Simanaitis Says

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IN THESE days of fracking and horizontal drilling, seemingly seeking the last drop of petroleum, it’s comforting that the world’s longest-running oil well, McClintock No. 1, remains productive after 153 years.


McClintock No. 1, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania. This and other images from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission,

Back in 1859, “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake initiated the world’s first commercial production of petroleum at Titusville, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Crude oil was so abundant in the region that it seeped into nearby streams, one of them appropriately called Oil Creek. As far back as 1807, a farmer named Hamilton McClintock was collecting the crude and selling it, primarily for lubrication and lamp oil. His son Culbertson continued selling barrels of the stuff.

No such luck for the Colonel. The world’s first oil well, Drake No. 1, ran dry after only two years of production. However, a few miles south in Rouseville was the McClintock’s oil farm. And, in August 1861, production started at what was originally called the Colby Well. One hundred and fifty-three years later, what became known as McClintock No. 1 is still in operation.


A sign identifies the location of McClintock No. 1, Rouseville, Pennsylvania, 95 miles north of Pittsburgh.

John Washington Steele was a stepson of the McClintocks and inherited the oil farm in 1864. Earning $2000/day, Steele became known as Coal Oil Johnny.


Coal Oil Johnny Steele. Image from

Alas, he lived lavishly, squandered it all and eventually lost control of the oil rights. Coal Oil Johnny shuffled around and ended up as a railway station agent in the Midwest. In between, he was part owner of the Skiff & Gaylord’s Minstrel Show, known for its female impersonators.


Coal Oil Johnny and ‘The Measuring Rod,’ a parable by Little People Records. Image from

Alexis C. Madrigal gives an excellent summary of Coal Oil Johnny, including discovery of a “thinly veiled morality play,” in The Atlantic, October 18, 2010. For even more details, there’s The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny by Richard Aites.


The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny by Richard Aites, iUniverse, 2007

Pennsylvanian Bob Cannon, a shirt-tail relative, has developed a persona of Coal Oil Johnny. He has a website,, offering guest appearances in costume, Coal Oil Johnny’s wisdom and a reprint of his long-out-of-print autobiography


Coal Oil Johnny: Story Of His Career As Told By Himself (1902) a reprint of John Washington Steele’s autobiography.

After Coal Oil Johnny lost control, McClintock No. 1 had a succession of owners, including Quaker State, which merged with Pennzoil and in turn was acquired by Royal Dutch Shell. In 2000, ownership was transferred to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. McClintock No. 1 is now an historical site, part of the Drake Well Museum,

McClintock No. 1 pumps oil periodically, specifically to maintain its status as the world’s oldest operating well. It can produce about 1/10 of a barrel, 4 or 5 gallons, each day.

From the beginning, Pennsylvania Grade crude oil was highly regarded for its sweetness, that is, its relative lack of sulfur. Back in the 1800s, it’s said that Pennsylvania crude helped save the whales. Prior to the invention of clean-burning kerosene lamps in 1857, whale oil produced the primary source of lamp oil illumination.

On the other hand, prior to the automobile, the crude’s higher distillates had little economic value. Kerosene producers of the era regularly tossed these higher distillates (we’d call them gasoline) into nearby streams. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. Bill Urban
    November 26, 2014

    Tom McCahill had a theory on the special “sweetness” of Pa. oil – it’s due to the large purebred mastodon herd that lived, expired, and decomposed in western Pa. The story comes full circle – from wildcatters to burger flippers – with the founding of Quaker STEAK and Lube about 50 miles west of Titusville. Check out their story and menu:

  2. Victor Ceicys
    November 26, 2014

    Irony is sweet, the automobile saved the environment in several ways. By consuming the waste product gasoline, autos reduced the pollution of our waterways. In our cities, like NYC, autos reduced and eventually eliminated manure and dead horse carcass pollution. So ironically the auto sweetened the environment. HaHa!

  3. Mike B
    November 27, 2014

    re: autos saving the environment (diesel locomotives too – see NY smoke ordinances regarding steam switcher locomotives that triggered introduction of diesels. No good deed goes unpunished…

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