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
Kier’s Rock Oil
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
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.
The Drake Well
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
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.
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
As always please call, write or e-mail if you would like a free
membership in the Oil Field Engine Society (OFES).
Contact the Oil Field Engine Society at: 1231 Banta’s
Creek Road, Eaton, OH 45320-9701, online at:
www.oilfieldengine.com, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org