The Pennsylvania Oil Rush

In the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution was moving forward steadily in the United States, but in Europe, which at the time was technologically about 30 years ahead, it was beginning to slow. The Industrial Revolution was tied to coal, and in 1850s Europe, coal was starting to reach the limits of its commercial viability. Mining coal was (and is) a labor intensive process, and the mines couldn’t keep up with the demand. A new and cheaper energy source was needed.

Everyone knew that energy source was oil, but there was no efficient method of extracting it. The only practical way of harvesting oil was whale fat, and tens of thousands of innocent whales were being slaughtered each year. However, while whale oil was good for lamps, it was not economically viable for industrialization. In 1850, there were only a few places on the planet where oil was known to exist in the ground.

One of those places was Baby Jesus’ Chosen Land and America’s Keystone State: The Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the picturesque glens, moraines, and dales of glacier formed Central and Western PA, there had always existed “oil seeps”. For hundreds of years, its former Amerindian inhabitants, the Iroquois and their subject peoples after them, and the hardy Scots-Irish and German immigrants who followed them, knew of this phenomenon. But, they avoided those areas because the hunting or farming was horrible, and not practical.

Enter entrepreneur Colonel Edwin Drake, and his blacksmith assistant, Billy Smith. They formed the Seneca Oil Company in 1858, and were determined to prove that “rock oil” was profitably extractable. With an old steam engine and a drill used for salt mining, they moved to Pennsylvania in search of commercially viable amounts of Mother Nature’s Sweet Sweet Nectar of Civilization. On 27 August, 1859, just outside the town of Titusville, in beautiful and bountiful Pennsylvania, Drake and Smith struck oil. Their discovery (g)ushered (Ha!) in the world’s first oil boom.

Pennsylvania’s Oil Boom first fueled the continuation of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, and within a few years it pushed America’s own Industrial Revolution into high gear. It supercharged the growth and expansion of the railroad industry, which massively expanded, replacing turnpikes and canals, and connected the West with antebellum East. The boom turned Pittsburgh from the center of America’s glass making industry to America’s Beating Industrial Heart.

One can easily argue that late Modern America started 161 years ago today. Thank you Pennsylvania, in particular your sons Messrs. Drake and Smith, for being a net exporter of energy, and laying the economic foundations necessary to free the slaves, defeat the Confederates, save the whales, advance Western Civilization and human rights, defeat the Nazis and Communists, raise countless billions out of poverty, and like a cherry on top, enjoy Sunday Steelers’ Football.

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