Native Americans had known of the oil in western Pennsylvania, and had made some use of it for many years before the mid-19th century. Early European explorers noted seeps of oil and natural gas in western Pennsylvania and New York. Interest grew substantially in the mid-1850s as scientists reported on the potential to manufacture kerosene from crude oil, if a sufficiently large oil supply could be found. And also, it was 13 years after drilling the first oil well in Baku settlement (Bibi-Heybat) in 1846 on Apsheron peninsula. [..]
Salt was a valuable commodity, and an industry developed near salt springs in the Ohio River Valley, producing salt by evaporating brine from the springs. Salt wells were sunk at the salt springs to increase the supply of brine for evaporation. Some of the wells were hand-dug, but salt producers also learned to drill wells by percussion (cable tool) methods. In a number of locations in western Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, oil and natural gas came up the wells along with the brine. The oil was mostly a nuisance, but some salt producers saved it and sold it as illuminating oil or medicine. In some locations, enough natural gas was produced to be used as fuel for the salt evaporating pans. Early salt brine wells that produced byproduct oil included the Thorla-McKee Well of Ohio in 1814, a well near Burkesville, Kentucky, in 1828, and wells at Burning Springs, West Virginia, by 1836.
The US natural gas industry started in 1821 at Fredonia, Chautauqua County, New York, when William Hart dug a well to a depth of 27 feet (8.2 m) into gas-bearing shale, then drilled a borehole 43 feet (13 m) further, and piped the natural gas to a nearby inn where it was burned for illumination. Soon many gas wells were drilled in the area, and the gas-lit streets of Fredonia became a tourist attraction.
On August 27, 1859, George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake made the first successful use of a drilling rig on a well drilled especially to produce oil, at a site on Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The Drake partners were encouraged by Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), a chemistry professor at Yale, who tested a sample of the oil, and assured them that it could be distilled into useful products such as illuminating oil.
The Drake well is often referred to as the “first” commercial oil well, although that title is also claimed for wells in Azerbaijan, Ontario, West Virginia, and Poland, among others. However, before the Drake well, oil-producing wells in the United States were wells that were drilled for salt brine, and produced oil and gas only as accidental byproducts. An intended drinking water well at Oil Springs, Ontario found oil in 1858, a year before the Drake well, but it had not been drilled for oil. Historians have noted that the importance of the Drake well was not in being the first well to produce oil, but in attracting the first great wave of investment in oil drilling, refining, and marketing:
“The importance of the Drake well was in the fact that it caused prompt additional drilling, thus establishing a supply of petroleum in sufficient quantity to support business enterprises of magnitude.”
The success of the Drake well quickly led to oil drilling in other locations in the western Appalachian mountains, where oil was seeping to the surface, or where salt drillers had previously found oil fouling their salt wells. During the American Civil War, the oil-producing region spread over much of western Pennsylvania, up into western New York state, and down the Ohio River valley into the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and the western part of Virginia (now West Virginia). The Appalachian Basin continued to be the leading oil-producing region in the United States through 1904.
The first commercial oil well in New York was drilled in 1865. New York’s (and Northwestern Pennsylvania) crude oil is very high in paraffin.
The principal product of the oil in the 19th century was kerosene, which quickly replaced whale oil for illuminating purposes in the United States. Originally dealing in whale oil which was widely used for illumination, Charles Pratt (1830–1891) of Massachusetts was an early pioneer of the natural oil industry in the United States. He was founder of Astral Oil Works in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York. Pratt’s product later gave rise to the slogan, “The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil.” He joined with his protégé Henry H. Rogers to form Charles Pratt and Company in 1867. Both companies became part of John D. Rockefeller‘s Standard Oil in 1874.
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