What is oil, and who had the first oil well? Pennsylvania, Azerbaijan, Ontario, West Virginia, or Poland? All claim to have been the first.
Crude oil is a natural mix of hundreds of different hydrocarbon
compounds trapped under ground. The hydrocarbons were formed millions
of years ago when tiny aquatic plants and animals died and settled on
the bottoms of ancient waterways, creating a thick layer of organic
material. Sediment later covered this material, putting heat and
pressure on it and transforming it into the petroleum that comes out of
the ground today.
Indians and early European explorers had known of the oil seeps in
western Pennsylvania, and had made some use of it for many years before
the mid 19th century. Interest grew in the mid 1850s as scientists
reported on the potential to manufacture kerosene from crude oil if
enough could be found.
Enter Edwin Drake. He was convinced there was oil, and lots of it, in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Frustrated by the limitations of existing methods of extraction, as
well as problems with water seepage, Drake decided on a departure from
the usual trench-digging technology. He turned to the methods used by
salt-well drillers, which involved sinking a shaft straight to the
source while providing more structural integrity. He also devised the
drive pipe, made of segmented cast iron, as a boring tool. Drake's crew struck bedrock at 32 feet, and the drilling stalled,
earning sarcastic jeers from interested observers. Even after
specialized drilling tools were employed, progress remained slow. The locals started calling the well "Drake's Folly."
Drake, however, persevered and finally, at a depth of 69.5 feet,
The Drake well in Titusville, Pennsylvania is referred to as the first commercial oil well. Before the Drake well, other oil producing wells in the United States were wells that were not actually drilled for oil. They were drilled for salt brine and produced oil and gas only as accidental byproducts. An intended drinking water well in Oil Springs, Ontario found oil in 1858, a year before the Drake, but it had not been drilled for oil. Historian have noted that the Drake's importance was in the fact that it caused prompt additional drilling establishing a supply of petroleum in sufficient quantity to support business enterprises. It was responsible for the first great wave of investments in oil drilling, refining, and marketing.
On January 10, 1901, a drilling derrick at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas hit and produced a huge gusher coating the landscape for hundreds of feet that took 9 days to cap. It signaled the beginning of the oil industry in Texas. The Spindletop Well was struck at 1,000 feet and produced 100,000 barrels a day. Within one year there were more than 285 active wells at Spindletop and an estimated 500 oil and land companies operating in the area including Humble (now Exxon), The Texas Company (Texaco) and Magnolia Petroleum (Mobil).