Before I begin my rant, I would like to reward an anonymous suggestion that, when I need a blog topic and have nothing, I just make up a meeting that no one else went to. I plan to use that one of these days.

But this meeting actually did happen, and it was one of the best luncheon talks I’ve been to in a long time. The speaker was Jeff Spencer of Black Pool Energy, who is also active in the Petroleum History Institute, and the subject was “From Brine Wells to Giant Oilfields – the Petroleum Industry of the 19th Century.” The event was hosted by the Houston Geological Society.

Since this is the 150th anniversary of the Drake well in Pennsylvania, generally credited with being the first oil well in North America, Spencer went to some pains to acknowledge earlier wells which, for whatever reason, actually did encounter oil or gas shows. He holds out the Drake well as being significant for four reasons:

  • It was the first commercially producing oil well;
  • Oil was the objective of the well, not brine water;
  • It was drilled rather than hand-dug; and
  • There is plenty of historical documentation supporting what’s known about the well.

More importantly, I think, is that the Drake well set off a very rapid development of the petroleum industry in the US.

Oil was being discovered in wells prior to 1857, but it was typically a byproduct of brine wells, being drilled to produce salt for the westward movement of settlers. It was generally thought to be a nuisance, and one early newspaper report called it “an annoyance.”

But once the Drake well, not a huge producer by any reckoning, kicked-started the industry, some really large discoveries followed quite soon afterwards, most of which preceded Spindletop by decades.. I would have to say that my favorite anecdote of his entire talk was the Karg well in the Lima-Indiana trend. The development in this area produced an estimated 500 MMbo and 1-2 Tcf of gas, the latter bringing a tremendous amount of industry to the area.

The Karg well was a natural gas barnburner, literally – it produced so much gas that it was frequently set on fire, on purpose, to lure tourists and potential investors to the area. According to Spencer, marching bands escorted them across a bridge to view the spectacle, and wagons and drivers could also be rented.

The well was on the banks of a river that, according to local legend, never froze in that area because of heat from the well. Wildflowers purportedly bloomed in winter for the same reason.

The nearby town of Findlay, Ohio, kept its streetlamps burning 24 hours a day because the prodigiously producing well convinced the locals that the natural gas supply was limitless. That same hubris caused the town’s population to burgeon from 4,500 to 25,000 in just a couple of years.

In those days most people worked six days a week, Spencer said, so after church on Sunday they would buy a train ticket for 65 cents per person and cart the whole family out to see the well. Many of them had their pictures taken in front of the conflagration, still in their Sunday best.

He offered many other examples of these early wells becoming tourist attractions. While the rash of large discoveries continually depressed the price per barrel (imagine it in cents rather than dollars), by the early 1880s kerosene was the fourth largest US export.

Later discoveries such as Spindletop get most of the historical nod today. Spencer said that many oilmen who cut their teeth on fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Indiana later moved west and south, but their postcards back home complained about the heat, the working conditions, and the mosquitoes.

One wonders whether the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania will draw the tourists once again …