Many people think of oil as a ubiquitous commodity. But it was not always a staple in life, as it is now. In the 1850s crude oil was just starting to be recognized as a useful resource. Not only did it replace other sources of energy for lamps, people were also starting to test it as a source of more robust energy.
The first large operation to extract oil from the earth began in 1858. An unemployed railroad worker named Edwin Drake became the unlikely pioneer to help bring crude oil into the public consciousness. Just a year before, in 1857, the owners of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company had brought on Drake in an attempt to find oil in Pennsylvania. Drake was made the president of a new company called Seneca Oil Company.
Drake dug in Titusville and found evidence of oil, but no significant amounts. He spent a long time digging there and dealt with numerous serious setbacks. These included hostile locals, financial troubles and even fires. After quite a lot of digging without results, Seneca pulled its funding. Drake had to borrow money to continue operations, confident that the digging would bear rewards. In August of 1859 he was proven correct, he struck oil. It was over 60 feet under the earth, and he reached it using steam power. This method of digging was innovative at the time, as simple as it seems nowadays.
Drake only found a moderate well that was not too profitable, and he was let go by Seneca. Regardless of his failings, by starting the first large scale drilling operation Drake set off a boom of crude oil drilling. This boom was so quick and profitable that you could say it mirrored the gold rush that had been seen in the west a decade prior.
Drake’s operation helped push American oil production to 2000 barrels extracted in 1859. Ten years later, the amount extracted in America exploded to some 4 million barrels. This of course brought a lot of new life to the towns due to all the money flowing around. This new industry was spurred by large European demand for this cheap American oil.
But it wasn’t such a smooth sailing all the way through.. In 1861 the output had become so large that prices had depressed from $10 a barrel to only 10 cents. Seeing this as a major problem, the oil companies formed the Oil Creek Association, with the aim to limit output levels and maintain a price of $4 per barrel for crude oil.
Pennsylvania continued to be a major source of American oil, sometimes producing more than half of the nation’s output. This went on until 1892, when their share of the nation’s oil production began to decrease. Soon after this, oil was discovered in California, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas, and Pennsylvania was left contributing less than one tenth. Pennsylvania would continue to produce crude oil for long after, but things were never again as booming as those last decades of the 1800s.