In today’s oil patch, many community museums educate visitors about petroleum technologies – including early oilfield fire fighting. Especially in the Great Plains, where frequent lightning strikes once caused dangerous oil tank fires, one exhibit draws the attention of young and old alike.
“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” was the catchy phrase in an 1880s magazine article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
“Lightning had struck the derrick, followed pipe connections into a nearby tank and ignited natural gas, which rises from freshly produced oil. Immediately following this blinding flash, the black smoke began to roll out.”
“A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country,” a December 17, 1884, first-person account in MIT’s The Tech magazine, described what happened next:
“Without stopping to watch the burning tank-house and derrick, we followed the oil to see where it would go. By some mischance the mouth of the ravine had been blocked up and the stream turned abruptly and spread out over the alluvial plain.
“Here, on a large smooth farm, were six iron storage tanks, about 80 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, each holding 30,000 barrels of oil. The burning oil spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface, and finally touched the sides of the nearest tank.
“Suddenly, with loud explosion, the heavy plank and iron cover of the tank was thrown into the air, and thick smoke rolled out. Already the news of the fire had been telegraphed to the central office and all its available men and teams in the neighborhood ordered to the scene. The tanks, now heated on the outside as well as inside, foamed and bubbled like an enormous retort, every ejection only serving to increase the heat.
“The writhing masses of black smoke were streaked with reddish flames and white steam from the little pools of water. The area of the fire rapidly extended and soon loud explosions in quick succession told that the two nearest tanks had caught.
“These tanks, surrounded by fire, in turn boiled and foamed, and the heat, even at a distance, was so intense that the workmen could not approach near enough to dig ditches between the remaining tanks and the fire.
“By this time arrived the long looked for cannon; for oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery. Since the great destruction is caused by the oil becoming overheated, foaming and being projected to a distance, it is usually desirable to let it out of the tank to burn on the ground in thin layers; so small cannon throwing a three-inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.
“The cannon was placed in position, aimed at points below the supposed level of the oil and fired. The marksmanship at first was not very good, and as many shots glanced off the iron plates as penetrated, but after a while nearly every report was followed by an outburst. The oil in the three tanks was slowly drawn down by this means and did not again foam over the top, and the supply to the river being thus cut off the fire then soon died away.
“It was not till the sixth day from that on which we saw the first tank ignited that the columns of flame and smoke disappeared. During this time 180,000 barrels of crude oil had been consumed, besides the six tanks, costing $10,000 each, destroyed,” concludes the 1884 MIT article.
Today, visitors to a park in Bartlesville can view a replica of the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 derrick that drilled the first commercial well in what is now the state of Oklahoma in 1897.
Near the replica, which marks the spot of the original site, is an “oil patch cannon” exhibit.
In addition to the oilfield cannons exhibited in Bartlesville’s Johnstone Park, the Kansas Oil Museum in Butler County, and the Oklahoma Oil Museum in Seminole, there’s another educating tourists in Ohio.
The Wood County Historical Center and Museum in Bowling Green, Ohio, proudly displays its own “unusual fire extinguisher” among its collection of artifacts.
The Buckeye Pipeline Company of Norwood donated the cannon, according to the museum’s Kelli King.
“The cannon, cast in North Baltimore (Ohio), was used in the 1920s in Cygnet before being moved to Northwood,” Kelli says. “More information about Northwest Ohio’s oil and gas boom can be found in the documentary ‘Ohio Crude’ or in the exhibit ‘Wood County in Motion,’ at the museum.”
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