Picture it – it’s the early 1800s. The United States is less than fifty years old, her population about five million; there are 16 states (17 after 1803, when Ohio achieves statehood), and most people live within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
The south is developing agriculture, the north is focusing on industrializing, and “the west” is anything past the Appalachian Mountain range.
Travel is limited to a person’s own two feet, an animal’s four – horse, oxen, donkey – or a river’s current (which wasn’t always the most direct route). Steamboat, or North River Steamboat of Clermont, to give her full name at her second enrollment (registration) in 1808, is the first steam-powered vessel afloat in the United States’ riverways, an innovation most folk view with attitudes ranging from skepticism to cynicism.
Samuel Morse won’t make his improvements to the telegraph system until 1835, so communication is limited to newspapers, or letters that sometimes take months to arrive.
The enterprising, hardy folks that pioneered west – trappers, farmers, ranchers, explorers – had to carry their supplies with them. There were no convenient grocery stores, no quick way to get mail-ordered items, and the absence of things that seem commonplace now – flour, salt, shotgun cartridges, canned goods – could also mean the absence of health or even life back then.
Salt, in particular, was an absolute necessity. In addition to being used to preserve meat, and a key component in canning, salt regulates the water content of the human body and provides the “fuel” for sending impulses along the nerve fibers. Muscles can’t contract if there aren’t positively- and negatively-charged ions present!
So enterprising settlers went searching for salt deposits. (Michigan has extensive salt deposits underneath the city of Detroit; so does Hutchinson, Kansas, though there the mine has been converted into a museum.) Two such people were Silas Thorla and Robert McKee. They hunted for areas where deer were finding natural salt licks, looking for salt brine to mine. Outside of Caldwell, Ohio, in 1814, they found just such a place – but when they dug down to the main deposit, lining the hole with a hollowed-out sycamore trunk, the valuable salt brine was contaminated with oil.
They would pump the salt brine up and into barrels. The oil would rise to the top overnight, and then Thorla and McKee would lay wool blankets atop the surface, soaking up the oil. Then they would wring out the blankets into bottles, label them “Seneca Oil” and market it as a cure-all – and yes, people did apparently drink the stuff – but their focus was always the salt. So the Thorla-McKee Well, while technically the first oil well in North America, was never worked with oil in mind. The original works were destroyed by a fire in 1831.
Today, as you can see, the oil well is fenced in, but still easily seen. And from what I understand, the log lining the well is the same sycamore trunk which Thorla and McKee installed. Nearby are rods and a diagram showing how the pumping system worked. There was nobody out there when Jerry and I visited, but I’m told that occasionally there are demonstrations out here – which I wouldn’t mind making a second visit for!