The History of the Oil Industry
(with emphasis on California and Kern County)


Oil Through the Ages - 347 B.C. to 1859
California Comes of Age - 1861 to 1899
The Kern County Oil Industry - 1864 to Today
    Indians and Oil
    Great Gushers of California
Oil Around the World
The Early (Medieval) Oil Industry of Persia
The Early Oil Industry of Poland and Romania
The Early Oil Industry of Pennsylvania
The Early Oil Industry of Texas
    The Spindletop Gusher
How the Early Oil Industry Saved the Whales


Oil Through the Ages
347 A.D. Oil wells are drilled in China up to 800 feet deep using bits attached to bamboo poles.
1264 Mining of seep oil in medieval Persia witnessed by Marco Polo on his travels through Baku.
1500s Seep oil collected in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland is used to light street lamps.
1594 Oil wells are hand dug at Baku, Persia up to 35 meters (115 feet) deep.
1735 Oil sands are mined and the oil extracted at Pechelbronn field in Alsace, France.
1815 Oil is produced in United States as an undesirable by-product from brine wells in Pennsylvania.
1848 First modern oil well is drilled in Asia, on the Aspheron Peninsula north-east of Baku, by Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov.
1849 Distillation of kerosene from oil by Canadian geologist Dr. Abraham Gesner. Kerosene eventually replaces whale oil as the illuminant of choice and creates a new market for crude oil.
1850 Oil from hand-dug pits in California at Los Angeles is distilled to produce lamp oil by General Andreas Pico.
1854 First oil wells in Europe are drilled 30- to 50-meters deep at Bóbrka, Poland by Ignacy Lukasiewicz.
1854 Natural Gas from a water well in Stockton, California is used to light the Stockton courthouse.
1857 Michael Dietz invents a kerosene lamp that forces whale oil lamps off the market.
1858 First oil well in North America is drilled in Ontario, Canada.
1859 First oil well in United States is drilled 69 feet deep at Titusville, Pennsylvania by Colonel Edwin Drake.
California Comes of Age
1861 First oil well in California is drilled manually in Humboldt County.
1866 Oil is collected from tunnels dug at Sulphur Mountain in Ventura County by the brothers of railroad baron Leland Stanford, the same year that these techniques are applied to the Pechelbronn oil mine in France.
1866 First steam-powered rig in California drills an oil well at Ojai, not far from the Sulphur Mountain seeps.
1875 First commercial oil field in California is discovered at Pico Canyon in Los Angeles County.
1878 Electric light bulb invented by Thomas Edison eliminates demand for kerosene, and the oil industry enters a recession.
1885 Gas wells are drilled in Stockton, California for fuel and lighting.
1885 Oil burners on steam engines in the California oil fields, and later on steam locomotives, create new crude oil markets.
1886 Gasoline-powered automobiles introduced in Europe by Karl Benz and Wilhelm Daimler create additional markets for California oil. Prior to the automobile, gasoline was a cheap solvent produced as a byproduct of kerosene distillation.
1888 A steel-hulled tanker sails from Ventura to San Francisco, eleven years after the 1877 sailing of a Russian tanker across the Caspian sea at Baku.
1899 Discovery of Kern River oil field propels Kern County to top oil-producing region in state.


Bakersfield, 1933

The Kern County Oil Industry

1860s to 1890s - Tar Pits and Tunnels
  • 1864 - Tar mined from open pits at Asphalto (McKittrick) on west side of San Joaquin Valley.
  • 1866 - First refinery in Kern County built near McKittrick tar pits to process kerosene and asphalt.
  • 1878 - First wooden derrick in Kern County constructed at Reward to drill for flux oil to mix with asphalt.
  • 1887 - "Wild Goose" well at Oil City, Coalinga comes in at 10 bbls/day, demonstrating potential of north part of basin.
  • 1889 - Oil wells drilled at Old Sunset (Maricopa) with a steam-powered rig mark discovery of Midway-Sunset field.
  • 1893 - Railroad reaches McKittrick, where tunnels and shafts are dug to mine asphalt.
  • 1894 - Old Sunset (Maricopa) part of Midway-Sunset has 16 wells producing 30 barrels of oil per day.

1890s to 1920s - Gushers and Cable Tools
  • 1896 - Shamrock Gusher blows in at McKittrick and hastens end of tar mining operations.
  • 1899 - Hand-dug oil well discovers Kern River field and starts an oil boom in Kern County.
  • 1902 - Arrival of railroad makes development of Midway-Sunset field economically feasible.
  • 1902 - First rotary rig in Califonia reportedly drills a well at Coalinga field, but the hole is so crooked that a cable tool is used to redrill the well.
  • 1903 - Kern River and Midway-Sunset production makes California the top oil producing state.
  • 1904 - 17.2 million bbls of oil produced at Kern River exceeds annual production from Texas.
  • 1908 - Rotary drilling rigs and crews arrive in California from Louisiana and successfully drill wells at Midway-Sunset field and erase the embaressment of the Coalinga experiment six years earlier.
  • 1909 - Midway Gusher blows out near Fellows and focuses attention on Midway-Sunset field.
  • 1910 - Lakeview Gusher blows in near Taft and becomes America's greatest oil gusher.
  • 1919 - Hay No. 7 catches fire at Elk Hills and becomes America's greatest gas gusher.
  • 1929 - Blowout prevention equipment becomes mandatory on oil and gas wells drilled in California.

1930s to 1950s - Well Logs, Seismic, and Rotary Drilling
  • 1929 - First well logs in California run by Shell in a well near Bakersfield (Kern County).
  • 1930 - Deepest well in the world is Standard Mascot #1, rotary drilled to 9,629 feet at Midway-Sunset.
  • 1936 - First seismic exploration in California discovers Ten Section field near Bakersfield. Seismic discovery of the productive Paloma and Coles Levee anticlines soon follows
  • 1943 - Deepest well in the world is Standard 20-13, drilled to 16,246 feet at South Coles Levee.
  • 1953 - Deepest well in the world is Richfield 67-29 drilled to 17,895 feet at North Coles Levee.

1960s to Today - Steam, Horizontal Wells, and Computers
  • 1961 - First steam recovery projects in Kern County start up at Kern River and Coalinga fields after a successful pilot by Shell at Yorba Linda field in Los Angeles.
  • 1973 - Tule Elk and Yowlumne fields become the last 100-million barrel fields discovered in Kern County.
  • 1980 - First horizontal well in Kern County is Texaco Gerard #6 in fractured schist at Edison field.
  • 1980s - Cogeneration hastens the spread of steam recovery projects, which dramatically ramp up oil production.
  • 1985 - Kern County reaches an all-time production high of 256 million barrels of oil/year. At the same time, California reaches an all-time production high of 424 million barrels of oil/year.
  • 1990s - 3D-seismic data and 3D-computer modeling of reservoirs bring new life to old fields.
  • 1997 - Deepest horizontal well in Kern County is Yolwumne 91X-3 with measured depth of 14,300 feet. However, the well is surpassed only two years later by the relief well for the Bellevue blowout.
  • 1998 - A blowout and fire at the Bellevue #1 wildcat in the East Lost Hills subthrust fuels hopes for the first major Kern County discovery in over a decade.

And throughout much of this Kern County oil history, members of the
San Joaquin Geological Society were holding monthly dinner meetings and sharing a beer with the likes of Senteur de Boue. Click here to learn more about the history of this esteemed organiziation.


The Oil Industry of Medieval Persia (Azerbaijan)

When Marco Polo in 1264 visited the Persian city of Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea in modern Azerbaijan, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that "on the confines toward Geirgine there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it at one time." In addition to oil seeps, Marco Polo also saw spectacular mud volcanos, sourced by natural gas seeping through ponds, and a flaming hillside, the "Eternal Fires of the Apsheron Peninsula", where condensate and natural gas seeping through fractured shales has burned, and been worshipped, for centuries.

Shallow pits were dug at the Baku seeps in ancient times to facilitate collecting oil, and hand-dug holes up to 35 meters (115 feet) deep were in use by 1594. These holes were essentially oil wells, which makes Baku the first true field. Apparently 116 of these wells in 1830 produced 3,840 metric tons (about 710 to 720 barrels) of oil. Later, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tools to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninula, ten years before Colonel Drake's famous well in Pennsylvania. Also, offshore drilling started up at Baku at Bibi-Eibat field near the end of the 19th century, about the same time that the "first" offshore oil well was drilled in 1896 at Summerland field on the California Coast.

check out the link below
to learn more about the oil history of Azerbaijan

left: offshore wells on the Aspheron Peninsula

above: a hand-dug well at Bibi-Eibat field


The Early Oil Industry of Poland and Romania

The Carpathian Mountains in Poland abound in oil seeps, and Carpathian oil, hand dipped from pits dug in front of the seeps, was burned in street lamps, as early as the 1500s, to provide light in the Polish town of Krosno. Unfortunately, the seep oil was a dark, viscous liquid that stuck to everything. It also burned with a foul smell and gave off more smoke and soot than other lamp oils, most of which were rendered from animal fat.

Ignacy Lukasiewicz, a Polish druggist in the modern Ukranian town of Lvov, saw the potential of using seep oil in lamps as a cheap alternative to expensive whale oil. To make a clean-burning fuel, he began experimenting with distillation techniques, perfected earlier by Dr. Abraham Gesner in Canada, to produce clear kerosene from smelly seep oil. His experiments gained notoriety, and the European oil industry was born on a dark night on July 31, 1853 when Lukasiewicz was called to a local hospital to provide light from one of his lamps for an emergency surgery. Impressed with his invention, the hospital ordered several lamps and 500 kg of kerosene. Lukasiewicz enlisted the aid of a business partner and traveled to the Vienna, capitol city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to register his distillation process with the government on December 31, 1853.

To provide oil for his kerosene business, Lukasiewicz initially collected a thick, sticky crude from shallow, hand-dug wells in the Gorlice region, an area in the Carpathians about 50 miles west of the Polish town of Bóbrka. The following year, he teamed up with Titus Trzecieski and Mikolaj Klobassa to establish an "oil mine" in Bóbrka which pumped crude oil from hand-drilled, 30- to 50-meter deep wells. Later, wells as deep as 150 meters were drilled that produced a lighter, better-quality crude from which to distill kerosene. Other entrepreneurs dug their own wells and a thriving Polish oil industry developed, which was followed in 1857 by the drilling of wells at Bend, northeast of Bucharest, on the Romanian side of the Carpathians. A full two years later, Colonel Edwin Drake, who perhaps had knowledge of the Polish developments, drilled his famous well in Pennsylvania, an event wrongly labeled by many in the industry as the drilling of the "first oil well".

Many of these early wells were laboriously dug by hand. Others were drilled with spring poles, in which a springy wooden pole was stuck in the ground at an angle and a heavy metal drill bit attached by a cable to the head of the pole. Operators would bounce up and down on stirrups attached to the pole, causing the bit to literally chop a hole into the hard ground. The hole was cleaned by lowering into the hole a specially designed bucket, called a bailer, which was similarly bounced up and down until it filled dirt and cuttings to be hauled to the surface.

Steam engines were employed to mechanically drill wells in the Pennsylvania oil fields during the U.S. Civil War, and Thomas Bard imported a steam-powered drilling rig and crew from Pennsylvania to successfully drill a mediocre oil well in California in 1865. Steam was first used in Poland two years later in 1867 to drill a well at Kleczany, 60 kilometers west of the Bóbrka field. Steam-powered drilling made its debut at Bóbrka a few years later, sometime between 1870 and 1872, and enabled operators to drill much deeper than they had been able to previously. Within a few years virtually all oil wells, in both the United States and Europe, were being drilled mechanically.

(Excerpted from various issues of the AAPG Explorer)


The Early Oil Industry of Pennsylvania

Oil Creek in western Pennsylvania abounds in oil seeps that ooze thick black crude into the stream. These seeps were well known to the Seneca Indians, one of the Iroquois Nation tribes, who used the oil as a salve, mosquito repellent, purge and tonic. Many settlers also believed that these oils were medicinal, and "hawkers" sold bottles of it, as early as 1792, as a cure-all called "Seneca Oil". The nearby Allegheny and Kiskiminetas river valleys had oil also, but beneath the ground, where as early as 1815 it was contaminating several of the brine wells that supplied a booming salt industry in the Pittsburgh area.

In the early 1850s, a Pittsburgh druggist named Samuel Kier began selling bottled oil from his father's brine wells as "Pennsylvania Rock Oil", but met with little success. One day, Colonel A. C. Ferris, a whale oil dealer, processed a small amount of Kier's "tonic" to make a lighter oil that burned well in a lamp. When Kier heard about this, he began using a one-barrel whiskey still of his own to convert his rock oil into lamp oil. After Kier upgraded his still to five-barrel capacity, Pittsburgh forced him to move his operation to a suburb out of fear of an explosion.

When George Bissell, a New York lawyer, learned of Kier's operation, he hired Benjamin Silliman Jr of Yale University, probably around 1854, to see if Seneca Oil would yield lamp oil. Silliman successfully distilled the oil into several fractions, including an illuminating oil already known as kerosene. Armed with Silliman's results, Bissell received financial backing to form the "Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company", which later became the "Seneca Oil Company".

An unemployed railroad conductor and express agent named Edwin Drake, who by chance was staying at the same hotel in New Haven, Connecticut as Bissel and his partners, was hired in 1857 to visit Titusville, a town on Oil Creek. Drake's only qualification for this assignment was a free railroad pass remaining from his previous job. Although Drake had never been in the military, when he returned to Titusville the following year to commence operations as a Seneca Oil Company agent, his employers passed him off as a colonel to give their venture an air of respectability.

Historically, oil was collected at Oil Creek by damming the creek near a seep, then skimming oil off the top of the resulting pond. Drake tried this at a seep once used by a sawmill to produce oil for lubricating the mill machinery, but even with improvements and opening up other seeps in the area, he only increased production from three or four gallons to a still non-economic six to ten gallons a day. Next workers tried digging a shaft to mine the oil, but groundwater flooded in too quickly for the workers to continue. Finally, Drake decided to drill a well and locate the source of the seep oil, using the same steam-powered equipment used to drill brine wells.

He hired a blacksmith named "Billy" Smith, who had drilled brine wells for Kier and others in the Pittsburgh area. Smith, with his son Samuel, began drilling in the summer of 1859. Although progress was slow, usually three feet a day in shale bedrock, they reached a depth of 69½ feet by August 27, just as Drake was reaching the last of his funds. When Billy and Samuel pulled their drilling tools from the well the next morning, they noticed oil rising in the hole. After installing a hand-operated lever pump borrowed from a local kitchen, the first days production was about twenty-five barrels. Production soon dropped off to a steady ten barrels or so a day, and the well is said to have continued at that rate for a year or more.

Although Drake's well was no gusher, it was the beginning of an idea. Titusville transformed almost overnight from a quiet farm town to an oil boom town of muddy roads, hastily constructed wooden derricks, and noisy steam engines. The Pennsylvania oil boom was on.

check out the links below
to learn more about the early oil history of the United States


The Early Oil Industry of Texas

click here to learn about
The Spindletop Gusher
and the Birth of the Texas Oil Industry


How the Oil Industry Saved the Whales

Prior to the 1800s, light was provided by torches, candles made from tallow, and lamps which burned oils rendered from animal fat. Because it burned with less odor and smoke than most fuels, whale oil, particularly oil from the nose of the sperm whale, became popular for lamp oils and candles. However, sperm oil, widely known as "spermaceti", was very expensive. In fact, a gallon in the early 1800s cost about $2.00, which in modern values equates to about $200 a gallon. Nonetheless, whale oil was the illuminant of choice for those rich enough to afford it.

A thriving whaling industry developed to provide sperm oil for lighting, and regular whale oil as a lubricant for the machine parts of trains. In the United States alone, the whaling fleet swelled from 392 ships in 1833 to 735 by 1846. At the height of the industry in 1856, sperm oil sold for $1.77 a gallon, and the United States was producing 4 to 5 million gallons of spermaceti and 6 to 10 million gallons of train oil annually.

The demand for whale oil took a tremendous toll on whales, and some species were driven to the very brink of extinction. The right whale, one of the scarcer varieties, was killed in the early 1800s at a rate of about 15,000 per year. When the growing scarcity of this whale forced attention to other species, only about 50,000 right whales remained. Had demand for whale oil continued, extinction would have undoubtedly claimed several species.

When a clean-burning kerosene lamp invented by Michael Dietz appeared on the market in 1857, its effect on the whaling industry was immediate. Kerosene, known in those days at "Coal Oil", was easy to produce, cheap, smelled better than animal-based fuels when burned, and did not spoil on the shelf as whale oil did. The public abandoned whale oil lamps almost overnight. By 1860, at least 30 kerosene plants were in production in the United States, and whale oil was ultimately driven off the market. When sperm oil dropped to 40 cents a gallon in 1895, due to lack of demand, refined petroleum, which was very much in demand, sold for less than 7 cents a gallon.

If petroleum products, such as kerosene and machine oil, had not appeared in the 1850s as alternatives to whale oil, many species of whales would have disappeared long ago. Clearly, the expanding population and economy of the 1800s, together with the development of more deadly hunting tools, would have driven the whaling industry to even greater heights than the banner year of 1856. The September 3, 1860 edition of the "California Fireside Journal" sums up the attitude of the times:

"Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil, the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family".



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