Pennsylvania might not be the first place one thinks of when considering oil, but it was the first place that oil was drilled in America. On August 27, 1859, in Titusville, Pennsylvania next to Oil Creek, Edwin Drake completed the first commercial oil well. The Drake Well Museum preserves the original well and celebrates the oil and gas industry as a whole.
Before this corner of north west Pennsylvania was overtaken in an oil boom, the main industry was lumber. Sawmills were plentiful, and wood could be floated down creeks and rivers to metropolitan destinations.
Oil creek, which snakes through the museum grounds, gained its name long before any oil wells were drilled. Oil seeps along the creek supplied native people and (later) small scale businesses in the area with limited supplies of oil for medicine, water proofing, other purposes. Even today, visitors continue to observe oil bubbling up to the surface of the creek.
The Drake Well remains as the center piece of the Drake Well Museum. While the structure above ground is a painstaking recreation*, the well itself is the same one that revolutionized the oil industry over a century ago.
It was not until 1859 that Edwin Drake triggered a boom in commercial scale oil collection through his well. Samples of the oil from oil creek had been tested at Dartmouth and Yale for their potential quality in making kerosine. This lead George Bissell and Jonathan G. Eveleth to acquire a farm along oil creek and found the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Edwin Drake was a former railway conductor who invested all his savings in the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and traveled to Titusville, Pennsylvania to take an active role in the company. The operation experienced limited success skimming oil off the creek, and a failed attempt to dig a hole–to collect oil– which collapsed and nearly killed workers. Finally, Drake embraced the idea of drilling for the oil in the same way that was currently being used for salt wells. Oil had already been inadvertently pumped out of the ground by earlier salt wells but it had never been the explicit goal. The process of drilling took months and after others had lost hope by April 1859, Drake took out an additional $500 loan to continue drilling. On August 27, 1859, Drake discovered oil at the surface of the collection barrel. This is considered the birth of the oil industry as Drake had formalized and proven a method of commercial oil collection.
The well itself is 69.5 feet deep and pumped between 12 and 20 barrels a day during its operation.
The museum encompasses 22 acres around the original Drake well and includes an outdoor collection of drilling equipment and structures along with an indoor collection of artifacts from oil history.
The indoor section of the museum spans the history of oil from whaling, to the production of petroleum to make kerosene, to the rise of Rockefeller and Standard Oil, to modern day oil drilling. The exhibits highlight regional oil collection, with artifacts from early regional wells and related period industries such as blacksmiths. With the rise of oil established, another room discusses the fine living that was afforded to residence of the region that had prospered from the new boom. Indeed, the first oil millionaire, Jonathan Watson, was a resident of Titusville. Another interactive exhibit explores the monopolistic practices of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and his loud critic, Ida Tarbell.
Without reservation, the Drake Well and Museum is the most manicured and highest production oil museum we have visited thus far. The facilities are modern, informative, and engaging without sacrificing the value of historic accuracy in its outdoor displays.
The Drake Well Museum is a particular standout for its functioning exhibits. Along with the recreated fully functional steam powered pump at the Drake Well itself, the entire grounds are constantly moving as the operating Central Power Lease demonstrates how a single natural gas powered Olin hit-and-miss engine turning an eccentric gear can be hooked up with rod lines to multiple wells scattered across the grounds.
An additional notable structure on the grounds is the Silver Run Pump Station. The station was built in 1894 by National Transit Company and operated through 1968. This station was relocated from Franklin to the museum in 1981, donated by Pennzoil.
The museum is a standout combination historic site and collection and deserves ample time to be explored. Make it an afternoon by bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy in the neighboring park or pair with a three hour train ride on the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad. The train shares a parking lot with the Drake Well Museum and elaborates on the regional oil history.
- Oil and Gas Leases in Crawford County, Pennsylvania
- Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad
- Drake Well Museum
More Than History
Like the pictures on this post? Want to have it have a piece of oil history on your wall? Well, we hear you and you can buy a framed print or poster for your home.
* The structure is based on photographs of the original structure. The current building has been built with such an attention to detail that even the boards have been specially milled to replicate those of the original.