First Oil Well in North America.

First Oil Well in North America

Field review by the editors.

Caldwell, Ohio

In 1814 settlers Silas Thorla and Robert McKee noticed that deer were licking a spot on the ground, and figured that it might lead to a underground pool of salt brine. They drilled a well, lined with hollowed-out logs, looking for salt -- not oil. Oil, frankly, wasn't of much use to settlers in 1814. But livestock needed salt, and people needed it to preserve meat over the long winter months.

Thorla and Mckee drilled their well and did indeed find salt brine. But it was fouled with oil. The two men soaked the oil off of the surface of the brine with blankets, wringing it out as a nuisance. They later learned to wring it into bottles, which they sold as a digestive elixir named Seneca Oil (yum). By the time that oil really became valuable in America, Thorla and McKee were long dead.

This, then, by accident, is what the local chamber of commerce nowadays calls "the first oil well in America."

Shed and caboose without wheels.

It's still here, in a pretty little park, with shade trees and well-tended grass. But way in the back, where you wouldn't look unless you were disposed to, stands a battered cage made of pipes and chicken wire, enclosing a dead zone of crusty ground. In the middle is an obscene-looking hole, filled to the surface with black gunk, surrounded by the rotted wood of the original log casing. The ground slopes to one side, and extending from the hole is a foul-looking stream of erosion and oily mud that has eaten under the base of one side of the cage and has killed everything in its path.

Attached to the top of the cage is a small winch and cable. A long, crude wooden lever hangs from the winch, out through the chicken wire, and dangles in the air, unattended. To one side, a rack holds a selection of rusty pipes. Demonstrations of oil and brine extraction are evidently still given.

The historical marker out by the parking lot (and a forlorn, wheel-less caboose) tells the story of this odd place. But unlike the chamber of commerce, it only ventures to call it the "Thorla-McKee Well."

First Oil Well in North America

Address:
Hwy 78, Caldwell, OH
Directions:
I-77 exit 25. Hwy 78 east of town. At the jct of Hwy 564, in a little park on the southeast corner. Look for the caboose. Park and walk into the trees, paralleling Hwy 78. You'll quickly find the well.
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