Nov 17, 2007 | Posted in Essays, People

Crude petroleum was well known by Americans living in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania and Western Virginia and by Canadians in Western Ontario in the early nineteenth century. Encountered in naturally occurring seeps along remote waterways, it was also an occasional unwanted product of wells drilled into the earth to recover salt from brine. Nineteenth century salt works considered the foul smelling petroleum a real nuisance and were content to burn it or allow it to run across the ground, often into a nearby waterway. Early farmers gathered it from around the salt wells and used it as an ointment for themselves and their animals. Miners digging for coal would burn the crude petroleum for light when it was available. Housewives around the saltwells burned the crude in their primitive lard cups as an alternative to paying for and using animal fat as an illuminant. Though free to those who could get access to it, unprocessed crude petroleum was both foul in its odor and put off a thick, black smoke. Late into the 1840’s, crude petroleum remained a curious nuisance with no commercial value or market.

Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh in the latter 1840’s was a successful owner of the Mechanics Line, a barge line operating out of Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvania Canal. His partners included B. F. Jones, who would later make a fortune in iron manufacturing, and James Buchanan, who would become President of the United States. Samuel Kier was the first to give crude petroleum a sustained market value when in 1848 he packaged pure crude oil from Tarentum area salt wells in half-pint bottles for sale as a medicine. A half-pint bottle of Kier’s Petroleum, or Kier’s Rock Oil, sold for 50 cents. Kier advertised nationally and marketed his product by employing a workforce of salesmen who traveled the countryside in colorful wagons. In time, he reconfigured his marketing strategy and sold Kier’s Petroleum exclusively through drug stores.

About 1849, at the suggestion of a Professor Booth – a Philadelphia chemist, Kier began manufacturing in Pittsburgh an illuminating oil for lamps, called carbon oil, by distilling small batches of crude petroleum twice and then allowing the distillate to sit out in the air in shallow metal pans for clarifying. This distilled and treated petroleum lamp oil found a market around Pittsburgh and, later, New York. Kier’s son William, stated in an 1892 Pittsburgh Newspaper article, “You can safely say that carbon oil must have been made by distillation by my father along in the forties, for we have papers showing sales of it in 1851.” An early entry in Samuel Kier’s business ledger records a sale of a half-gallon of carbon oil on Sept. 2, 1851 for 70 cents. Another sale was recorded on Sept. 18, 1851 for a barrel of carbon oil that sold for $17.50. By 1853, Kier’s carbon oil was selling for a $1.50 a gallon, or $60.00 for a 40-gallon barrel.

Charles Lockhart, a pioneering Pittsburgh oil producer, owned the Huff Well located across the Allegheny River from Tarentum. Lockhart sold the 5-barrel a day production of crude petroleum from the Huff Well to Samuel Kier. Kier contracted with Lockhart in 1853 to buy the entire production of the Huff Well for five years at 66 ½ cents a gallon. Kier bought nearly all of the crude produced from the Tarentum area salt wells and manufactured and marketed from it both a medicinal product and a lamp oil. Kier was the first to establish a commercial market and value for petroleum.

When Drake’s discovery well began pumping crude from the Venango County oil field in August 1859, Samuel Kier was among the first to contract for oil leases along Oil Creek. In 1860, he invested in the early Oil Region by purchasing from Samuel Graff of Kittanning a two-eighths undivided interest in approximately 900 acres of land at the mouth of Oil Creek where Oil City would be built. Graff kept a three-eighths interest in the venture. Kier, Graff and three other minority partners developed this early river marketing and shipping port for oil. Kier purchased from the partners sole interest in a one-acre site on the east bank of the mouth of Oil Creek. He built three large iron storage tanks on the site and throughout the 1860’s operated a substantial buying and shipping business from it.

Kier was among the earliest prominent dealers and shippers of crude purchased at the well head. In this role, he continued in the 1860’s to be a marketmaker for petroleum. No man fulfilled this absolutely essential role for the fledgling American oil industry as early or better than Samuel Kier. Doing so, he assured the citizens of Pennsylvania a new source of wealth and well being. His pioneering Market-making for the emerging oil industry would give the nation a new energy and vitality so essential to its industrial greatness.

By Neil McElwee, 2007.

The Derrick’s Handbook of Petroleum, Vol. I, 1898, pg. 947
The Derrick’s Handbook of Petroleum, Vol. I, 1898, pg. 951; The American Petroleum Industry, The Age of Illumination, 1859-1899, 1959, pgs. 18-24
Pittsburgh Dispatch, August 7, 1892, found in Pennsylvania Petroleum 1750-1872, pg. 23
The Derrick’s Handbook of Petroleum, Vol. I, 1898, pg. 955
Biographical Review, Boston, 1897