Oil Queen of California

The remarkable woman who took control of the Los Angeles oil market.


“A woman with a genius for affairs – it may sound paradoxical, but the fact exists. If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets.” – July 21, 1901, San Francisco Call newspaper.

Emma A. McCutchen Summers would become a woman to be reckoned with in the rough and tumble world of the early Los Angeles petroleum industry. A refined southern lady who graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, she moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to teach piano. (more…)

First Kansas Oil Well

Natural gas wells and an 1892 oil discovery at Neodesha revealed giant Mid-Continent fields.


Small amounts of oil found in 1892 at Neodesha in eastern Kansas would later be called the first commercial discovery west of the Mississippi River. The driller had been searching for natural gas. But the search for what turned out to be giant mid-continent oilfields had begun much earlier.

In 1860, George Brown, a newspaperman in Kansas Territory, recalled stories about an oil spring in Lykins County. Brown, who had arrived a few years earlier from the Pennsylvania oil regions, gathered a few partners and drilled three shallow wells one mile east of Paola.

One year earlier, America’s first commercial oil well had been drilled near Titusville, Pennsylvania, creating a new kind of entrepreneur that began searching for oil seeps in other states. Refineries wanted the “rock oil” to make a popular lamp fuel, kerosene.

School bus at Kansas Oil Museum and discovery well in Neodesha

The Norman No. 1 Well Museum in Neodesha, Kansas, preserves the state’s extensive oil heritage.

After two failed attempts — dry holes — the third well had reached about 100 feet deep on Baptist Indian Mission grounds owned by David Lykins when it produced a few barrels of oil. But the Civil War ended his quest for oil riches.

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Although other exploration companies returned to Lykins County (renamed Miami County in 1861) after the war, it would be almost two decades before Kansas became a producing state — thanks to a natural gas discovery.

George Bissell’s Oil Seeps

Search for new lamp fuel brings first U.S. oil exploration company — and start of petroleum industry.


The stage was set in 1854 for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps.

Oil seeps oil map of Vanago County, Pennsylvania, circa 1880.

Making kerosene for lamps would replace the earlier use of oil in medicinal “Seneca Oil” from Pennsylvania oil seeps.

On November 10, 1854, the lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sold a parcel of land at the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The buyers were George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth. Earlier, Joel Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) had collected and sold medicinal “Seneca Oil” from an oil seep on acreage near the company’s sawmill.

Kerosene Lamp Fuel

Bissell and his partners strongly believed oil could be used to produce kerosene for lamps (a safer fuel than the popular but volatile camphene). If inexpensive to produce, oil refined into kerosene could compete with kerosene popularly known as coal oil. Bissell hired a scientist friend – a professor at Yale – to conduct early experiments. (more…)

Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory

Astute businesswoman prospered in booming turn-of-century Pennsylvania oilfields.


In 1899, Mary Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” prospered in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield. Mrs. Alford’s nitroglycerin factory cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin every day.

Today, the Bradford oilfield in Pennsylvania and adjacent New York remains important to U.S. petroleum heritage for Alford’s career and many other reasons, according to geologists and a nearby oil museum that educates tourists.

Mrs. Aldord's nitro factory newspaper article from 1899.

Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum Director Sherri Schulze in 2005 exhibited a laminated (though wrinkled) page from a newspaper published in 1899. “This was done by a student many years ago,” she said. “It was a school project done by one of Mrs. Alford’s descendants.”


Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh

The skies above “Smoky City” cleared when manufacturers used natural gas instead of coal.


In 1878, the Haymaker brothers discovered a Pennsylvania natural gas field near Pittsburgh – and laid the foundation for many modern petroleum companies.


Like many young men of their time, Michael Haymaker and his younger brother Obediah had left their Westmoreland County farm to seek their fortunes in Pennsylvania’s booming petroleum industry. The brothers first found work as drillers for independent operator Israel Painter, who had brought in wells a few miles north of Oil City in Venango County – not far from Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 discovery less than 20 years earlier.

Natural gas historic marker on Route 22 at Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

A marker on Route 22 at Murrysville, Pennsylvania, commemorates the Haymaker brother’s historic natural gas well of 1878.

In 1876, while drilling for Painter’s Ozark Oil Company in Clarion County, Michael approached his boss with a prospect near Murrysville, 18 miles east of Pittsburgh. Michael and Obediah “Obe” Haymaker knew their neighbors in Murrysville and had become acquainted with Josh Cooper – who used a natural gas seep to boil down maple sugar sap – alongside Turtle Creek. (more…)

First New Mexico Oil Wells

Giant Hobbs oilfield discovered in 1928, six years after first petroleum production.


“It was desolate country – sand, mesquite, bear grass and jack rabbits. Hobbs was a store, a small school, a windmill, and a couple of trees.” – New Mexico roughneck.

Although the Hobbs discovery came six years after the first oil production (seven years after the first natural gas well), petroleum geologists soon called it the most important single oil find in New Mexico history. The Midwest State No. 1 well — spudded in late 1927 using a standard cable-tool rig — saw its first signs of oil from the giant oilfield at depth of 4,065 feet on June 13, 1928. It had been a long  journey. (more…)

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