Long before the era of oil wells in Texas and more than a century before the Gulf sheikhs, the peripheral, poverty-stricken areas of the Austrian province of Galicia were gripped by a black gold rush.
The kerosene lamp was invented here, illuminating people’s homes until the incandescent light bulb was patented, and oil extraction brought fortunes to the oil barons. On a trip to the Low Beskids, you can learn about the beginnings of an industry that changed the world forever. And it is hard to believe that this story really happened!
For centuries, local highlanders have enjoyed the benefits of “rock oil” (this is what oil used to be called), which naturally seeped from under the ground in the hollows of the terrain, dirtying streams black and poisoning wells.
It was used to grease the wheels of carts and mills, soften hides, and was even used as a “cure” to treat the common cold or tuberculosis. Even after World War II, peasants from local villages sold oil in small bottles from horse-drawn carts. In the village of Łosie there is the historic Zagroda Maziarska, where you will learn about the history of oil from the time before it went into the tanks of our cars.
The breakthrough in industrial oil production was initiated by Ignacy Łukasiewicz. This Polish chemist and entrepreneur from Lviv in late 1852 and early 1853, together with his assistant Jan Zeh, obtained kerosene by distillation. A practical use for the liquid was found in no time, and later that year a kerosene lamp shone in the shop window of Łukasiewicz’s pharmacy. Five years later, his invention was already commonly illuminating homes. A small shrine in the town of Gorlice commemorates the place where the kerosene lamp first illuminated the streets.
Thomas Edison’s patenting of the incandescent light bulb quickly overshadowed the Galician pharmacist’s invention, but oil easily found new uses. In 1854, Łukasiewicz and his partners opened the world’s first oil well.
The extraction of oil in Galician mines attracted the interest of American entrepreneurs, including John D. Rockefeller, who paid a visit to the Beskid mine. Legend has it that the future oil tycoon wanted to pay Łukasiewicz for a tour of the mine, but the latter refused to accept payment, stressing that he was doing it for a mission. In many ways, Łukasiewicz contradicted the stereotype of the greedy capitalist – he used a significant portion of the profits from the sale of kerosene to develop education in the region, build roads and hospitals.
Today you can visit the historic mine in Bóbrka just like Rockefeller, albeit for a small fee. It hosts a museum that offers tours in English. It is a must-see on your Beskids tour – not only if you are into technology!