Economics and Business

Gold Rush

What is “black gold”?

Black gold is a term for oil or petroleum—black because of its appearance when it comes out of the ground, and gold because it made prospectors, drillers, and oil industry men rich. The oil industry in the United States began in 1859 when retired railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake (1819–1880) drilled a well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. His drill, powered by an old steam engine, struck oil. Oil from animal tallow and whales, had been used as a lubricant since colonial times. The discovery of a process for deriving kerosene, a clean-burning and easy-lighting fuel, from coal oil had been patented in 1854. After Drake’s Titusville well produced shale oil, the substance was analyzed for its properties and it, too, was determined to be an excellent source of kerosene. Soon others began prospecting for “rock oil.” Western Pennsylvania became an important oil-producing region. Wagons and river barges transported barrels to market; later, the railroad reached into the region; and by 1875 a pipeline was built to carry the oil directly to Pittsburgh. Petroleum products soon replaced whale oil as a fluid for illumination. During the 1880s, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana also produced oil. In 1901 the famous Spindletop Field in eastern Texas produced the nation’s first “gusher”—oil literally sprang out of the earth. During the next decade, California and Oklahoma joined Texas to lead the nation’s oil production. Between 1859 and 1900, U.S. oil production boomed: Just 2,000 barrels were produced the year it was discovered in Pennsylvania; more than 64 million barrels were produced annually by the turn of the century.

The second half of the 1800s saw the oil industry boom: The fuel was used for lighting, heating, and lubrication (principally of machinery and tools). But the advent of the automobile and its central role in the life of twentieth-century America made the oil industry richer yet. Demand soon exceeded the nation’s supply of petroleum, prompting the United States to increasingly rely on imported oil for fuel.


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