Edwin Drake’s driller accidentally ignites Pennsylvania oil well.

 

Along Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the wooden derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well erupted in flames on October 7, 1859, perhaps America’s first oil well fire. The well had been completed the previous August by Edwin L. Drake, who had been hired by the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut.

Residents of Titusville and nearby Oil City annually celebrate the 1859 oil well, and visitors to the Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville can tour a reconstructed cable-tool derrick at its original location along Oil Creek. The discovery launched the first nation’s drilling boom as Pittsburgh refineries produced a new and highly coveted lamp fuel, kerosene.

Edwin L. Drake in front of his second derrick.

Edwin L. Drake, right, stands with friend Peter Wilson of Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the drilling site – but not the original derrick – of America’s first commercial oil well of 1859. From the Drake Well Museum collection.

The new petroleum industry’s first oil well fire ignited at Drake’s well slightly more than a month after the discovery. It reportedly started when his driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith inspected the well’s oil production while holding a lamp.

“While Uncle Billy was successful in drilling the well, he was also responsible for the first oil well fire in the history of the oilfields,” according to the Butler County (PA) Historical Society. “He went to the well to inspect the oil in the vat, carrying with him an open lamp. That lamp set the gases alight, burned down the derrick, all the oil that was stored there, his home, and the engine house,” the society noted.

Uncle Billy Smith

Edwin Drake’s driller, “Uncle Billy” Smith. Photo courtesy Butler County Historical Society.

Drake would will rebuild the derrick and engine house, which contained production equipment, including a boiler and six-horse power “Long John” engine purchased from the Erie Iron Works (also see Cool Coolspring Power Museum). 

A famous image by oilfield photographer John Mather is often mistakenly identified as Drake and Smith standing in front of the historic derrick. In fact, it is Drake and his friend Peter Wilson, a Titusville druggist, standing in front of the second derrick.  To learn about another first – in fact, several of them – in the new oil region, read The First Dry Hole.

The “father of the petroleum industry,” Edwin Drake, died in 1880. A Standard Oil Company executive commissioned a monument at Woodlawn Cemetery grave in Titusville. The monument, including a bronze statue by Charles Henry Niehaus, was dedicated on October 4, 1901. Thousands of visitors today tour the replica cable-tool derrick and steam-engine house at Titusville’s popular oil museum, which also preserves thousands of photographs and artifacts from Pennsylvania’s “Valley that changed the World.”

Fatal Oil Well Fire

As Pennsylvania’s oil region continued to expand, drilling technologies raced to catch up. An oil well fire at Rouseville in 1861 brought added urgency for inventing new ways to make oil exploration safer. A gusher had attracted people from the small Pennsylvania town and covered them in oil before before the well erupted in flames, killing 19 and seriously burning many others (learn more about this early petroleum industry tragedy in Fatal Rouseville Oil Well Fire of 1861).

After the Civil War, solid shot balls from cannons would be used for fighting oilfield tank fires.  

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Oil Well Fire.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-oil-well-fire. Last Updated: August 1, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.

 

 

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