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Diesel-electric engines pioneered by General Motors and Winton Engine Company (established in 1896 as a bicycle company) saved America’s railroad passenger industry. Two-stroke diesel engines provided a four-fold power to weight gain. Photo courtesy Model Railroader magazine, January 1999.

The two “streamliner” trains that changed America’s railroad industry in the late 1930s: the Union Pacific M-10000 (left) and Burlington Zephyr. Today the Zephyr is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Photo courtesy Union Pacific Museum.

“Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?” – Bing Crosby

Diesel engines had been used since about 1925. The engines were heavy, producing only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight.

In the early 1930s America’s passenger railroad business was in trouble. In addition to the Great Depression, the once dominant industry faced growing competition from automobiles.

It had been just 60 years since coal-burning steam locomotives and the transcontinental railroad had linked America’s east and west coasts. Now, more than 30 million cars, trucks, and buses were on U.S. roads. What would power heavy transportation?

Although railroad steam engine technology had advanced since the “golden spike” of 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah, locomotives still “belched steam, smoke, and cinders,” notes one railroad historian. “Passengers often felt like they had been on a tour of a coal mine.”

The powerful diesel-electric Zephyr arrived in 1934 – a result of the Navy’s search for a new engine for its submarines.

The railroads’ distillate-burning internal combustion engines of the day were heavy and troublesome. Primitive diesels had been used in switch engines from about 1925, but they were slow, explains Richard Cleghorn Overton in Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines.

Burning fuels ranged from a low-grade gasoline to painter’s naphtha and diesel. Distillate railroad engines emitted an oily smoke and often produced only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight. These common four-stroke engines fouled easily and required multiple spark plugs per cylinder.

Even Bing Crosby lamented the fate of railroads in his popular song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Improved Iron Horse

Help was on the way for America’s failing passenger railroads. It would come from the U.S. Navy in the form of a diesel-electric engine…wrapped in a stainless steel Art Deco locomotive.

“Wings to the Iron Horse,” proclaimed a company advertisement in the 1930s. “Burlington pioneers again – the first diesel streamline train.”

New diesel-electric engines generated power for the “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago. The assembly line fascinated visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

With the threat of war on the horizon, the U.S. Navy needed a lighter weight, more powerful diesel engine for its submarine fleet. General Motors joined the nationwide competition to develop a new diesel engine.

Seeking engineering and production expertise, in 1930 GM acquired the Winton Engine Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Winton, established in 1896 as Winton Bicycle Company, was an early automobile manufacturer.

The Winton Engine Company evolved into a developer of engines for marine applications, power companies, pipeline operators – and railroads.

America’s first diesel-electric train set a speed record and changed railroad history.

America’s first diesel-electric train made railroad history.

With GM’s financial backing, Winton engineers designed a radical new two-stroke diesel that delivered one horsepower per 20 pounds of engine weight. It provided a four-fold power to weight gain.

The Model 201A  prototype — a 503-cubic-inch, 600 horsepower, 8-cylinder diesel-electric engine – used no spark plugs, relying instead on newly patented high pressure fuel injectors and a 16:1 compression ratio for ignition.

At Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933, GM evaluated two 201A diesel-electric engines, using them to generate power for its “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit. The working demonstration of a Chevrolet assembly line fascinated thousands of visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

Powered by a single eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel engine, the revolutionary “streamliner” traveled the 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours — a passenger train record.

One visitor happened to be Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (known as the Burlington Line). Budd immediately recognized the locomotive potential of these extraordinary new diesel-electric power plants. He saw them as a perfect match for the lightweight “shot-welded” stainless steel rail cars being pioneered by the Edward G. Budd (no relation) Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia.

During its “dawn to dusk” record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned only $16.72 worth of diesel fuel.

Edward Budd was the first to supply the automobile industry with all steel bodies in 1912. His success in steel stamping technology made the production of car bodies cheaper and faster. By 1925, his system was used to produce half of all U.S. auto bodies.

The Depression, however, put the Budd Manufacturing Company almost $2,000,000 in the red — prompting its fortuitous diversification into the railroad car market to generate revenue. When approached by Burlington President Ralph Budd in 1933, this Budd was ready.

Within a year, the two technologies were successfully merged with the creation of the Winton 201A powered Burlington Zephyr – America’s first diesel-electric train. It would change railroad transportation history.

Chicago World’s Fair visitors line up to admire the stainless steel beauty of the Burlington Zephyr, which will soon be featured in a Hollywood movie. Eight major U.S. railroads soon convert to efficient diesel-electric locomotives. Photo from a Burlington Route Railroad 1934 postcard.

Art Deco and the Silver Streak

Although ”The Silver Streak” was a 1934 “B” movie — intended for the bottom half of double features — it remains a favorite of some railroad history fans.

The Zephyr rolled into Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition on May 26, 1934, ending a nonstop 13 hour, 4 minute, and 58 second “dawn to dusk” promotional run from Denver.

Powered by a single eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel, the “streamliner” cut average steam locomotive time by half. The Zephyr traveled 1,015 miles at an average speed of 76.61 miles per hour and reached speeds along the route in excess of 112 mph — to the amazement and delight of track-side spectators from Colorado to Illinois.

During its record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned just $16.72 worth of diesel fuel (about four cents per gallon). The same distance in a coal steamer would have cost $255. Construction innovations included the specialized shot-welding that joined sheets of stainless steel. The lightweight steel also resisted corrosion so it didn’t have to be painted.

Americans fell in love with the Zephyr. Four months after its high-speed appearance at Chicago’s Century of Progress, the streamliner made its 1934 Hollywood film debut, starring as “The Silver Streak” for an RKO picture. The Zephyr was loaned for filming —  and the Burlington logo on its front was repainted to read Silver Streak. “The stream-lined train, platinum blonde descendant of the rugged old Iron Horse, has been glorified by Hollywood in the modern melodrama,” proclaimed the New York Times.

Winton diesel-electric engines powered a new generation of U.S. submarines. The Porpoise (SS-172) was the first of its class to join the fleet in 1935 — and served throughout World War II.

Although the black-and-white “B” movie came and went without making much of a splash, it has won its place in movie history as a rail-fan favorite, according to a 2001 article in the Zephyr Online. “It did have a lot of action, and the location shots of the Zephyr are an interesting record of this pioneer.”

The RKO film should not to be confused with 20th Century Fox’s 1976 comedy “Silver Streak,” which was filmed in Canada using Canadian Pacific Railway equipment from the Canadian, a transcontinental passenger train, according to the Obscure Train Movies website.

More than a Railroad Technology

By the end of 1934, eight major U.S. railroads had ordered diesel-electric locomotives. The engine technology’s cost advantages in manpower, maintenance, and support were quickly apparent.

Despite the greater initial cost of diesel-electric, a century of steam locomotive dominance soon came to an end. By the mid-1950s, steam locomotives were no longer being manufactured in the United States.

GM won the Navy’s competition for a lightweight powerful diesel – choosing the 16-cylinder Winton Engine Company diesel-electric to power a new class of submarine. In 1935, the USS Porpoise was first to join the fleet, where it served throughout World War II. Diesel-electrics power plants descended from the Burlington Zephyr would remain part of the fleet until replaced by nuclear propulsion.

A Zephyr competitor — the Union Pacific M-10000 built by the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company — also appeared at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

In fact, the aluminum M-10000 streamliner was revealed six weeks earlier than the Zephyr. Originally powered by an inefficient four-stroke engine, the M-10000 switched to the Winton 201A. Recognized as America’s first streamliner, the M-10000 was cut up for scrap in 1942.

The Zephyr (later renamed the Pioneer Zephyr) is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.


As Pennsylvania petroleum production skyrocketed following the Civil War, Densmore oil tank cars – designed and fabricated by two inventive brothers – first successfully transported oil by rail from booming oilfields to refineries.

densmore oil tank car

Amos and James Densmore designed their first twin tanked railroad cars in 1865. Patented a year later and built by the thousands, their invention greatly improved bulk transportation of oil. Photo courtesy the Drake Well Museum.

densmore oil tank car

Although prone to leaks and top heavy, Densmore tank cars provided a vital service – but only briefly. A better railroad car replaced them.

Railroad oil tank cars became the latest of a growing number of oilfield innovations when two brothers received a U.S. patent on April 10, 1866.

James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, were granted the patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” which they developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured two tanks in order to ship oil in bulk. Patent no. 53,794 describes and illustrates the railroad car’s design.

The nature of our invention consists in combining two large, light tanks of iron or wood or other material with the platform of a common railway flat freight-car, making them practically part of the car, so as they carry the desired substance in bulk instead of in barrels, casks, or other vessels or packages, as is now universally done on railway cars.

The brothers described the use of special bolts at the top and bottom of the tanks to act as a braces and “to prevent any shock or jar to the tank from the swaying of the car while in motion.” 

An historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville memorializes the Densmore brothers’ contribution to petroleum transportation technology.

The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek. It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of crude oil.

 A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.

densmore oil tank car

Safer and stronger, riveted-iron horizontal tanks brought an end to Densmore oil tank cars.

According to an article, the benefit of such cars to the oil industry was immense – it cost $170 less to ship eighty barrels of oil from Titusville to New York in a tank car than in individual barrels. But the Densmore cars had flaws.

They were unstable, top heavy, prone to leaks, and limited in capacity by the eight-foot width of the flatcar.

Within a year, oil haulers shifted from the Densmore vertical vats to larger, horizontal riveted iron cylindrical tanks, which also demonstrated greater structural integrity during derailments or collisions.

The same basic design for transporting petroleum is still used today as railroads have put  dozens of other products – from corn syrup to chemicals – in the versatile tank car.

densmore oil tank car

Riveted cylindrical iron tank cars replaced Densmore brothers’ wooden vat cars. Discarded Densmore tanks can be seen in the foreground. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

From Oil to Typewiters

Although the Densmore brothers left the oil region by 1867 – their inventiveness was far from over.

densmore oil tank car

The Densmore brothers invent one of the first typewriters.

In 1875, Amos Densmore assisted Christopher L. Sholes to rearrange the “type writing machine” keyboard – so that commonly used letters no longer collided and got stuck. The “QWERTY” arrangement vastly improved Shole’s original 1868 invention.

Following his brother’s work with Sholes, inventor of the first practical typewriter, James Densmore’s oilfield financial success helped the brothers establish the Densmore Typewriter Company, which produced its first model in 1891.

The article concludes:

“Biographies of the Densmores – and even their personal papers now residing at the Milwaukee Public Museum – all refer to their work on typewriters, but make no mention of their pioneering work in railroad tank car design.”

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.


oil spill

Field studies continue to examine the effects of the Exxon supertanker’s disastrous grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” begins an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission.

On March, 24, 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

The accident spilled about 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount,used by the State of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, too conservative.


When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef that night, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” explains the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system,” notes the report. The complacency was shattered when the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground shortly after midnight.

oil spill

“Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” notes the report. “Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. Improved shipbuilding technology brought supersized vessels around the world.

“Whereas tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil…the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.”

Alaskan weather conditions – 33 degrees with a light rain – and the remote location added to the 1989 disaster, the report continues.

With the captain not present, the third mate made a navigation error, adds  another 1990 report, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez by the National Transportation and Safety Board. “The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” it concludes.


At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate.”

“The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill – but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium,” declares the Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“The U.S. Coast Guard would demonstrate its prowess at ship salvage, protecting crews and lightering operations, but prove utterly incapable of oil spill containment and response,” the commission adds.

oil spill

At 987 feet long and 166 feet wide, the Exxon Valdez – delivered to Exxon in December 1986 – was the largest ship ever built on the West Coast.

Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist.

“Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” reports a Wikipedia article, adding:

However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil.

At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.

Read the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Details about the Accident report.

Experts continue to review the effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef.  Most scientists today say the ecosystem in Prince William Sound, although still recovering, is healthy.

Since the supertanker’s accident, ExxonMobil has spent more than $5.7 billion in compensatory and cleanup payments, settlements and fines. Field and laboratory studies still examine the spill, which resulted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.


The gasoline service station with the first gas pump can trace its roots to a pump that dispensed kerosene at an Indiana grocery store in the late 1880s.

first gas pump

A U.S. patent resulted from the popularity of a pump designed for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum” and sold two years earlier.

first gas pump

Gas pumps with dials were followed by calibrated glass cylinders. Meter pumps using a small glass dome with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder as pumps continued to evolve.

S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885.

Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Bowser’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product much in demand for half a century – soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

S.F. Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into automobile tanks in 1905. His popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its secure “clamshell” cover followed.


Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps held up to 42 gallons.

first gas pump

The S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” soon became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when left unattended.

Bowser kerosene pumps used marble valves, a wooden plunger and an upright faucet. With the pump’s popular success at Jake Gumper’s grocery store, Bowser formed the S. F. Bowser & Company and patented his invention in late October 1887.

Within a decade – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful.

First Gas Pump brings First Service Station

By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.” Read the rest of this entry »


America on the Move

The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system.

America on the Move

The role of “Route 66” from Chicago to Los Angeles is an exhibit feature.

ExxonMobil is among the sponsors of a Smithsonian exhibition that includes themes aimed at educating young people about transportation in American history.

A red oilfield service truck from Shawnee, Oklahoma, is among the petroleum-related exhibits.

Opened in 2003 after a $22 million renovation, the Transportation Hall of National Museum of American History is 26,000 square feet – with 340 objects. The Washington, D.C., attraction features 19 historic settings in chronological order.

“America on the Move” features the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive transportation collection using the latest multimedia technology.

The exhibition “brings back to life the history of ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles. It also reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.”

The large exhibit hall begins with late 19th century transportation technologies, including steam-powered ships and trains, the building of canals and urban development of street cars.

Among the most popular collections, “American Adopt the Auto” features interactive exhibits about the massive new infrastructure required across the country.

“Explore the way the automobile went from being a plaything of the rich to a major factor in the American transportation landscape,” notes the Smithsonian. “In this exhibit section full of objects, you can see toy cars, early license plates, engines, road markers, car-part inventions, mechanics’ tools, and gas pumps.”

To cope with the changes that “automobility” brought, the nation developed an elaborate system of law, commerce, and custom, adds the Smithsonian. Congress passed laws to rebuild roads as inventors improved production techniques. New businesses – gas stations, tire shops, garages – sprang up to supply drivers’ needs.

In 1901, the year of the great oilfield discovery at Spindletop Hill in Texas, New York became the first state to register automobiles; by 1918 all states required license plates. Created in 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association promoted the building of a paved highway from New York to California largely supported by donations from car-related businesses.

America on the Move

Petroleum history plays a small role in the Smithsonian museum’s “America on the Move” exhibit.

By 1930, 23 million cars were on the road, and more than half of American families owned a car. Many high schools began offering driver education classes.

A large exhibit area highlights the Smithsonian’s collection, including displays showing the history of the interstate highway system and images and artifacts from Route 66.

A section about “life on the open road” notes how in the 1920s new highways began to affect people’s lives: “Some Americans used highways to migrate.

Others earned a living on the road, or by its side, running businesses. Many Americans began to take to the highways for pleasure.”

Travelers often saw the highway as a symbol of independence and freedom – although they depended on government for the roads, and on businesses such as automobile and tire manufacturers, oil refiners, gas stations and roadside restaurants.

Route 66 & the Interstate System

Among the exhibits are images of Route 66, which was commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s.

A prominent Tulsa, Oklahoma, businessman – who also invested in the petroleum industry – is credited with creating the enduring (and international) popular identity of Route 66.

Cyrus Avery, a Pennsylvania native, saw the need for better roads, the exhibit notes. As chairman of the Oklahoma Highway Commission, he helped plan the system for numbered highways. His proposal for a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles along a southwestern route was approved and designated U.S. 66 in 1926.

America on the Move

Pennsylvania’s 160-mile turnpike opened in 1940.

Avery founded the U.S. 66 Highway Association and coined the route’s nickname, “Main Street of America.”

Another exhibit notes that after decades of debate, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 – and the interstate network was born.

The 41,000-mile system was designed to reach every city with a population of more than 100,000.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, it stretched 160 miles from Carlisle to Irwin. It would more than double in length by 1957. An historical marker notes creation of one of the earliest “service plazas,” now commonplace on all interstate highways. See Iowa 80 Trucking Museum.

The “limited access” design of the turnpike became the model for future superhighways – the U.S. interstate system. Almost completed by the 1990s, the total cost for the nation’s interstate system reached more than $100 billion.

The Route 66 exhibit includes the red Oklahoma “oil field service” truck owned by the Rufus Lillard Company of Shawnee with this note: “The 20th century oil industry employed increasingly large numbers of men in the oil fields: their number rose from 22,230 workers in 1902 to 93,205 in 1919.”

Even more people were employed building pipelines and working in refineries, corporate offices, and marketing. Despite the Depression, by the mid-1930s the U.S. petroleum industry employed some one million people.

Read about America’s first automobile show in 1900 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in Cantankerous Combustion.  

Similar to today’s “American on the Move” hall, the the National Museum of American History once devoted space to the petroleum industry.

On June 28, 1967, the “Hall of Petroleum” opened. It including full-size cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks and other oilfield exhibits. The “Panorama of Petroleum,” a 56-foot-long mural by Delbert Jackson, welcomed thousands of visitors. Read more in Smithsonian’s “Hall of Petroleum.”

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.


houston ship channel

The Houston Ship Channel on Buffalo Bayou leads upstream directly to Houston – where downtown can be seen at upper right. President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the newly dredged Houston Channel in 1914.

houston ship channel

A 1915 postcard captures the Houston Ship Channel one year after its opening. Photo courtesy Fort Bend Museum, Richmond, Texas.

Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel opens for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port.

President Woodrow Wilson salutes the occasion from his desk in the White House – reportedly by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.

The waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

“Steamboats and shallow draft boats were the only vessels able to navigate its complicated channel,” ASCE adds.

houston ship channel

The Houston Ship Channel today is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It supports refineries and the largest petrochemical complex in the world.

In 1837, the steamship Laura traveled from Galveston Bay up Buffalo Bayou to what is now Houston, explains the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County.

The trip, in water no deeper than six feet, proved the bayou was navigable by sizable vessels and established a commercial link between Houston and the rest of the world.

“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” adds the Port Authority, which administers the channel.

According to ASCE, Harris County citizens in 1909 formed a navigation district (an autonomous governmental body supervising the port) and issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel. The U.S. Congress providing matching funds. 

As work began in 1912, similar extraordinary maritime projects of the time included the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

houston ship channel

A “Bird’s Eye” view of Houston in 1891. Today, the 52-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou is the nation’s number one port in foreign cargo and one of the largest ports in the world.

By 1930 eight refineries are operating along the deepwater channel, ASCE notes. The area eventually will support one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Now along the shores are petrochemical facilities and oil refineries, including ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery, among the largest in the United States.

houston ship channel

The Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont includes exhibits educating young people about the Port of Houston.

Today, the Houston Ship Channel is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It extends from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River, ending four miles east of downtown. Although the dredging vessel Texas first signaled (by whistle) completion on September 7, 1914, the official opening date remains when President Wilson remotely fired his cannon – to be celebrated at next year’s centennial.

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Soon after America’s first oil discovery in 1859, oilmen met in northwestern Pennsylvania and decided a 42-gallon barrel was best for transporting oil.

42 gallon oil barrel

By the 1860s, barges floated barrels of oil down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh to be refined into a highly demanded product – kerosene for lamps. Image from an early stock certificate.

42 gallon oil barrel

The 42-gallon standard was adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872.

When filled with oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon “tierce” weighed 300 pounds. The 42-gallon oil barrel was officially adopted in 1866. Today, a barrel’s refined products include about 20 gallons of gasoline, 12 gallons of diesel and 4 gallons of jet fuel and other products like liquefied petroleum gases and asphalt.

In August 1866 a handful of America’s earliest independent oil producers met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a barrel of oil. Pennsylvania led the world in oil production as demand for kerosene soared. Read the rest of this entry »


High-octane aviation fuel developed by Phillips Petroleum powered the “Woolaroc” monoplane to victory in a dangerous 1927 air race over the Pacific. Several competitors will be lost over the ocean.


Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

It was a foggy Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, as eight airplanes prepared for takeoff before a crowd of more than 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California.

Aviation history was about to be made with a race to Honolulu – thanks to a revolutionary petroleum product: Phillips Nu-Aviation Gasoline. Read the rest of this entry »


The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, completed in 1977 to carry North Slope oil to the port of Valdez, has been recognized as a landmark of engineering.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

The Alaskan Pipeline system’s 420-miles above ground segments are built in a zig-zag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe.

With the laying of the first section of pipe on March 27, 1975, construction began on what at the time was the largest private construction project in American history.

A deciding vote in the U.S. Senate by Vice President Spiro Agnew had passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act on July 17, 1973.

Years of debate about the project’s environmental impact escalated. Concerns were raised about earthquakes and elk migrations.

The 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, including pumping stations, connecting pipelines, and the Valdez Marine Terminal, ended up costing $8 billion. The last pipeline weld was completed on May 31, 1977.

On June 20, 1977, oil from the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay field began flowing to the port of Valdez at four miles an hour through the 48-inch-wide pipe. It arrived at the port 38 days later.

The completed pipeline system, at a cost of $8 billion, including terminal and pump stations, will transport about 20 percent of U.S. petroleum production.

Tax revenues alone earned Alaskans about $50 billion by 2002.

Special engineering was required to protect the environment in difficult construction conditions, according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

Details about the pipeline’s history include:

Oil was first discovered in Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope in 1968.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was established in 1970 to design, construct, operate and maintain the pipeline.

The state of Alaska entered into a right-of-way agreement on May 3, 1974; the lease was renewed in November of 2002.

Thickness of the pipeline wall: .462 inches (466 miles) & .562 inches (334 miles).

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System cross the ranges of the Central Arctic heard on the North Slope and the Nelchina Herd in the Copper River Basin.

The Valdez Terminal covers 1,000 acres and has facilities for crude oil metering, storage, transfer and loading.

The pipeline project involved some 70,000 workers from 1969 through 1977.

The first pipe of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was laid on March 27, 1975. Last weld was completed May 31, 1977.

The pipeline is often referred to as “TAPS” – an acronym for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.

More than 170 bird species have been identified along the pipeline.

First oil moved through the pipeline on June 20, 1977.

71 gate valves can block oil flow in either direction on the pipeline.

First tanker to carry crude oil from Valdez: ARCO Juneau, August 1, 1977.

Maximum daily throughput was 2,145,297 on January 14, 1988.

The pipeline is inspected and regulated by the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

The Alaskan pipeline brings North Slope production to tankers at the port of Valdez. Map courtesy USGS.

More than 28,000 people worked directly on the pipeline at the peak of its construction in the fall of 1975.

Thirty-one construction camps, built on gravel to insulate and help prevent pollution to the underlying permafrost, are built along the route.

Above-ground sections of the pipeline (420 miles) are built in a zigzag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe because of temperature changes.

Anchor structures, 700 feet to 1,800 feet apart, hold the pipe in position. In warm permafrost and other areas where heat might cause undesirable thawing, the supports contain two each, two-inch pipes called “heat pipes.”

The first tanker carrying North Slope oil from the new pipeline sails out of the Valdez Marine Terminal on August 1, 1977. By 2010, the pipeline will have carried about 16 billion barrels of oil.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Alaska’s oil production peaked in 1988 at 738 million barrels, about 25 percent of U.S. oil production. In 2013, it was nearly 188 million barrels, or about seven percent of total U.S. production.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline today has been recognized as a landmark engineering feat. It remains essential to Alaska’s economy.

The Prudhoe Bay field was discovered in March 1968 by Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and Exxon 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

For U.S. petroleum pipeline history during World War Two, see Big Inch Pipelines of WW II and PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WWII.


She was among the most famous journalists of her day as a reporter for the New York World. Less known about Nellie Bly is her role in creating the 55-gallon steel oil drum.

The Remarkable Nellie Bly, Elizabeth J. Cochran Seaman (1867-1922)

nellie bly oil drum

After achieving fame as a journalist by age 25, “I determined to make steel containers for the American trade,” proclaimed Nellie Bly. January 1890 photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division.

nellie bly oil drum

Iron Clad Manufacturing Company President Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman received a 1902 patent for a stackable garbage can. She invented an improved milk can a year earlier.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.”

For her first assignment as a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World, Elizabeth Jane Cochran – young Nellie Bly – feigned insanity for 10 days in New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island Asylum. She had been hired in 1887 to write about the mental institution.

Writing under the pen name Nellie Bly (a character in a popular song of the time), her numerous exposés and adventures would capture the public’s imagination and make her a world famous woman journalist by age 25.

Much has been written about this remarkable woman from Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, and her investigative reporting career with the Pittsburgh Dispatch and the New York World. Read the rest of this entry »


German mechanical engineer Karl Benz in the late 1880s invented, built and sold a three-wheel “Motorwagen” today recognized as the world’s first car.

first car

Just two years after Karl Benz applies for his patent, his wife Bertha is the first person to drive his gas-powered motorwagen over a long distance – bringing worldwide attention…and sales.

On January 29, 1886, Benz applied for a patent for his Benz Patent Motorwagen – a three-wheeler with a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine.

His “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine) patent is recognized as the world’s first patent for a practical internal combustion engine powered automobile.

Although there had already been “auto-mobiles” powered by steam or electricity, Benz used the internal combustion engine as the drive system for a “self-mover,” notes a Mercedes Benz company historian. “He presented his stroke of genius at the Imperial Patent Office – the car was born.”

Born in 1844 in Baden Muehlburg, Benz founded a “Iron Foundry and Machine Shop” in 1871, He received his first engine patent in 1879.

Benz’s remarkable 1886 engine – with a displacement of 0.954 of a liter – “anticipated elements still found in every internal combustion engine to this day: a crankshaft with balance weights, electric ignition and water cooling: enough to generate 0.55 kW and a top speed of 16 km/h, virtually corresponding to the power of a whole horse.”

According to Mary Bellis of, Karl Benz retired from Benz & Company in 1903 when his designs were outdated by Gottlieb Daimler. He served as a member of the supervisory board of Daimler-Benz AG from 1926, when the company was formed, until his death.

In America, Charles Duryea claimed the first U.S. patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry.

By the turn of the century, about 8,000 vehicles shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons. In New York City public workers removed 450,000 tons of horse manure every year. Read about a November 1900 event in Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.

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The Iowa 80 Trucking Museum in Walcott hosts an annual Jamboree attended by 30,000 people. The trucking museum has more than 100 antique trucks on display.

Trucking Museum

“If you are the least bit into cars you will find the museum interesting and well worth the stop,” notes a visitor from Legendary Collector Cars.”From what we could tell, it looks like this I-80 Exit at Walcott Iowa is about to become the over the road truckers Disneyland in a few years.”

The museum’s collection was started in 1979 by Iowa 80 Truckstop founder Bill Moon – who had an obvious and unmatched passion for trucks. He looked for a unique truck or artifact to add to his collection.

“World’s Largest Truckstop”

Every summer, this museum at exit 284 on I -80 outside Walcott, Iowa, hosts a variety of events for truckers and other travelers, teachers, students – and transportation history buffs.

The museum attracts all kinds of visitors, from those interested in antique trucks to those wanting to learn the history of modern, big rigs. Exhibit spaces, which expanded in March 2012, now offer a free app for iPhones and Androids with audio narratives. Read the rest of this entry »