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SAMUEL M. KIER (1813-1874) - THE OFT-FORGOTTEN OIL PIONEER

William R. Brice
Geology & Planetary Science
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
Johnstown, PA  15904    USA    wbrice@pitt.edu

During discussions of the early oil pioneers, one person is frequently absent from the hallowed group and he is Samuel Kier (1813-1874) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Perhaps he is overlooked because he was about 10 years ahead of everyone else.  But Kier deserves to be listed among all the other greats of the early days of oil, such as George Bissell, Edwin Drake, Abraham Gesner, and James Miller Williams.

Samuel Martin Kier, son of Thomas and Polly Martin Kier, was born September 19, 1813, somewhere along the Conemaugh River between Saltsburg and Livermore in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Pittsburgh when he was 21.  He quickly became involved in the express business (like the later Railway Express) as a forwarding agent.  In 1846, Kier, in partnership with James Buchannan, later President of the United States, established "Independent Line," working with special "section" canal boats which could be taken apart and put on railroad cars where they were available, or put together and pulled along the canal system where there was no railroad.  When later partnered with Benjamin Jones (of Jones and Laughlin Steel Company), this canal boat company eventually became, the "Mechanics Line."  But by 1854 with expanded railroad competition, the canal boat Company was discontinued and Kier, Buchannan, and Jones went into the fire-brick business in Bolivar, Pennsylvania (later moved to Salina, Pennsylvania).  They, Kier and Jones, also purchased iron furnaces at Armaugh, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Kier's connection to the oil business came through his father.  Thomas Kier in 1839, financed by his son, began a salt business at Tarentum, Pennsylvania, on the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh.  Thomas, had local drillers, using the spring-pole method, put down wells to depths of 500 feet to obtain the brine which was then evaporated to produce salt.  But a thick, black substance soon began seeping into the brine wells spoiling the product.  By 1842, it was really becoming a serious problem.  At first the oil was allowed to run off into the river, then his father tried to skim off the oil and burn it to fuel evaporation furnaces, but without success.  It could be used in torches at night, but the burning torches gave off terrible smelling smoke.  But to them, it was just a useless material that was ruining their brine wells.

At this point fate stepped in.  Samuel Kier's wife became ill and the local physician prescribed "American Oil," which Kier noticed looked, smelled, and tasted exactly like what was coming out of his father's brine wells and being allowed to run into the river or out on the ground.  Being the business man that he was, he knew a good thing when his wife had to take it.  Kier started bottling his own oil, "Kier's Rock Oil," and a new business was underway, and "Kier's Rock Oil" was soon on druggist's shelves across Pennsylvania.  To keep up with the demand, Kier had one of the brine wells tubed and pumped.  As the salt water supply began to diminish, oil replaced it, and soon the well was producing only oil.  Thus in 1845, Kier had established the first "oil pumping well."

But Kier thought there might be other uses for this thick, black material.  In 1842, he sent a sample of the waste product from the brine wells to a chemist, J. C. Booth, of Philadelphia, who suggested that distillation of the crude petroleum would produce a good burning fluid, and he furnished Kier with drawings of a suitable still to do this.  Kier soon constructed a still and began to produce what he called "Carbon Oil."  There was only one problem, the kind of lamp required to properly burn this product had not been invented, so he developed a lamp that would burn his "carbon oil" without producing smoke. 

By 1854, Kier had moved his refining business into the City of Pittsburgh to the corner of Grant Street and Seventh Avenue.  While this first distillation device, called a still, had a capacity of about one barrel of crude, by 1855 he built another one with a capacity of about six barrels.  Thus by the mid-1850s, Kier was operating the only oil refinery in the United States.  There were others in other parts of the world, but this was the only one in the U.S.   Thus Samuel Kier is truly one of the great pioneers of the early petroleum industry in the United States and deserves to be in the same company as Drake, Bissell, and all the New Haven fellows.

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