Oil and Natural Gas History, Education Resources, Museum News, Exhibits and Events

 

The U.S. Navy’s change from coal to oil-fired boilers at sea is another key chapter in petroleum history.

Petroleum and Sea Power

Commissioned on March 12, 1914, with coal-powered boilers that were converted to use fuel oil in 1925, the U.S.S. Texas “was the most powerful weapon in the world, the most complex product of an industrial nation just beginning to become a force in global events,” says an historian at Battleship Texas State Historic Site.

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Summer brings millions of Americans trekking across the country on vacation. In 2016 many are geologist and petroleum engineers, who have more free time on their hands. Among the more unusual stops for others, if less well known, are community petroleum museums with exhibits chronicling the nation’s discoveries.

The Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, includes a replica of Drake's derrick.

The Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, includes a replica of the cable-tool derrick that drilled America’s first commercial oil well in 1859.

There are several historic attractions in the state where it all started, Pennsylvania.

East of I-79 in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Drake Well Museum in Titusville exhibits “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s famous Aug. 27, 1859, discovery well – today recognized as the first commercial oil producer.

Soon after Drake made his discovery, iron pipelines about two inches in diameter were transporting natural gas more than five miles.

The museum’s outdoor exhibits include a recreation of the original cable-tool derrick Drake used. A popular summer attraction is the “Nitro” reenactment that demonstrates the use of “go-devils” for fracturing a well.

Visit the museum gift shop to find a reprint of the Early Days of Oil, by Dr. Paul Giddens, a book considered to be the “Bible” of information about the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry. Many images are from originals made by photographer John A. Mather and today housed at the museum.

Located on 270 Seneca Street in Oil City – in a Beaux Arts building listed in the National Register of Historic Places – the Venango Museum of Art, Science & Industry preserves the oil region’s industrial heritage. Its exhibits include a 1928 Wurlitzer Theater Organ.

Another must-see visit, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Historic Pithole Visitors Center – site of a vanished 1865 oil boom town today managed by Drake Well Museum. The ghost town is in Oil Creek State Park.

A dedicated group of railroad enthusiasts maintain the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad, a nonprofit group that offers trips through the historic oil region. Near the railroad is the refurbished home of “Coal Oil” Johnny. Read his fascinating tale in the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.”

Once a world-fomous Pennsylvania boom town, visitors today can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets.

Once a world-famous Pennsylvania boom town, visitors today can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets.

In nearby by Oil City is a center dedicated to the study of the oil heritage region at Clarion University – Venango Campus.

The Barbara Morgan Harvey Center for the Study of Oil Heritage contains hundreds of rare books that document the history of the region, newspaper clippings from the early 1900s, minutes from the meetings of early companies from the late 1800s, maps and photographs.

The First Billion Dollar Oilfield

A few hours drive to the east of Titusville, the Penn-Brad Oil Museum (and historical oil well park), near Bradford, takes visitors back to the early boom times of “The First Billion Dollar Oil Field.”

Guided tours are conducted by retired geologists or petroleum engineers who volunteer their time to relate exciting first-hand experiences. The museum is located three miles south of Bradford, along Rt. 219, near Custer City.

The Penn-Brag Museum -- and Historical Oil Well Park -- is located three miles south of Bradford, Pennsylvania, on Route 219, near Custer City.

The Penn-Brad Oil Museum — and Historical Oil Well Park — is located three miles south of Bradford, Pennsylvania, on Route 219, near Custer City.

Nearby is the 125-year-old refinery of the American Refining Group – reportedly the oldest continuously operating refinery in the country.

Before leaving Pennsylvania, visit one of the world’s largest collections of oilfield engines. Century old “hit and miss” gas engines, vintage oilfield equipment, and early electric generators are among the permanent exhibits at a unique “power museum” in Coolspring.

With perhaps the largest 19th century engine collection in the world, the museum is housed in 13 buildings with about 250 engines – many of them operational.

The Coolspring Power Museum is located east of Pittsburgh just off Route 36 midway between Punxsutawney to the south and Brookville to the north.

According to Director Paul E. Harvey, the collection presents an illuminating history of the evolution of internal combustion technology that put an end to the steam powered era.

Twice a year engine collectors from around the country gather on the extensive grounds – and the “barking” of hundreds of antique engines lasts several days.

 The museum maintains stationary internal combustion engines for education and enjoyment.


The museum maintains stationary internal combustion engines for education and enjoyment.

Although not in Pennsylvania, but just across the New York border, the Pioneer Oil Museum is located in the Village of Bolivar, Allegany County.

While dairying and livestock have become the cash crops, the region still produces a small amount of very high quality oil and natural gas, says Director Kelly Lounsberry. This museum tells the story of oil and natural gas production in the region.

Most petroleum history sources agree that the first U.S. well specifically intended to obtain natural gas was dug near Fredonia by William Hart, who had noticed gas bubbles on the surface of a creek.

In 1821, Hart dug a 27-foot well to bring a larger flow of natural gas to the surface. Hart succeeded and a “log pipe” was used to bring gas to nearby houses for lighting.

Regarded by many as the father of natural gas in America, Hart’s work led to the formation of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company – the first U.S. natural gas company.

Community oil and gas museums are linked to the AOGHS website. Museum events and K-12 education efforts are featured alongside stories of America’s E&P heritage.

Editor’s Note – This article adapted from an American Oil & Gas HIstorical Society article that first appeared in American Gas, official magazine of the American Gas Association, Washington, D.C., founded in 1918.

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merit badge

AAPG-inspired geology badge.

The Boy Scouts of America geology merit badge began in 1911 as a mining badge – one of less than 30 scouting merit badges. The mining merit badge evolved into the rocks and minerals badge and in 1953 became the geology merit badge.

The story behind the geology merit badge is best told by a member of the Houston Geological Society, which offers potential badge earners many resources. Geologist Jeff Spencer, himself an Eagle Scout, provided details for this article.

Spencer has published more than 20 oilfield history papers and is a frequent contributor to Oil-Industry History, the annual journal of the Petroleum History Institute, Oil City, Pennsylvania.

According to Spencer, the original mining merit badge had four basic requirements, including naming at least 50 minerals; describing the 14 great divisions of the earth’s crust; and defining terms like watershed, delta, drift, fault, glacier, terrace and stratum.

Scouts seeking the mining merit badge also were required to identify 10 different kinds of rock and describe methods for mine ventilation and safety devices.

Spencer notes that the first mention of oil and natural gas appeared in 1927 – the mining merit badge requirement asked Scouts to “explain how we locate petroleum and natural gas pools, and how we obtain oil and gas.”

merit badge

The geology merit badge replaced the rocks and minerals badge in 1953.

In 1945, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) formed a “Committee on Boy Scout Literature” at the urging of industry leaders, including A.C. Bace, a geologist with Stanolind, and George W. Pirtlem, an independent geologist from Tyler, Texas.

Oklahoma geologist Frank Gouin chaired the AAPG committee’s effort to revise the badge and its requirements, Spencer says. In 1953, the geology merit badge officially replaced the rocks and minerals badge.

Spencer notes that the 1953 merit badge’s description of what a geologist does said that four out of five geologists become “oil geologists” with an expected starting salary of $300 per month.

“You may have to be a nomad instead of settling down for life in one spot,” it continued. “You may have to ‘sit on’ a well all night and then drive a hundred miles to report on it. You may have to burn in India, freeze in Alaska, or do both in the Texas Panhandle.”

Although minor revisions of the geology merit badge occurred in 1957, the next major change came in 1982, adding anticlines, synclines, and faults with a requirement to draw simple diagrams showing unconformity, strikes and dips.

The last major revision of the geology merit badge occurred in 1985, Spencer says, again with the cooperation of AAPG leadership. The merit badge now has 13 requirements, organized under five categories: earth materials, earth processes, earth history, geology and people, and careers in geology.

The earth materials section includes the collection and identification of rocks and minerals.

The earth processes section covers geomorphology, the hydrologic cycle, volcanoes, mountain building, and the ocean floor.

The earth history section includes the geologic time chart, fossils, and continental drift. The geology and people section covers environmental geology and energy sources with a field trip option in this category.

In addition to its involvement in geology merit badges, AAPG and its chapters serve the scouting program in many ways, Spencer concludes. The Houston Geological Society has sponsored Explorer Posts and worked with the Houston Museum of Natural Science to teach elements of the merit badge.

merit badge

OPEC-inspired energy badge.

There now are more than 120 merit badges. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 – and the need for energy conservation – led to creation of an “energy” merit badge in 1977.

Editor’s Note –  In 2013, Jeff published a selection of his oil patch post cards via Arcadia Publishing’s postcard history series. His Texas Oil and Gas, which includes more than 200 vintage black-and-white images through decades of oil booms throughout the state.

Chapters reflect the Lone Star State’s petroleum heritage by region, including “Spindletop and the Golden Triangle,” the prolific area in southeast Texas between Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

Read a review of his book in Postcards from the Texas Oil Patch.

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Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele of Venango County, Pennsylvania

The lucky life of John Washington Steele started on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant.

Johnny Steele – who one day will become famous as “Coal Oil Johnny” – was adopted along with his sister, Permelia.

The McClintocks brought them home to their farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Fifteen years later, the petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery at nearby Titusville – America’s first commercial oil well – made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties.

When Mrs. McClintock died in a kitchen fire in 1864, she left the money to her only surviving child, Johnny. At age 20, he inherited $24,500.

Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele will earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported.

“In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”

Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of  his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:

I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.‎

Coal Oil Johnny

“Coal Oil Johnny” owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. Illustration from October 8, 2010, article in the Atlantic magazine.

Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.

In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story.

“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 8 feature story.

“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age – and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”

Coal Oil Johnny

The refurbished boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny” today stands near Oil Creek State Park’s historic (and operating) train station north of Rouseville, Pennsylvania.

For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.

It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”

“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” added the article.

“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded.

“Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”

Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele died in Nebraska in 1920.

John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.

On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing  McClintock No. 1 oil well.

“This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”

Published in 1902, Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was digitized in 2007 and now is a free Google Ebook.

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In 2001, an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline led to the discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast. BP and Shell sponsored additional fieldwork to record detailed images, including a gun on the deck aft of the submarine’s conning tower.

Petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf are required to provide detailed sonar data in areas that have archaeological potential.

Several federal agencies today review about 1,700 oil and natural gas company surveys every year. The surveys have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks. In 2001, scientists at the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”

During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the vital flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

In just one year, the Kriegsmarine sank 56 Allied ships, including 17 tankers, while losing only one submarine – the Unterseeboot 166.

German submarine predations so threatened the war effort that American government and industry responded with the longest petroleum pipeline project ever undertaken, building the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” from East Texas to Illinois, and as far as New York. See WW II Big Inch and Little Big Inch Pipelines.

But for the U-166, the war was over. Its final resting place remained a mystery for almost 60 years.

The last victim of the U-166 was the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee, sunk by a single torpedo on July 30, 1942, while on its way to New Orleans. Her Naval escort ship, PC-566, rushed in to drop ten depth charges. The U-166 was believed to have escaped. It did not.

Commissioned on March 23, 1942, U-166 today is a war grave in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding U-166

In 1986, a Shell Offshore vessel using a deep-tow system of the day recorded two close wrecks about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast in 5,000 feet of water.

Thought to be the Robert E. Lee and cargo freighter Alcoa Puritan, it was May 2001 before an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) using side scan sonar revealed the U-166. The lost World War II submarine was separated from Robert E. Lee by less than a mile on the sea floor.

The U.S. petroleum industry remains a principle user of advanced underwater technologies for seafloor mapping.

The AUV, which required no cable connection to its mother ship, found the Alcoa Puritan 14 miles away. Learn more about the petroleum industry’s offshore robotics in Swimming Socket Wrenches.

The historic submarine’s discovery resulted from the requirement for an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline by BP and Shell Oil. Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys.

As a result of the U-166’s discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site and government archaeologists notified the U.S. Navy Historical Center of the discovery, notes a 2001 MMS newsletter.

“They, in turn, notified the German Embassy and military attaché,” the MMS article explains. “Since the remains of the U-166’s 52 crewmen are still on board, the German government has declared the site to be a war grave and has requested that it remain undisturbed.”

Gulf of Mexico oil tanker losses led to a petroleum industry achievement: construction of the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” pipelines that connected Texas oilfields to eastern refineries.

Editor’s Note – Since 2011, the Minerals Management Service has become the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

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