History of the petroleum industry in North America

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The history of the petroleum industry in North America began nearly simultaneously in Canada and the United States.



North America's oil industry was born in 1858 when James Miller Williams built the first successful oil well on a deposit of "gum beds" located near the present-day towns of Oil Springs and Petrolia, in the southwest corner of Ontario, Canada. The beds had first been recognized by the Tripp brothers in 1851, but they failed to develop the find and sold the rights to Williams. Williams pumped 1,500 m³ of crude oil from his wells in his first two years. He then launched the first integrated oil company -- exploring, drilling and refining the oil into finished products -- with the founding of "The Canada Oil Company" in 1860.

For the next 50 years, these fields supplied 90% of the oil consumed in Canada and Petrolia became home to the world's most advanced oil development and refining technologies. The boom times were over by the turn of the century, but commercial wells continue pumping to this day. In all, the region has produced an estimated 10 billion barrels (1.59 km³). When the Petrolia oil rush began to slow, the drillers there who had learned how to get oil from the ground efficiently found their skills and methods in high demand. Oil men who learned their trade in Petrolia dispersed around the world, to as many as 87 countries, to open today's great oil fields in the Middle East, Gobi Desert, South America, and elsewhere.

Titusville, Kerosene

Native Americans had known of the oil in western Pennsylvania, and had apparently made some use of it for many years before the mid 19th century. However, interest grew substantially in the mid 1850s as geologists studied and reported on the market potential in the context of the emerging industrial age.

There, on August 28, 1859 George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake made the first successful use of a drilling rig at Titusville, Pennsylvania. This single well soon exceeded the entire cumulative oil output of Europe since the 1650s. The principal product of the oil was kerosene, which quickly replaced whale oil for illuminating purposes in the United States.

Originally dealing in whale oil which was widely used for illumination, Charles Pratt (1830-1891) of Massachusetts was an early pioneer of the natural oil industry in the United States. He was founder of Astral Oil Works in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York. Pratt's product later gave rise to the slogan, "The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil." He joined with his protégé Henry H. Rogers to form Charles Pratt and Company in 1867. Both companies became part of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil in 1874.


Capt. Anthony F. Lucas, an experienced mining engineer drilled the first major oil well at Spindletop. On the morning of January 10, 1901, the little hill south of Beaumont, Texas began to tremble and mud bubbled up over the rotary table.

A low rumbling sound came from underground, and then, with a force that shot 6 tons of 4 inch (100 mm) pipe out over the top of the derrick, knocking off the crown block, the Lucas Gusher roared in and Spindletop, history's most famous oil field, was born.

It is estimated that this initial discovery was over 100,000 barrels (16,000 m³) of oil per day. That one well was producing more oil than all the other wells in the United States combined.

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