Samuel Kier - Medicine Man & Refiner
Have you ever tasted crude oil? Probably not! In fact, most people would react to the question with disgust. If you have ever been near an oil well, pipeline, tanker, or refinery, you are undoubtedly familiar with the sight and odor of this liquid hydrocarbon. Pennsylvaniaâ€™s crude oil called Penn Grade crude, often looks and smells pretty bad. Although it ranges in color from pale amber to pitch black, depending on its composition, most people familiar with the substance probably associate the words crude oil with a disgusting dark-green color and an odor reminiscent of some of the more volatile cleaning fluids, not an especially appetizing description. To make matters worse, a list of the chemical components in crude oil would make the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s most wanted hit list.
Many of us are familiar with the following more common uses for crude oils from our history books: applying it as waterproofing for clothing and canoes; mixing it with flour to create and excellent quality axle grease and cheap lubricant; and burning it for inexpensive, albeit smoky, light. It is also an excellent furniture polish.
There was a time, more than 100 years ago, however, when many people not only tasted crude oil willingly but relished it as the cure for a plethora of medical problems, both internal and external. Both the Native Americans and the early settlers found â€śSeneca oilâ€ť or â€śrock oilâ€ť an excellent curative for burns, bruises, and old sores, and especially as a liniment for various â€śrheumatickâ€ť complaints. Some people even found the oil laced waters of Oil Creek in Venango County a gentle but effective laxative (Giddens, 1947). Later, one man in particular made special use of the supposed curative properties of Penn Grade crude oil.
Samuel Kier and the Salt Works
Samuel M. Kier was born in Saltsburg, Indiana County, but moved to Pittsburgh at the age of 21. He was an industrial explorer who dabbled in numerous enterprises with mixed success. His first business was running canal boats between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with his partner, James Buchanan, who would later become president of the United States. He was also involved in brick manufacturing, coal mining, steel making, and lumbering. In 1847, Samuel and his father Thomas bought some property in Tarentum, Allegheny County, for the purpose of becoming part of the salt business that thrived there. They had two wells drilled on the property to a depth of 400 feet (to the sandstones of the Pennsylvanian age Pottsville Formation, according to Hughes, 1933) and built a small salt works to produce salt from brine. Unfortunately, the Tarentum salt wells also produced an annoying quantity of oil that contaminated the brine.
At that time, the salt manufacturers had little use for oil, which was regarded as a contaminant. It could be used as a fine spindle lubricant in manufacturing cotton yarn when mixed with whale oil (Miller, 1974), but more often than not it was discarded into the Pennsylvania Canal that ran along the floodplain of the Allegheny River. There, much to the dismay of canal boat operators, it greased towlines and soiled the decks and sides of the boats (Giddens, 1947). One day, some of the neighborhood boys threw a burning branch into the canal and set the oil aflame. The sight of the canal seeming on fire made Tarentum residents realize that the oil was good for something after all â€“ light. The oil produced a large amount of noxious fumes and smoke, but it worked well enough to replace whale oil and lard as the primary source of lamp light.
Kierâ€™s Petroleum, or â€śRock Oilâ€ť
In 1848, when Samuel Kierâ€™s wife developed tuberculosis, the doctor prescribed â€śAmerican Medicinal Oil,â€ť which came from a well in Kentucky (Miller, 1974). Kier recognized that the medicinal oil was basically the same material as the contaminant being discarded from the family salt wells. Always the enterprising businessman, he turned his wifeâ€™s misfortune into a new business. He packaged the oil in half pint bottles and sold them for 50 cents each. As part of his marketing strategy, he hired men to drive around the countryside in gaily colored wagons to proclaim the worth of this new medicine and sell it to the public. In language that would have made P. T. Barnum proud, Kier advertised as follows:
Kierâ€™s Petroleum, or Rock Oil, celebrated for its wonderful curative powers. A natural remedy! Procured from a well in Allegheny County, Pa., four hundred feet below the earthâ€™s surface. Put up and sold by Samuel M. Kier, 363 Liberty Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.
The healthful balm, from natureâ€™s secret spring,
The bloom of health and life to man will bring;
As from her depths the magic fluid flows,
To calm our sufferings and assuage our woes.
Another advertisement, in the form of a bank note, unabashedly promised a cure for just about everything from rheumatism, gout, and blindness to the common cold. But though Kierâ€™s raw materials were basically free and the demand for his product was relatively high, he could not sell enough to make a profit. The expense of marketing ate up most of his proceeds, so he eventually withdrew his wagons and sold his oil only through drugstores.
The First Oil Refinery
Samuel Kier continued to look for ways to obtain a profit from the previously disparaged crude oil. In 1849, sensing that there were other potential uses for it, he sent a sample for analysis to Professor James C. Booth. Booth was a prominent Philadelphia chemist and a former assistant of Henry D. Rogers, the first State Geologist of Pennsylvania during the First Geological Survey of the state. Booth recommended Kierâ€™s oil as a solvent for gutta percha (Miller, 1974), a resin based rubber used for molding and casting. He also suggested distilling the oil and gave Kier plans for constructing a small still. In 1850, Kier went into partnership with John T. Kirkpatrick, another Pittsburgh industrialist, and built the first still at his establishment on Seventh Avenue in Pittsburgh, near what is now the Civic Arena. The still was a small cast iron kettle with a cover and a distillation tube that had the capability of distilling one barrel of crude oil at a time. The fruits of Kierâ€™s first few attempts were as bad as the original crude, but he eventually learned to control the process and produced an oil that was at least useful for lighting. Kier called his new product â€ścarbon oilâ€ť (McLaurin, 1896). Unfortunately, it still smelled pretty bad.
Kier, always trying to improve on things, increased production by substituting a five barrel still, and experimented a great deal with various lamps. He finally invented a lamp that would burn his â€ścarbon oilâ€ť with little or no smoke, and soon Pittsburgh was showing the world that Kierâ€™s oil lamps were the worldâ€™s cleanest and brightest, and provided the best illumination. A few years later, a man named â€śColonelâ€ť Edwin L. Drake showed up in Tarentum looking for ways to drill a well on Oil Creek near Titusville.
That was the beginning of the petroleum refining industry as we know it today. Had Kier been as clear headed about this business venture as he was about the potential usefulness of crude oil, his descendants would be enormously wealthy today. But Samuel M. Kier never thought seriously about patenting his process or his lamp, so as Professor Booth later said to him (Giddens, 1947), â€śWe missed it by letting this thing slip.â€ť
Still, not everyone could be convinced that crude oil was good only for lighting and lubrication. Giddens (1947, p.18) quoted from an 1892 interview with Tarentum resident John W. Staley, published in the long defunct newspaper The Pittsburgh Dispatch:
The â€śrock oilâ€ť which [Kier] sold in bottles for medicine was simply the crude oil of to day, though there is no question that that found in the Kier well was of the very best. I have taken many a dose of it inwardly, and, sir, if you ever get a bad cold in the chest, there is no better remedy to day than to soak a flannel cloth with crude petroleum and lay it across your breast. Try it some night. In those days everybody up here in Tarentum used the Kier oil for medicine, and Iâ€™ll bet you will find plenty of persons still living here who yet believes in the virtues of petrolatum as a medicine. I am never without half a barrel of crude oil now in the house, and it is my standard remedy.
Drink up, me hearties!
Harper, J. A., 1995, Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Unrefined Complex Liquid Hydrocarbons. Pennsylvania Geology, v. 26, No. 1, p. -
Derrick Publishing Company, 1985. The Derrickâ€™s hand book of petroleum, a complete chronological and statistical review of petroleum developments from 1859 to 1898: Oil City, Pa., Derrick Publishing Company, 1,062 p.
Giddens, P. H., 1947, Pennsylvania Petroleum, 1750-1872 â€“ a documentary history: Drake Well Memorial Park, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 420 p.
Hughes, H. H., 1933, Freeport quadrangle, geology and mineral resources: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, 4th ser., Atlas 36, 272 p.
McLaurin, J. J., 1896, Sketches in crude oil â€“ some accidents and incidents of the petroleum development in all parts of the globe, with portraits and illustrations: Harrisburg, Pa., privately published, 406 p.
Miller, E. C., 1974, Pennsylvaniaâ€™s oil industry: Pennsylvania Historical Association, Pennsylvania History Study 4, 69 p.
Reprinted by permission of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey.