An unsuccessful 1859 Pennsylvania oil well achieved many industry “firsts.”
Modern petroleum exploration and production technologies began with the earliest wells of the mid-19th century in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Just four days after America’s first commercial oil well of August 27, 1859, a second attempt nearby resulted in the first “dry hole” for the new U.S. petroleum industry.
Edwin L. Drake drilled the first U.S. oil well specifically seeking oil at a creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. His historic feat included inventing of a method of driving a pipe down to protect the integrity of the well bore. The former railroad conductor borrowed a kitchen water pump to produce the first barrel of oil.
Although Drake’s headline-making discovery at Oil Creek launched an industry, an August 31 well would achieve far lesser known milestones. It was on that day that 22-year-old John Livingston Grandin began drilling America’s second well to be drilled for petroleum.
Despite not finding the oil-producing formation (later called the Vanango Sands), the Grandin well produced technology firsts for the young exploration and production industry, including:
Two days after “Drake’s Folly” at Titusville surprised everybody by producing commercial amounts of oil from a depth of 69.5 feet, the news arrived at a general store in Tidioute, 20 miles away. With each barrel of oil reportedly selling for 75 cents, John Grandin, the owner’s son and an aspiring entrepreneur, saw an opportunity. With growing demand for a cheap fuel for lamps, Pittsburgh refineries wanted oil (instead of coal) for making kerosene.
Grandin knew of petroleum seeps on Gordon Run of the nearby Campbell Farm and rode south of town to buy the land. He bought 30 acres surrounding the oil spring at $10 per acre. Within a day he had employed blacksmith Henry H. Dennis, said to be “the handiest man in the region,” to “kick down” a well using the time-honored spring-pole method.
Drilling with this simple method used in ancient China, the Grandin well reached almost twice as deep as Drake’s steam-powered, cable-tool effort, which had the financial backing (and patience) of the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut’s George Bissell and company investors.
The Drake well used the latest drilling technology for making hole — a cable-tool rig powered by a steam boiler and with a six-horsepower horizontal steam engine. A “walking beam” raised and lowered drilling tools. Drake also added his own innovation. When water from Oil Creek threatened his progress, Drake came up with the idea of inserting a cast iron pipe to protect the wellbore — another petroleum industry first.
For their well, Grandin and Dennis constructed a rough 20-foot derrick above a spring pole. Using a discarded tram axle, Dennis made a surprisingly workable reamer. Drilling with the axle as a chisel worked well enlarging the borehole – until it became stuck at 134 feet, “where it never saw daylight again!” as described in a contemporary account.
All attempts to retrieve the axle drill bit failed — and drilling tool was lost down-hole for the first time. This “stuck tool” milestone remains a small but important footnote in the oil and gas industry’s technology history. In the earliest days of cable-tool percussion drilling, heavy assemblies often got jammed in the borehole and could no longer be repeatedly lifted and dropped (learn more in Fishing Petroleum Wells). Still, all was not lost at the Grandin well as far as blacksmith Dennis was concerned.
Dennis put together several makeshift “torpedoes” from blasting powder and experimented with timing fuses in hopes of breaking things loose. “The explosion was sensibly felt upon the surface,” noted a report of his third attempt. “Mr. Dennis says, the ground trembled like an earthquake under his feet!”
With this noteworthy effort, the Grandin well was ruined in the first recorded “shooting” of an oil well — and its first failure. The young U.S. petroleum industry had its first of dry hole. Many more would follow for the young U.S. petroleum industry.
Drilling would make great advances as inventions like rotary drilling (used in 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill) allowed exploration through hard rock formations miles beneath the surface. Even with advances in seismic surveys, geology and petroleum engineering, more than one-third of modern exploration wells drilled – costing millions of dollars each – end up as dry holes. Of the 2,803 exploratory wells drilled in 2009, natural gas was discovered by 1,188 and oil found by 626 wells. There were 989 dry holes.
“Firsts” get the jubilees, centennials and sesquicentennials. “Seconds” get roadside markers – and even those can be very hard to find. In 1959, during the centennial of Drake’s discovery, Grandin’s well was not neglected. A privately funded stone monument was erected at the site with this inscription: THE GRANDIN WELL – Worlds second oil well, commenced August 31st 1859. It was the First Dry Hole, First Well in Which Tools Stuck; First Well in Which an Explosive Charge Was Used; First Well in Warren, County, PA. Erected July 22, 1959, by Oil Centennial Inc.
Grandin eventually became wealthy. In addition to his father’s store in the booming oil region, the Grandin family found wealth in the lumber industry as wooden derricks multiplied. Drilling activity in Warren County centered at Tidioute and by late summer 1860 more than 60 wells had been drilled. A roadside marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission can be found on U.S. 62 four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute in Warren County. Each year the Drake Well Museum draws thousands of visitors. The first U.S. oil well’s sesquicentennial in 2009 was commemorated for a week in the “Valley that Changed the World.”
Despite modern advances in seismic surveys, geology and petroleum engineering, more than one-third of modern exploration wells drilled – costing millions of dollars each – end up as dry holes. Of the 2,803 exploratory wells drilled in 2009, natural gas was discovered by 1,188. Oil was found by 626 wells. There were 989 dry holes.
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Citation Information: Article Title: “First Dry Hole.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/first-dry-hole. Last Updated: August 30, 2020. Original Published Date: December 1, 2005.