Pennsylvania’s Energy Heritage

  • Cover of The Dramatic Story of Colonel Drake
    Pennsylvania Refining Company, The Dramatic Story of Colonel Drake, [1934].

Crude History

Human use of oil and gas dates back thousands of years, with the earliest wells known to have been drilled during the Han dynasty in China. The modern commercial petroleum industry, however, can be traced to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where Edwin Drake successfully drilled his first oil well in 1859. By 1865, the United States produced seven thousand barrels of crude oil per day, most of it in Pennsylvania, where each barrel would sell for over six dollars. In the decade after Drake launched the industry, the United States became the first and largest producer of petroleum, accounting for 85 percent of the world’s crude oil by the 1880’s. At its peak production in the early 1890’s, Pennsylvania produced over 30 million barrels of oil in one year. Discoveries in Texas, California, Wyoming and later in other countries would lead to petroleum becoming the primary source of world energy, supplanting coal, by the 1960’s.

Since its first commercial production of oil in 1859, Pennsylvania has hosted many “firsts” in oil and gas innovation. Pittsburgh was home to one of the world’s first oil refineries in 1853. Hydraulic fracturing methods have been a central component to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas boom in the early 2000’s, but well fracturing is a technique that began in the early Pennsylvania oil fields, with the use of nitroglycerin torpedoes. The first oil pipelines are believed to have been constructed to bust labor unions (crude oil being previously loaded into whiskey barrels and transported via barge or rail). 

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This brochure for Veedol Motor Oil describes the history of Tide Water Oil Company and the construction of the Tidewater pipeline, 1879, which transported crude oil from the northeast Pennsylvania oilfields to Williamsport, PA, and then later to Bayonne, NJ.

Pennsylvania Refining Company
The Dramatic Story of Colonel Drake
Butler, Pa. : Pennsylvania Refining Co., [1934]

Various materials concerning the early Pennsylvania oil industry
John P. Herrick oil history collection

CO2 PPM in 1859, when Drake drilled his first well: 286.2

Additional Information

A record of the industry activity in and around Venango County can be found in the digitized newspaper, The Petroleum Centre daily record, 1868-1873, through Penn State University Libraries. 

While not a product of Pennsylvania’s natural resources, the state also helped launch the modern nuclear energy industry with the construction of the first commercial nuclear reaction, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, in 1957. The 1950s-era film, Power And Promise, The Story Of Shippingport Nuclear Power Plant, available from the Internet Archive, provides a contemporary view of its creation. Further information about Shippingport can be found in the Decommissioning plan for the Shippingport Station Decommissioning Project records, and the Nunzio J. Palladino papers.