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

 

Call them oilfield detectives, night riders of the hemlocks, or simply oil scouts. These early oil and gas well investigators separated fact from fiction.

oil scouts

Oil scouts like Justus McMullen often braved harsh winters (and sometimes armed guards) to visit well sites. Their intelligence debunked rumors and “demystified” reports about oil wells producing in early oil fields.

In the hard winter of 1888, famed 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen, succumbs to pneumonia – contracted while scouting production data from the Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company’s well at Cannonsburg.

McMullen, publisher of the Bradford, Pennsylvania, “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a reliable oil field detective. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Since 1955, the Chief Roughneck award has recognized one individual whose accomplishments and character represent the highest ideals of the oil and natural gas industry.
Read the rest of this entry »

 

pennsylvania natural gas

A marker on Route 22 at Murrysville, Pennsylvania, commemorates the Haymaker brother’s historic natural gas well of 1878.

In 1878, the Haymaker brothers discovered a Pennsylvania natural gas field near Pittsburgh – and laid the foundation for many modern petroleum companies..

Like many young men of their time, Michael Haymaker and his younger brother Obediah had left their Westmoreland County farm to seek their fortunes in Pennsylvania’s booming petroleum industry.

The brothers first found work as drillers for oilman Israel Painter, who had brought in wells a few miles north of Oil City in Venango County – not far from Edwin L. Drake’s famous 1859 discovery less than 20 years earlier. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Powered by natural gas, the Blue Flame set a world speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats on October 23, 1970. The American Gas Association sponsored the rocket car.

Because driver now seek environmentally friendly but low-cost transportation fuels, today’s abundance of natural gas promises innovation. City buses, taxis and interstate trucks now burn it. But before these new clean-energy transporters, a speedy blue rocket car blazed the trail.

blue flame

The Blue Flame makes a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on October 23, 1970. The natural gas powered rocket car sets a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph.

Today there reportedly are more than 120,000 vehicles on U.S. roads powered by natural gas. Experts say engine design advances promise greater natural gas use for transportation. Historic pursuit of the world land speed record is the heritage of this “fuel of the future.”

blue flame

The 38-foot Blue Flame’s natural gas-powered rocket motor could produce up to 58,000 horsepower.

Throughout the 20th century, land speed records were set with vehicles powered by steam, electricity, and all manner of petroleum distillates. National pride was often at stake as British, American, French, Belgian, German, and Italian teams fielded competing machines.

The first record was set by a Frenchman in 1898. Count Gaston De Chasseloup-Laubat, driving an electric-powered car, achieved 39.24 mph. Read the rest of this entry »

 

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.

Donate to this historical society.

 

Rarely, a community sees its pulse quicken with a get-rich quick best, feels the boom fever strike, suffers the chill of disillusion when the “El Dorado” fades out and then recovers.  But this is what happened at the McKeesport gas field, scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.
– Pittsburgh Press, July 15, 1934

Following America’s first commercial oil discovery in Northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, natural gas development began in Western Pennsylvania in the late 1870s.

Two brothers discovered a massive natural gas field and brought a new energy resource to Pittsburgh factories. Read more about the once famous Haymaker well in Natural Gas is King in 1880s Pittsburgh.

For investors, history seemed to be repeating itself two decades later. McKeesport Gas Company was one of about 300 petroleum companies that sprang up within six months of an August 30, 1919, discover – a runaway natural gas well near McKeesport.

The “Snake Hollow Gusher” between the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, blew in at more than 60 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. Drilled by S. J. Brendel and David Foster, the discovery well prompted a frenzy that saw $35 million dollars invested during the boom’s seven-month lifespan.

McKeesport Gas Company incorporated on December 5, 1919, and two-weeks later enticed investors with advertisements in the Pittsburgh Press and the Gazette Times newspapers. “Over 500 Acres of Leases in the Heart of the McKeesport Gas Fields,” proclaimed one ad, offering stock at $1.25 a share.

“Many residents signed leases for drilling on their land,” notes a local reporter. “They bought and sold gas company stock on street corners and in barbershops transformed into brokerage houses in anticipation of fortunes to be made.”

However, of the estimated $35 million sunk into the nine square mile area of the boom, only about $3 million came out. By the beginning of 1921, natural gas production was falling in about 180 producing wells – and more than 440 wells were dry holes.

The McKeesport gas field was reported as, “the scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.”

The Library of Congress photography collection includes “McKeesport, Snake Hollow, Gas Belt” with several McKeesport Gas Company wells at the far left.  The company likely drilled a few of the boom’s hundreds of dry holes and with funds exhausted, disappeared into petroleum history.

Fifteen years later, McKeesport Mayor George H. Lysle explained to a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter how the town survived the “seven-month wonder” natural gas boom:

“Other boom towns,” he said, “were built merely on the strength of the wealth that was to pour from their wells or mines. But McKeesport and vicinity was established before the boom came. When it was over, people still had their jobs in the mills and stores, the permanent population remained, and the natural resources of the district, except for gas, were still as great as ever. We were still a great industrial community.”

Today, greater knowledge of geology and advanced production technologies are promising far surer results than the Snake Hollow Gusher. The region’s latest gas boom – the Marcellus Shale – extends across western Pennsylvania into other Appalachian Basin states.

McKeesport Gas Company stock certificates have collectible value.

___________________________________________________________________________________

The stories of other exploration companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found in an updated series of research at Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS.