A Brief History Of Gasoline: They Trashed Pennsylvania First

Part Two: The long and oily road, or everything you need to know you can learn from Pennsylvania
A Brief History Of Gasoline: They Trashed Pennsylvania First
Illustration: Benjamin Currie for G-O Media Art Department
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This is the third story in a series of stories on the history of gasoline. So far, Jalopnik’s tech coverage has been focused primarily on the emergence, or reemergence of the electric vehicle. One of the primary arguments levied against electric cars and electric charging infrastructure has been that bringing both into the mainstream would take significant investment from private and public actors, and that this has not generally been politically palatable in the United States. In this ten part series (here is part one and the prelude from the week before), award-winning journalist Jamie Kitman will lay out how American corporate and government entities have been cooperating on a vastly more costly, complex and deadly energy project for well over a century: gasoline.


In 1851, Dr. Francis Beattie Brewer, a Dartmouth-trained physician, left his practice in northern Vermont to join his father’s lumbering business near Titusville, in northwestern Pennsylvania. An oil spring had been spotted on the company’s property and the gooey liquid was being drawn in small quantities for use as a lubricant and as a fuel for torches and open-air fires.

Petroleum’s medicinal properties were what intrigued Brewer — a future congressman and Government director of the Union Pacific Railroad — who brought a bottle of the crude to his uncle, Dr. Crosby, a surgery and obstetrics professor at Dartmouth, while on a visit to his alma mater. Crosby, in turn, shared the thick oil with Prof. O.P. Hubbard, a chemistry professor. He concluded, without any apparent chemical analysis, that the substance was assuredly valuable, but unlikely to sustain a business because of the limited quantities known.

A few weeks later, however, another visiting alumnus, George H. Bissell, a novitiate New York lawyer with aspirations to become a stock promoter, caught wind of the “discovery.” Supposedly struck by the similarity between coal oil – already in vogue as a fuel — and petroleum, he hit on the notion that petroleum might be not just a medicinal product. It could also be a profitable illuminant. After investigations of the Titusville property and a slightly more sophisticated analysis of the rock oil were completed, Bissell and a partner, J.G. Eveleth, a fellow speculator and stock promoter, created the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, filing their certificate at Albany on Dec. 30, 1854.

The men then quickly hired two others to analyze the mysterious substance. The first was Luther Atwood, a renowned Boston chemist and pharmaceutical maker who already manufactured a popular, if foul-smelling, coal-tar-derived lubricant named “Coup-oil.” (He named it after Louis, Napoleon III’s recent coup d’etat, as noted in Kendall Beaton’s 1955 Business Industry Review article “Dr. Gesner’s Kerosene: The Start of American Oil Refining.”) The second was Benjamin Silliman, Jr., of Yale University. Silliman had just succeeded his father, Benjamin, Sr., at Yale, where the elder Silliman held the first chair in chemistry at Yale since 1803, in which capacity he’d conduct thirty years later what came to be regarded as the first distillation of petroleum in America.

Silliman the Younger’s report, arriving in 1855, was inaccurate in many respects, overstating some problems and understating others, notably the absolute need to treat substantially the kerosene that might be drawn from crude petroleum before it could make a safe illuminant. But he was optimistic enough in his predictions of yields – that is, what percentage of crude from a given amount could be put to profitable use – that it made his report a major historical event. It was economically and intellectually prescient– for Silliman was the first to forward the idea that crude oil could be not only divided into its natural components or “fractions,” (which are component parts that share similar boiling points,) but also “cracked” into various new and different products.

His writing is quoted in Harold F. Williamson and Arnold R. Daum’s 1959 history The American Petroleum Industry: “The continued application of an elevated temperature alone is sufficient to effect changes in the constitution of many organic products, evolving new bodies not before existing in the original substance.”

Despite what would be considered today a profoundly limited understanding of chemicals and molecular structure, Silliman averred that by heating and other treatments, crude oil could be broken into many different parts or fractions, some useful in themselves, some useful to remove, some to repurpose, some to discard. He was more than a little right, as researchers would discover in time that petroleum in its natural state is a complex brew composed of varying mixtures of what we would today describe as dissolved gas, gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oils, light and heavy, as well as various tars, lubricants, asphalt and coke.

Investors initially proved hard to find, however, until it was agreed that a new corporation would be established in Connecticut, where under state law shareholder liability was virtually non-existent. In 1855, moneyed interests from New Haven subscribed to a two-thirds interest in the new Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of Connecticut. The bankers, as is their wont, cleaned house. Silliman, Jr., was relieved of his duties as president, succeeded by a New Haven banker, James M. Townsend.

We mention Townsend for it was he who was passing by New Haven’s Tontine Hotel one sleepy afternoon in 1857 when he happened upon Edwin L. Drake, a former conductor for the New York and New Haven Railroad. Drake had no technical experience in mining or drilling and was, in fact, convalescing from an illness when Townsend bumped into and hired him on the spot. His qualifications were none, but these: he was unencumbered by current employment and as a former railway worker he could procure a railroad pass to get himself to Titusville on the cheap.

Despite the less than obvious nature of his ambition and qualification, Drake was some sort of a genius. Immediately after being hired, he mailed a letter ahead to Titusville addressed to “Colonel E.L. Drake,” thus staking himself an honorific he hadn’t earned, but one which ingratiated him to the small town’s easily impressed citizenry at once. Warmly received, “Colonel” Drake quickly secured the lease on Brewer’s farm on behalf of his company. In later life, Drake, who died poor, would claim it had actually been he who had the inspiration to bore for oil here, rather than waiting for it to bubble to the earth’s surface. Townsend and Bissell, among others, would claim this same insight as their own.

Having leased the property Pennsylvania Rock Oil held to Drake and an associate, Townsend and other Connecticut investors formed the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut in March 1858. Drake would serve as its general agent and it would be his new job to extract the oil from the ground. In this capacity, he secured the services of one W.A. “Uncle Billy” Smith, who had been engaged locally drilling for salt, with moderate success. Rounding out the highlights of Smith’s curriculum vitae was his alleged sobriety, evidently a rare thing in these badlands. Smith labored through the hot summer of 1859 for the princely sum of $2.50 a day, for which amount he included the services of his young son. Working in an atmosphere of considerable pessimism among Seneca officers and Titusville kibitzers, Smith bore his first well in late August and it came in strong. The oil boom was on.


To say that drilling for oil was not as easy as drilling for salt would be to understate the matter; to say that there was anything neat or hygienic about the enterprise would simply be wrong. All technologies employed in the mechanical processes of extracting oil were fairly primitive. While this made on-the-fly field repairs and the use of unskilled labor possible, it also meant that cave-ins, flooding, off-course drilling, broken drills and implements and high levels of incompetence were only among the many irritants, hardships, and filth generators.

As often as not, oil came out of the ground faster than it could be contained. Wooden barrels in which to store the free-flowing oil were often not plentiful enough, despite the eventual emergence of a class of itinerant coopers, who would travel to the sites of new wells, ready to build barrels around the clock, whilst living in makeshift camps and rough-and-tumble shantytowns. Barrels were in perpetual short supply in these early days, even when their users weren’t being thwarted by the barrels’ uneven quality and propensity to break and leak.

There were, too, innumerable problems related to the transportation of the new substance. The coal oil refineries – based in the great Eastern metropolises — were the only large-scale outlets for petroleum extant. They had an effective monopoly on the refining technology, the markets, and the distribution systems. But there were no local railroads out of the backwoods Pennsylvania oil towns that were cropping up almost daily, and barrels filled with petroleum were messy, heavy and bulky to transport. That, however, is what these petroleum pioneers were forced to do, moving their bounty by horse cart over undeveloped roads to the improved roads or canal barges that might take them to Pittsburgh or other major cities, for shipment to the East.

Gradually railroad trunk lines were built to deal with the new product and, in time, oil tank cars appeared, an important development credited to Amos Densmore, who in the late summer of 1865, had the capital idea of mounting two cylindrical wooden, 45-barrel tanks on a flatcar belonging to the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad. But pipelines were already emerging as an alternative transport strategy, setting off a fierce competition that would endure for decades, becoming a savage battleground for some of the era’s most dedicated monopolists.

Once the crude reached the refineries, the difficulties were hardly over, as storage issues came again to the fore. The nascent industry would be plagued, by turns, with insufficient capacity to refine and process the tidal wave of crude, and later over-capacity might as easily be the problem, as production in the fields was not only nigh on impossible to predict but supremely difficult to slow down.

Other production problems further underscored the limitations of early refining technology, extracting their own toll. Not all petroleum, many a speculator learned to his dismay, was created equally. Some delivered disappointing yields of useful products and other petroleum, such as the highly sulfurous crude oils found in some fields, rife with technical demerits of its own. Insufficiently treated, high sulfur fuels would burn unevenly and emit notably foul odors in storage and during use. It was the lack of sulfur in some petroleum and its presence in others, which, respectively, would lead to the adoption of the terms “sweet” and “sour” to describe crude oils.

The financial machinations of the players, the fortunes won and fortunes lost, were one thing. Worst of all for the general public, though they didn’t always recognize it or see it up close, was the massive assault on the environment the production of this new wonder substance entailed. When a gusher spouted, it was often days before it could be properly capped and, by that time, rivers, streams and valleys would be flooded in thick, black or brown crude, much of it unrecoverable. Even more were simply abandoned, through lack of effort. Natural gas was flared off with no more thought or advance planning than would be given to lighting a cigarette.

Oil that did manage to make it into storage posed problems of its own. Tanks leaked and some petroleum fractions evaporated readily. Wagons and railroad cars overturned, horses died, canal and riverboats might strike rocks or for some other reason sink or void their contents. Hijackers, pirates and all manner of no-goodniks sought to line their pockets with the fruit of other men’s labor, capital, and greed. Inevitably, misadventure was a big part of the petroleum venture.


By the time the Civil War drew to its bloody conclusion in 1865, the oil boom that gripped Pennsylvania had spread throughout the country, speculators creating a countrywide “oil stock company epidemic.” Many got burned.

Like all runs on raw commodities, the oil boom wrought havoc on people and places. Towns would quickly spring up after a gusher came in and then just as quickly expire when the field was exhausted. Adding to the tenuous nature of the local economies was the fundamentally anarchic organization of the infant industry. Few knew what they were doing, the geological and chemical aspects of oil drilling and production were inadequately understood and jealousy and greed ran hand in hand with misery and deception.

Sometimes too many speculators would have adjacent claims on the same field, making any one of their wellhead’s outputs insufficient to warrant their investment, whereas a lesser number might have operated profitably. With many people essentially drawing oil from the same reserve, the impetus was to get as much out as fast as possible, with all that implied in the way of surplus production, spoilage and waste. Even those involved were all-too aware of what was going on, as recorded in Andrew Cone and Walter Johns’ Petrolia, an 1870 history of prior decade of the Pennsylvania oil boom. Commenting on a not untypical 30,000-barrel oil spill in 1863, Oil Region geologist J.F. Carll lamented, “We have reaped this fine harvest of mineral wealth in a most reckless and wasteful manner.”

Wild price swings were the rule in the immature market for petroleum, with erratic demand compounded by the vagaries of the post-war national economy. The Depression of 1866, for instance, led to widespread bankruptcies among area banks, leading that year alone to the abandonment of some 8,000 drilling projects in Pennsylvania alone and putting thousands out of work.

The boomtowns that sprang up each time a rich oil field was struck were nasty places, even at the best of times. In 1865, a correspondent for The Nation called on Pithole City, PA, a classic boomtown that exploded onto the map with the 900,000 barrels of crude the town’s wells served up the previous year. He found it “the sewer city.” Filled with boarding houses, brothels and saloons, it was “a gigantic city of shreds and patches” so-called because of its ad hoc architecture, characteristically cheap and nasty. Pithole City was soon enough a ghost town, but, for a short while, 15,000 people called it home.

Ida Tarbell, whose famous profile of Standard Oil is regarded as one of the great, early examples of muckraking journalism, came upon her interest in the oil giant naturally enough, as she grew up in Titusville. Her father had seen Pithole quickly wither while a resident of nearby Rouseville, PA, where he made his living constructing oil tanks. Ron Chernow in his biography Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. notes that following the crash at Pithole, Tarbell, Sr., bought the Bonta House Hotel, built for $60,000 only a few years earlier, for $600. He used many of its parts to construct the family’s residence in Titusville.

For all the heartache and failure such sudden and profound setbacks implied, the hunt for petroleum and the wealth it might convey was addictive, forging ever on. The emergence of steam power and more sophisticated engines aided extraction and pumping, while new types of drilling rigs, improvements in tools and metallurgy, plus increased use of explosive charges, allowed oilmen to dig deeper and faster.

The dangerous and too often fatal practice of “torpedoing” – firing an explosive charge to open a clogged well or straighten a “crooked” hole – quickly grew in popularity. Done correctly and with safety paramount, it was a costly exercise, leading to the emergence of a thriving, illicit class of men who traveled in the dark with nitroglycerin strapped to their backs. These moonlit torpedo specialists would shoot wells at night, illegally and in violation of common sense rules of safety, in order to avoid the costs of doing it the right way. Doing so would have included the expense of paying for permission to exploit the proven blasting technique devised by Col. Edward A.L. Roberts, a Civil War veteran whose many lawsuits seeking recompense for violations of his patents left him a millionaire when he died in 1881. They also conveyed to him the distinction, at the time of his death, of having been the most litigious man in the history of the United States.

Railroads rose and fell on the strength of their oil carriage income, with the Pennsylvania, New York Central, and Erie railroads gobbling up feeder routes from the fields at a frantic pace. Vicious rate wars ensued between the lines and many of the uncompetitive and monopolistic practices that would be outlawed years later with the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and passage of federal anti-trust statutes were devised, fleshed out and practiced every day, with gusto.

The railroads’ battles amongst themselves for the oil industry’s custom are the stuff of legend, but their desired position as the only game in town was not to last long. By 1860, S.F. Karns, an operator in the fields of western Virginia, had already outlined plans to lay a six-inch pipeline from his well at Burning Springs to the railhead at Parkersburg, VA. In the event, however, Karns would not be the first to lay a pipeline; he was beaten to it a New Jersey inventor, J.L. Hutchings, who constructed one in Oil City, PA, in 1864.

Pipelines would become more numerous by the year. Larger and more carefully engineering facilities for storing crude oil were constructed. Lest one think this meant the industry was cleaning up its act, or that it had any intention to do so, wells, pipelines, and storage tanks remained notoriously porous, leaking and spilling their contents with the consistency, practically, of the day’s more reliable railroad timetables. And so they would continue, to a greater or lesser extent, through the present day. Market share, haste and the desirability of quick profits have always marked the rules of the oil game. Stewardship of the petroleum resource or, heaven forfend, the environment, though alluded to on rare occasion in 19th century periodicals, were, in practice, simply not on the list of concerns.

The competition between the railroads and pipeline operators, on the other hand, was a matter of fierce interest. One particularly acrimonious fight in the 1880s saw the powerful Standard Oil Co. and the Pennsylvania Railroad come to blows over just such a pipeline. It was one Standard proposed to run from the Pennsylvania oil fields to the ports at Newark, New Jersey, bypassing the Pennsylvania line or, for that matter, any railroad. (The sin of Tom Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad, evidently, was that it had for the nonce thrown its lot in with the smaller oil producers, while Standard, on its way to becoming a legendarily powerful monopoly, was busy making nice with Commodore Vanderbilt’s New York Central and Jay Gould’s Erie railways, which roads didn’t run to Newark.)

In a desperate attempt to stop the completion of Standard’s pipeline, the railroad launched a public campaign, documented by the New York Times, warning the citizenry in alarming, full-page advertisements that the pipeline would inevitably leak and destroy the “fabled” oyster beds of Newark. Awareness of the oil industry’s potentially deleterious impact on the environment is, thus, nearly as old as the industry itself.

No prizes will be awarded for guessing that Standard went ahead and built its pipeline to Newark, with all its presumably negative repercussions for the local populations, human and mollusk. Who today realizes that there ever was such a thing as a Newark oyster? But if the edible bivalve ever was to stage a return to the waters off of modern Newark, whose chemical- and petroleum-rich waters stand as a toxic tribute, at least in part, to the handiwork of Standard Oil, diners would be well advised to a modify the popular aphorism, Don’t ever eat a oyster in a month which doesn’t have the letter “R” in its name. In the case of oysters of Newark, better counsel might be: Never eat a Newark oyster harvested in any month with any letters in its name.


In 1863, an observer would count more than three hundred petroleum refineries operating in the United States, some converted coal oil facilities, others freshly constructed to process the new fossil fuel. Pittsburgh, New York and New Jersey were the major refining centers, with Cleveland bringing up the rear.

By and large, the emerging petroleum industry had come to adopt the technology, nomenclature and standards of the coal oil business that preceded it, one convenient similarity being the ways it was able to describe and differentiate the relative densities of crude oil, refined distillates and still residues. As with coal oil, these came to be referred to in terms of specific gravity, (the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a known substance, typically water,) their boiling points, and color.

There had by now evolved awareness of the correlation between boiling points at which the components of crude oil vaporize in the still and the densities of the condensed vapors or distillates. Products with the lowest densities and boiling points – gasoline, among them – were not produced commercially at first. With different hydrocarbon compounds vaporizing at different temperatures, to divide the crude most profitably it was now known, heat, introduced in stages, was key.

Kerosene, the increasingly popular illuminating fuel, which drove oil production to record heights decade after decade in the 19th century, came from the so-called middle cut of the crude oil. Different products were drawn from the heavy fractions, such as fuel oil for burners, lubricants and paraffin wax stock.

Rampant experimentation was the order of the day in the petroleum refining industry’s infancy, with efforts spanning the gamut in this uncharted and unregulated field from vaguely scientific to random to completely idiotic and back again. But with success, the lighter fractions of petroleum would also now come into play, as more and more refiners learned to implement the process of cracking, its basics licensed, modified or stolen from the Downer organization, which for many years led the field in the quality of its products and chemical insights. Throughout the industry, key discoveries would be made in these early years, though oft times they were poorly understood, with refiners adding substances like clay, minerals and animal charcoal to their crude oil stocks, and treatments introducing (and then sometimes extracting) sulphuric acids and alkalis, to create a more stable and better burning product, while utilizing ever greater portions of the crude stock.

Such ministrations would turn up new worlds of by-products amongst petroleum’s so-called light fractions, including naphtha, naphtha gas, the liquid petroleum gases, rhigolene and cymogene, as well as the star of our story, gasoline. Early cracking increased yields of illuminating oil, which was the product most in demand; the art was practiced successfully by New York refiners from 1863.

Gasoline, the newest petroleum by-product, took its name in 1865, as catalogued by the Oxford English Dictionary. It found its first commercial application in this same year. It was used in so-called air-gas machines, devices which employed the evaporated fumes of gasoline, drawn by pipe from an on-premises tank, to provide gaslight in large buildings, such as mills, factories and other large institutions, with comparative safety. Gasoline was also sold as a treatment for head lice. (Don’t use it for treating head lice.)

Known as petrol in many countries, and benzine in others, the name gasoline began as a trade name and became a generic term (as did petrol.) The lack of specificity of terminology, the use of the same terms to mean different things in different settings and times, marks the oil and refining industries through the present day. (For example, kerosene in America is known as paraffin in England, whereas paraffin in America is a petroleum component unrelated to kerosene.)

In April 1866, the government got into the petroleum game for the first time. Congress appropriated $5,000 for its testing as a marine fuel, directing that the Navy use petroleum (instead of coal) to create steam to power ship propellers. The new fuel’s promise of reduced labor, the ability to extinguish fires easily at end of journeys and the ability of making four barrels of oil do the work of six-eight tons of coal seemed encouraging. But the Navy testers passed on oil as a fuel, fearing explosions, evaporation losses in storage, toxic and foul-smelling burning fumes, and a cost presumed to be eight times greater than coal. This left the development of oil-powered steamers to the Russians, French, and British. The high cost of oil also limited, for the time being, its appeal as a locomotive or industrial fuel.

No matter, production was mounting rapidly. At the wellhead and at the refinery, stills got bigger and more durable as the 19th century progressed, thanks to advances in steel manufacture and cooling technology, though fire was an endemic problem at every stage of petroleum’s journey, from the well to the consumer, with most early refineries sooner or later literally going up in flames.

Exports of oil rose sharply, however, with the vigorous assistance of American consular representatives around the world, who went out of their way to promote the use of kerosene lamps. So anxious were they to aid the American export drive, many consular offices would purchase their own kerosene lamps, at the taxpayers’ expense, to showcase the new refined product.

By 1866, American refiners were selling even more of their product abroad than at home. And by the mid-1870s, the demand for petroleum-based lubricants had also exploded with the sharp growth in the use of industrial machinery. The industry was now pleased to supply these and more than 200 petroleum by-products. In 1869, Vaseline – petroleum jelly — was invented in 1869 by Robert Chesebrough and became a hugely popular product for use in the home and in cosmetics, although its medicinal properties would come to be discounted. Heavy petroleum products were turned into wax for use in candles and chewing gums.

As demand for oil products grew and the original Pennsylvania fields became exhausted, new sources of oil would be sought with wells bored in different areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Crude oils were discovered, but these had different chemical compositions than the first Pennsylvania oil and required different technologies to market effectively.

This lack of uniform quality was starting to hurt American oil exports against the competition from the rapidly developing oilfields of Russia. The latterly tapped fields at Bradford, Pennsylvania, were distinctly sulfurous, which, as noted, was odorous and caused excessive smoke when burned, and deny it though they might, refiners would learn that, as much as they didn’t want to pay the cost, sometimes the sulfur had to be removed. This realization, however belated and grudging, along with the financial wherewithal and the fanatical vision to make it happen, was among the reasons that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil became a corporate behemoth in a class of one.