Titusville, Pennsylvania is 95 miles north of
Pittsburgh and 50 miles south of Erie in
northwestern Pennsylvania. In 1857 it was home
to about 1,000 people, a normal small town in
pre-Civil War America. That was when Edwin
L. Drake, head of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil
Company showed up, planning on drilling for oil.
This was the most ludicrous thing any of the residents
of Titusville had ever heard and the project quickly
became known as Drake's Folly.
Titusville, and indeed the whole of northwestern Pennsylvania,
already had a thriving industry capturing and refining the
oil that poured out of oil seeps all over the region. It was
refined and bottled into kerosene and medicine, petroleum
based medicines then being all the rage for the cure of everything from intestinal
disorder to headache. While oil fouling wells used for drinking
water and irrigation was a constant problem it had never occurred
to anyone to try to drill a well specifically for oil. It seemed
too hard and nearly pointless, anyway, with the stuff just seeping
out of the ground.
Over the next 2 years Drake spent tens of thousands
of dollars, a tremendous sum for the time, drilling
holes in the ground. Most of the company's investors walked
away by the end of 1858, leaving only the original investor,
James Townsend, to provide financial backing. Enticed by
the prospect of huge profits in the brand new kerosene business
Townsend made a final infusion of capital, but the wells continued
to not produce.
Finally, on August 27, 1859 Edwin Drake struck oil. The day
before his crew had finished drilling a 69 foot well, when they returned
in the morning they dropped a rope into it to see if there were
any signs of oil. It came up coated in a thick, black substance.
That day they pumped 25 barrels of oil, and changed the world.
Though they had been hostile to Drake, the people of Titusville
had recognized the potential of his idea. Once it had been
demonstrated that it was possible to pump oil from a well in
vast quantities a land rush, similar to the California gold
rush a decade earlier, ensued. In 3 months time a completely
new city, Pithole, had come into being and attracted 30,000
residents a couple of miles from Titusville. Driven by an
exponentially growing demand for kerosene, oil was worth $18
a barrel and there were fortunes to be made.
Within a year there were literally thousands of oil wells and fires had become
an immense problem. Several fires swept across the oil fields, killing
dozens and destroying hundreds or thousands of wells at a time. From the
ashes of these fires rose Standard Oil and the birth of a new age of