[Blogtober Day 5] All About Pennsylvania Oil

Unless you’re a historian who knows Pennsylvania history, or a geologist who knows what shaped the Allegheny Mountains, or a professor of industry at some local Pittsburgh college, then you may not know that coal wasn’t always the first big industry in Pennsylvania. While it may be the longest and most combustible (see what I did there), prospectors struck oil and have been successfully processing it here since 1859.

Several blog posts ago I discussed the Pennsylvania coal industry, how widespread it was (and still is) throughout the state, and how coal towns popped up all over the Allegheny Mountains because of it. People follow the industry that promises the most profit, and the same can be said for “black gold.” So before you come at me with the whole: “But more oil is produced in the Middle East” mantra, we’re talking about oil’s history here, not current production.

For today’s Blogtober post, we’re going to take explore Pennsylvania’s literal groundbreaking beginnings in the worldwide oil industry.

Pennsylvania’s First Industries

For centuries the lands of Pennsylvania have drawn interest. First, a plethora of tribes utilized it – farming, gathering, hunting and trapping – until European settlement began. It was these settlers who began to see the land in terms of industrial use. Trapping and the fur trade first began with the French. Others soon followed with the steady rise in population:

Pennsylvania has a rich industrial history. From the earliest days of settlement of what would become the United States, Pennsylvania has been at the center of country’s industrial development. Throughout the years, industries like iron, coal, steel, and lumber made the state an important cog in America’s development.  With that come a long history of industrial and manufacturing firsts. Scranton, in the northeastern part of the state was the first city in America to be electrified. Titusville, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of the oil industry. Iron production first began in this state in 1716 and within 100 years Pennsylvania’s coal was fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Philadelphia became known for manufacturing textiles, chemicals, metals, furniture and pharmaceuticals. Perhaps no business, industry, or institution – however – illuminates the history of the Greater Philadelphia region from the seventeenth century to the present day more clearly than shipbuilding and shipyards. As early as the 1640’s Swedish boat builders fabricated several small craft on the Delaware River in their short-lived New Sweden colony, but large-scale shipbuilding started when William Penn (1644-1718) settled his great proprietary grant of Pennsylvania between 1681-1682


Here’s a look at what industries are currently employing Pennsylvania residents.

Where Crude Oil Comes From

Naturally occurring, oil exists in liquid form and is often found alongside other valuable natural resources. Just like other naturally found elements (helium, for example), it isn’t as renewable a resource as others are. Much of Pennsylvania’s oil reserves were found alongside water, or in oil “seeps,” where the oil will just come out on its own merit. According to the site linked above, “Different combinations of pressure, heat, and the original composition of organic material will determine the type of hydrocarbon formed. In this case, the hydrocarbons form crude oil.” In the case of Pennsylvania’s oil, it’s not at all surprising that it was found in such vast quantities here in the Allegheny Mountains.

Humble Beginnings in Titusville

Not quite the place one would expect oil to find its beginnings, but it definitely beat out its neighbor, Oil City, in being the first place to have an established well. In yesterday’s post I discussed several oil “boom towns,” but I will go into further detail about the individuals who broke ground here. It is important to note here that there is also a Titusville in Florida; it would be best to not do what I nearly did by referencing the wrong one!

The first well ever drilled that successfully produced oil happened just outside Titusville in 1859. Before most oil was found by way of oil seeps, where the substance would come out of the ground on its own merit due to pressure build up below the surface. Titusville, once a remote place, would soon become what was later dubbed a “boom town.” “News spread quickly about the viscous, easily refined petroleum (from the Latin “petra,” rock, and “oleum,” oil). The Pennsylvania oil well that launched America’s petroleum age was 69.5 feet deep.”

Although lumber and coal were the original popular choices for both light and heat, oil soon rose in demand due to its high combustibility properties. Even after oil’s rough beginnings in Titusville, Edwin Drake eventually became known as the “father of the oil industry.” And, “During the earlier years of oil mining, the geologists would study the soil, surface rock, and other surface features to determine if oil may be lying below.” (source)

The End of the Boom

Dozens of little towns rose and fell during the oil boom, and their residents often picked up and went where they thought they’d strike it rich next. As with any industry, oil was becoming highly regulated, and its prices often swung from one day to the next. Direct from that one resource we all have a love/hate relationship with, “The formation of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882 effectively established a monopoly over the industry in Pennsylvania, and the discovery of oil in Texas, California and Wyoming shifted the nation’s attention elsewhere.” (Wikipedia)

Today, Titusville marks their history with OilFest. They also host several other festivals throughout the year – Home for the Holidays, Heart of the Arts and Titusville Summer Concert series – and weathered the decline of the oil industry quite well. Many pinpoint the end to be 1901. The end of the oil boom, that is.

  • 1852 – Scientist Samuel Kier begins experimenting with raw, crude oil

  • 1858 – Col. Edwin Drake moves to Titusville to drill for oil

  • 1859 – oil is struck in Titusville, PA by Col. Edwin Drake

  • 1850s – George Bissell begins the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company

  • 1860 – wells could now be found all over Western Pennsylvania

  • 1870s – demand for Pennsylvanian oil rises, and then begins to fall with the incorporation of electricity into homes

Want to Learn More?

Leave a Reply

Budding #historian. Writer of #adventures and #sciencefantasy. Lover of mushrooms and libraries. Fan of #chocolate, #books and Pennsylvania history.

Translate »