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Thursday, September 14, 2023

Oldest Oil Well in America?

Oldest oil well in the America? Texas, Oil City PA, Saudi Arabia (I know, it’s not in America)? But we think of places like these for oil firsts. Oil has been around for thousands of years, but only in the last 160 years have we been seeking it out through drilling. 

One of those oldest wells is within 25 miles of Marietta. The first Thorla McKee well in Noble County, Ohio, (Washington County at the time) was drilled in 1814 - for salt. Locals call it “America’s first oil well.” This well produced salt water and oil. A second well which survives today was drilled in 1816. 

1816 well with oil showing inside original 
sycamore log casing. Photo by author. 

Drake’s 1859 well in Pennsylvania was the first well drilled solely for oil. The Thorla McKee wells both produced oil, more than 50 years earlier, though it was incidental to salt recovery. People at the time were unaware of the value of oil and gas.

The drillers were entrepreneurs Silas Thorla and Robert McKee. Salt was a critical resource because of its use in daily living for food preservation and flavoring. Workers tended large kettles of boiling salt water 24 hours a day to produce salt crystals. The effort was worth it; salt from the east coast was expensive. 


The wells were drilled using the spring pole method, a crude technique consisting of a drilling tool attached to the end of a 30-foot-long hickory sapling. Workers jumped up and down on a rope attached to the sapling - imagine a drill bit attached to a pogo stick. It was slow and almost comical to think of now, but effective. 

Sketch of a spring pole drilling rig viewed at 


The 1816 well yielded the sought-after salt water. But slimy oil was present, too. No problem. Decades earlier, Seneca Indians had observed that “oil and water don’t mix” and soaked up the floating oil using blankets. Oil from the Thorla McKee well was later sold as “Seneca Oil,” a supposed cure-all for rheumatism, coughing, and “all other ailments of humanity.” A Woodsfield, Ohio resident wrote that the well produced five barrels a week and the oil was “as fine as any oil from…a sperm whale.”


The oil and natural gas from the salt wells created problems. Oil often overflowed and floated on Duck Creek; sometimes a foot thick. Oil sites were often identified by swimmers who became coated with oil. Occasionally the oil ignited. A curious boy tried to ignite oil on the creek. He succeeded. A witness observed a fireball which reached 200 feet in the air and burnt tree branches “as smooth as if the blaze of a furnace had struck them.” 


Natural gas was a hazard, too. At the Thorla well, accumulating gas would “blow off” about once a week, blasting a geyser of salt water fifty feet in the air. Robert Caldwell was working night shift near another salt well using an open flame for light, unaware of the risk.  Suddenly there was a blinding flash as the gas ignited. Robert McKee told the story: “Mr. Caldwell said he saw a ball of fire rise upward while the timbers cracked and the irons rattled and his hair stood on end.” The explosion was heard miles away. “Robert Caldwell was not hurt, but a worse scared man was never seen on Duck Creek.” Marietta historian Samuel Hildreth wrote that the same (or similar) event spread burning oil along the stream for half a mile, creating the “novel…spectacle of a river actually on fire.” 


The 1816 well can be viewed at Thorla McKee Park near Caldwell, Ohio. It still emits small amounts of hydrocarbons, a living witness to the area’s pioneering role in the oil and gas industry. 

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