Smith. Like Drake, William Smith had his own title, but one less reverential: Uncle Billy. He did have experience, however, as a salt well digger, and had supplied Kier with the tools he used to find his oil.
With oil activity already established around Titusville, everyone in the area knew of Drake and Smith's activities, which aroused considerable amusement. From the first, it was known locally as 'Drake's Folly,' but Drake and Smith ignored their detractors and continued digging. As they dug through the earth and rock, they reinforced the sides of the well with pipe to prevent it from caving in.
The digging consumed weeks, and the owners of Seneca Oil grew impatient, not knowing why the well wasn't making them all rich. On Aug. 27, 1859, their drill dropped into a crevice at 69 feet and then slipped down another 6 inches. Unaware that they had hit a well of oil, they stopped for the day. The following day 'Uncle Billy' Smith visited the well, and peering into the pipe he saw oil floating within a few feet of the mouth of the well. On that Sunday in Pennsylvania, the future of the U.S. changed.
Prior to Drake's well, total U.S. production of oil was only about 2,000 barrels annually. When Drake's well started producing 8 to 10 barrels of oil a day, annual production tripled almost overnight, and the petroleum age began.
I would like to thank Bill Kier of Goshen, Ohio, and The American Antiquities Exchange in Springfield, Ohio, for their assistance with this month's article. Bill and his brother, Ed Kier, are avid oil field engine collectors and enjoy restoring oil field engines and collecting oil field memorabilia. Bill believes his family is descended from Samuel Kier, maker of Kier's Rock Oil and Petroleum Butter, and one of America's earliest oil pioneers.
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