The First Wildcat - A True Adventure

The modern oil industry is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary. The actual birthday is August 27. In the late afternoon of that Saturday in 1859, the drillbit hit a thin layer of sandstone that was saturated with oil.
This article appeared in Vol. 6, No. 3 - 2009


The Drake Well was drilled on a spot that is now within the park that belongs to the Drake Well Museum ( Photo: Courtesy of Drake Well Museum It happened in a quiet manner. It was no gusher similar to other discoveries in the early days of exploration. Rather, the oil flowed at a leisurely pace and did not reach the surface until the next day.  

Nevertheless, this event marked the onset of the modern oil industry, because it happened at a time when there was a huge demand for oil that could be used as both an illuminant and a lubricator.

150 years have passed since "Colonel" Drake drilled this 69.5 ft (21.2 m) deep well in western Pennsylvania into a Devonian reservoir. The well was drilled in an area of numerous oil seeps that had been known and were used by the Native Americans for hundreds of years.  

It was these seeps which attracted a group of investors who had no knowledge of geology. It was the smell of them that decided, first the lease area, and then the well location. While "Colonel" Drake has got his name into the history books, another name should also be mentioned; that of George Bissel. A New York lawyer, he was instrumental in establishing Seneca Oil Company, raising the necessary funds and making sure it all happened. Both Bissel and Drake should be remembered as true wildcatters. Bissel had a vision. Drake was his instrument.  

The art of exploring for oil and gas through geology was not yet invented in 1859. The geological risk factors were not discussed. Nobody knew about source rocks, migration, reservoir rocks or cap rocks.  

Knowledge of how to drill oil wells was also lacking. Expertise from the drilling of salt water wells came to their rescue.  

Coming up with the idea of drilling wells for the purpose of finding oil, and then doing it, was a true adventure.


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