Where we are, where we’ve been: A look at Pennsylvania’s oil-rich history

By: - March 2, 2020 10:00 am

Edwin Drake at the site of the Titusville well circa 1866. (Photo from the Drake Well Museum, PHMC , or Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission). Titusville, PA

Pennsylvania and the oil and natural gas industry are inextricably linked throughout the Keystone State’s history 

Even today, few industries — aside from coal and steel — have had the same impact on the state as oil and gas drilling. The state was at one time the country’s leading producer in the oil and gas industry, creating thousands of jobs across the commonwealth and driving its economy for much of the 20th century. 

In fact, the state’s Gross Domestic Product from utilities was $282.60 billion in 2019, which includes services such as natural gas and electricity generation, according to Trading Economics, an online platform that provides historical economic data as well as forecasts. 

Where it all began

The United States’ oil and natural gas industry got its start in the Keystone State in 1859 near Titusville in Crawford County. 

It happened along the aptly named Oil Creek in Cherrytree Township in Venango County, when Col. Edwin Drake, as introductory letters referred to him at the time, moved to Titusville from Greene County, N.Y. in 1858. 

Through the mid-1850s, the East Coast was in desperate need of a cheap lighting source, and while kerosene distilled from coal was effective, it took work to make liquid kerosene from lumps of Appalachian coal. 

What worked better, energy producers discovered, was using the existing kerosene-distilling infrastructure to convert liquid petroleum into kerosene.

The only problem was finding the petroleum. 

Enter Drake, who was hired by Seneca Oil Company to investigate suspected oil deposits in and around Titusville in the spring of 1858. 

After a year-and-a-half of digging with no luck, and dwindling resources, Drake and his team came to work on the morning of Aug. 28, 1859, to find their nearly 70-foot hole brimming with crude oil. 

The site of Drake’s first well is now a National Historic Landmark and home of the Drake Well Museum and Park. The museum houses more than 4,000 artifacts and documents from the petroleum industry’s “birth, development and growth” in Pennsylvania. 

Museum Curator Susan Beates said the significance of the Drake Well in Pennsylvania —  and the oil industry’s history — cannot be understated. Drake’s well was the first commercial oil well in the United States, setting the stage for a booming industry to usher in the 20th century.

Even after it was decommissioned in 1866, the well received notoriety when a photographer snapped a picture of Edwin Drake at the well site. 

Edwin Drake at the site of the Titusville well circa 1866.
(Photo from the Drake Well Museum, PHMC , or Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission). Titusville, PA

“By the 1870s, it was famous,” Beates said. 

Oil and the Civil War

Oil helped the North win the Civil War, and Pennsylvania played an important role there, too, Beates said.

In 1863, Confederate raiders from Virginia burned oil fields in what is now West Virginia.

The fires and the area’s heavy ties to Pittsburgh-based refineries inclined angry oil workers to seek statehood.

A little more than a month later, in June 1863, West Virginia joined the Union as the 35th state. 

“Abraham Lincoln saw the benefit of having another state in the Union,” Beates said. 

But the trouble didn’t stop there. 

Since it was difficult to ship oil to Maryland and such war-torn harbor cities as Baltimore for use and to export, Beates said that Pennsylvania and its vast network of railroads were used to transport oil from refineries in the western part of the state to the East Coast. 

Turn of the century 

By the early 1900s, Pennsylvania dominated the rest of the country in oil production, exporting it to countries as far away as Japan. 

Towns such as Titusville, Erie and Oil City were enjoying newfound prosperity thanks to the influx of people who had come to work for the oil and gas companies and the other businesses that had sprung up to support the burgeoning industry.

But it wouldn’t last.

Around the same time that these small, rural towns became cities, a threat to Pennsylvania’s oil-coated throne was looming. 

Changing demands

In January 1901, an oil field known as “Spindletop” in Beaumont, Texas, struck oil. 

The development of fields in the oil-soaked states such as Texas transferred power over the oil and gas industry from Pennsylvania to the Lone Star State. 

The industry left Pennsylvania for greener (or blacker) pastures as quickly as it had embraced it.

Seeing the changes of the 20th Century, oil and gas workers in the Commonwealth worked quickly to switch gears, Beates said. 

The rise of coal-fired electricity and the invention of the automobile prompted refineries, which were looking to maintain their competitive edge, to pivot away from kerosene production and toward gasoline and motor oil.

Adapting and averting crises at the hands of the nation’s growing oil and gas industry, Pennsylvania-based companies such as Quaker State and Pennzoil would earn reputations as “powerhouse” companies for the much-sought-after high paraffin content found in their Appalachian-based crude oil. 

But even the most adaptive, can’t prosper forever. 

By the 1980s Quaker State and Pennzoil had started to “go down hill,” as Beates described it. 

Competing in an increasingly-global market made survival difficult for the industry. 

As the new millennium approached, scientific communities became more vocal about the harm  nonrenewable resources were having on the world. That, in turn, led to the slow, but continuous integration of renewable sources of energy to power homes, jobs and the economy. 

New directions

Beates says she doesn’t see Pennsylvania’s future depending exclusively on one energy source. 

Replica of Drake’s Engine House and Derrick built in 1945 taken from the Museum Exhibit Building. (Photo from the Drake Well Museum and Park).

“At the Drake Well Museum, we see the future being a mixed-energy source for many years,” Beates said. 

She added that while the days when Pennsylvania dominated the oil and gas industry are long gone, it “still has a major impact on our lives.”

“Throughout western Pennsylvania, we can see physical evidence of past oil production,” Beates said — a reminder of the state’s oil-rich history. 

But changing demands and sources of energy, don’t have to be the end of Pennsylvania’s storied history as a harbinger of industry and energy, Beates said. 

And the Drake Well Museum is an example of that adaptive Pennsylvania spirit. 

The museum uses geothermal heat sources. The move, Beates believes, was facilitated by state government officials in Harrisburg looking to adopt greener energy approaches and reduce expenses. 

“I think Pennsylvanians are making the transition, Beates said. “I think people want to make that change.”

If history is any indication, Pennsylvania could become a dominating force in the renewable energy sector. 

In 2014, nuclear power replaced coal as the top source of electricity in Pennsylvania for the first time ever. Wind energy from the state’s Appalachian Mountain tops accounted for 36 percent of the Keystone State’s renewable energy in 2018. The same year, nearly 5% of Pennsylvania’s electricity was generated from renewable energy sources, according to EIA data.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.