George Bissell, Class of 1845, Creates America's First Oil Company

Bissell's vision of extracting oil from the ground was inspired by a return visit to his alma mater in 1853.

The following is an excerpt from "The 25 Most Influential Alumni", featured in the January/February 2019 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Profile written by Savannah Maher ’17.

While visiting his mother in his hometown of Hanover in 1853, George Bissell paid a social call on Dr. Dixi Crosby, the College’s professor of surgery and obstetrics. Bissell noticed a jar labeled “rock oil” on his shelf. Crosby said another alum had brought it from western Pennsylvania and claimed it had intriguing properties as a lubricant and illuminant.

Bissell took note. As it happened, his life was in a muddle. Yellow fever epidemics had chased him out of New Orleans, where he’d been an educator and newspaperman. He planned to study law, but now the little jar held his attention.

Almost from that moment, Bissell saw two things plain. The oil, properly refined, could replace scarce, expensive whale oil as the predominant fuel for artificial light. And there was no reason why it couldn’t be extracted from deep underground, as water was. He also sensed that oil’s moment was about to arrive—and that he needed to act immediately.

Within 18 months he created America’s first oil company, Pennsylvania Rock Oil. He purchased 105 acres for $5,000 along Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The next few years were difficult. Investors grew impatient and caused repeated crises. Bissell’s unusual methods were mocked. The drilling kept coming up dry. The enterprise seemed to founder. Then on August 27, 1859, at a depth of 69 feet, his rig struck oil. While others celebrated, Bissell quickly bought as much nearby land as he could.

Before long he became the world’s first oil baron. He wisely built a barrel-making factory, and soon had additional interests in railroads, banks, hotels, and insurance. He was widely praised for his acumen, intelligence, and honesty.

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