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 The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oil field icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.

The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oil field icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.

In August 1859, Edwin L. Drake, credited with discovering America’s first commercial oil well, used a common water well hand pump to retrieve the new resource from 69.5 feet.

It wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.

Industry pioneers realized that by improving pumping efficiency they could extend the economic life of far deeper wells by years. The new resource will be refined to meet the phenomenal worldwide demand for an inexpensive lamp fuel: kerosene.

 

As early 20th century worldwide demand for oil grew – but the science for finding it remained obscure – a small group of geologists organized the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG).

Beginning as the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about 90 geologists gathered at Henry Kendall College, now Tulsa University, and on on February 10, 1917, formed an association “to which only reputable and recognized petroleum geologists are admitted.”

AAPG embraces a code that assures “the integrity, business ethics, personal honor, and professional conduct” of its worldwide membership.

The new association’s mission included promoting the science of geology, especially as it related to oil and natural gas, and encourage “technology improvements in the methods of exploring for and exploiting these substances.”

AAPG would also “foster the spirit of scientific research among its members; to disseminate facts relating to the geology and technology of petroleum and natural gas.”

Adopted its present name a year after the meeting at Henry Kendall College, AAPG begins publishing a bimonthly journal that remains among the most respected in the industry.

AAPG launches a peer-reviewed Bulletin that includes papers written by leading geologists. With a subscription price of five dollars, the journal is distributed to members, university libraries, and other industry professionals. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Petroleum history today plays a small role in the Smithsonian’s exhibit.

Oil history today has a small role in the Smithsonian’s “America on the Move” exhibit.

With a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., today exhibits surprisingly few relating to the U.S. petroleum industry. It wasn’t always so.

In June 1967, an entire wing of exhibits – the “Hall of Petroleum” – opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s American history museum on the national mall. It including cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks and other oilfield exhibits.

Thousands of visitors viewed the petroleum history – including examples of exploration and production technological advancements. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas, tells the story of a 1901 oil discovery that created the modern petroleum industry – and made America a world power.

The Beaumont, Texas, museum includes 15 buildings of exhibits to educate visitors.

On January 1, 1901, if you asked residents of Beaumont, Texas, what news interested them, they would have said the Galveston Hurricane of September 8 (the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history), or the dawning of a new century.

However, as a southeastern Texas petroleum museum explains, if you asked them after January 10, 1901 – they would have said the great oil gusher on Spindletop Hill.

The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont tells the story of the Spindletop well, a discovery that created the greatest oil boom in America – exceeding the nation’s first oil discovery well in 1859 in Pennsylvania.

Just as consumer demand for kerosene for lamps was declining in favor of electricity, Americans would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product: gasoline. Within a few decades, new oil companies will pump gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country. Read the rest of this entry »

 

42-gallon-barrels-and-trains-AOGHS

After an 1859 Pennsylvania oil discovery – the start of the U.S. petroleum industry – barges floated barrels of oil down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh to be refined into a highly demanded product – kerosene for lamps.

A handful of America’s earliest independent oilmen met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a “barrel” of oil. It was August 1866 and northwestern Pennsylvania led the world in oil production.

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

Although pipelines would later challenge the oil region’s teamsters, the business of moving oil depended mostly on men, wagons, horses, flatboats, and barrels.

To reach railroad station and docks, teams of horses pulled wagons carrying as many as eight barrels of oil. Rugged northwestern Pennsylvania terrain and muddy roads added to transportation problems.

Meanwhile, as derricks multiplied, forests along Oil Creek were reduced to barrel staves by recently introduced barrel-making machinery. Hoop mills operated day and night supporting cooperages that sprang up to join in the oil boom in what would later be called “the valley that changed the world.”

Why a 42-gallon barrel?

Long before England’s King Richard III defined the wine puncheon as a cask holding 84 gallons and a tierce as holding 42 gallons, watertight casks of many sizes were crafted by “tight” coopers. Their guild, the Worshipful Company of Coopers, prescribed the manner of construction. Lesser skilled craftsmen (known as slack coopers) made casks, barrels, and pails for dry goods.

Technologies for making watertight casks replaced “tight” coopers and their guild of Worshipful Company of Coopers. Standard Oil introduced a steel version of the common 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902 with the same traditional bilged, cask-like appearance.

Technologies for making watertight casks replaced “tight” coopers and their guild of Worshipful Company of Coopers. Standard Oil will introduce a steel version of the 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902 with the same traditional bilged, cask-like appearance.

By around 1700 in Pennsylvania, practical experience and custom had made the 42-gallon watertight tierce a standard container for shipping everything from eel, salmon, herring, molasses, soap, butter, wine and whale oil. The 42-gallon barrels became familiar 19th century containers.

Then came Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 oil discovery at Titusville, the first commercial U.S. oil well. The petroleum boom that followed it consumed wooden tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes.

When filled with crude oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon tierce weighed more than 300 pounds – about as much as a man could reasonably wrestle. Twenty would fit on a typical barge or railroad flatcar. Bigger casks were unmanageable and smaller were less profitable.

Contemporary photographs show cooperages’ prodigious response to the new demand. Within a year of Drake’s discovery, oil barrels were commonly considered to hold 42 gallons according to “The Oil Fountains of Pennsylvania” in Littells’ Living Age of September 1860.

By 1866, these abundant tierce-sized barrels were the logical choice to become the industry’s standard measure.

The 42-gallon standard oil barrel was officially adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872 and by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1882.

Pennsylvania’s “valley that changed the world” also has connections to college football’s Heisman Trophy. Among the late 19th century Titusville companies, the Oberly & Heisman cooperage on Bridge Street supplied 42-gallon barrels for the oil trade – providing Michael Heisman’s son John an afterschool job.

John Heisman played varsity football for Titusville High School as a guard on the varsity team from 1884 to 1887. He graduated in 1887 and went on to become the legendary football coach for whom the Heisman Trophy is named.

“Blue Barrel” Myth

A persistent oilfield myth says that the abbreviation “bbl” for a barrel of oil resulted from Standard Oil Company’s early practice of painting their barrels blue –bbl for “blue barrel.”

However, while Ida Tarbell’s controversial 1904 History of Standard Oil Company acknowledged the “holy blue barrel,” the abbreviation “bbl” had been in use before the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry.

In the early 19th century, wooden barrels of all capacities were common containers of trade: hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, tuns, and other long since forgotten terms.

Shipping manifests reveal that quantities of honey, rum, whale oil, and other commodities were shipped by the “bbl” – well before John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s blue barrels. For today’s industry, the abbreviation simply signifies a 42-gallon unit of measure…of any color.

Learn about the 55-gallon steel drum at The Remarkable Nellie Bly.

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

 

It’s the first of a series of nuclear denotations conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to release natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits. This is “fracking,” late 1960s style.  

In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonate Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Charles Duryea claimed the first American patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. Meanwhile, New York City public workers removed 450,000 tons of horse manure every year. 

A growing number of unreliable machines soon shared unpaved U.S. roads with horses.

In 1906, a “Stanley Steamer” (above) set the world land speed record at 127.7 m.p.h. – still officially recognized as the land speed record for a steam car.

Of the 4,200 new automobiles sold in the United States at the turn of the century, gasoline powered less than 1,000. On November 3, 1900, America’s first national automobile show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Read the rest of this entry »

 

“Burkburnett was a sleepy farm town that transformed into a ‘Boom Town’ as a result of the North Texas oil boom in 1918,” explains the Burkburnett Historical Society. A 1940 MGM movie about it was a hit.

A wildcat well comes in on S. L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on July 29, 1918. The subsequent drilling boom along the Red River will make Burkburnett famous – two decades before “Boom Town,” the 1940 motion picture it inspires.

At the time of the Fowler No. 1 well’s discovery, future moviestar Clark Gable is a teenage roustabout in an Oklahoma oilfield. The well is completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, founded in 1907 – and named by President Theodore Roosevelt, who two years earlier hunted wolf along the Red River with rancher Burk Burnett.

Although Wichita County had been producing oil since 1912 (thanks to a shallow water well west of town) Fowler’s decision to drill a well on his farm – an attempt called “Fowler’s Folly” by some – will bring an oil boom to Wichita County.

A collection of 1930s oilfield photography by Farm Security Administration photographers can be found at Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Fifty-six drilling rigs are at work just three weeks after his oil strike at 1,734 feet deep. Six months later, Burkburnett’s population has grown from 1,000 to 8,000. A line of derricks two-miles long greets visitors.

By June 1919, there are more than 850 producing wells in “the world’s wonder oilfield.”

The Burkburnett oilfield joins earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that will make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production. See Pump Jack Capital of Texas.

By the end of 1918, Burkburnett oil wells are producing 7,500 barrels per day. By June 1919, there are more than 850 producing wells in “the world’s wonder oilfield.”

Nineteen local refineries are soon processing the crude oil. The town’s unpaved streets are lined with newly formed stock offices, brokerage houses, and autos stuck in the mud.

Twenty trains are running daily between Burkburnett and nearby Wichita Falls. Yet another highly productive Wichita County oilfield is then discovered, bringing more prosperity for North Texas.

But eventually, the oil boom dies out. Affected by the Great Depression, Burkburnett’s population declines during the 1930s.

At the time of the 1918 Burkburnett discovery well, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout in an oilfield outside Bigheart, Oklahoma.

By 1939, the town has a population of less than 3,500. At the same time, the movie “Boom Town” is adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine article, “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett.”

The 1940 MGM feature stars Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. It is nominated for two Academy Awards.

At the time of the 1918 Burkburnett discovery well, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout working with his father William Gable, a service contractor, in an oilfield outside Bigheart, Oklahoma.

In 1922, Gable would collect an inheritance from his grandfather and leave working in the Oklahoma oil patch for good.

Clark Gable’s father is reported to have said, “I told the stubborn mule if he left me this time, he need never come back.”

Today, Burkburnett’s population exceeds 10,000, thanks to agriculture, continued production from its historic oilfield – and the 1941 establishment of nearby Sheppard Air Force Base.

Among Burkburnett’s tourist attractions are the Bluebonnet Festival in April – and the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.

With exhibits collected over five decades by Francis “F.T.” Sr., the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum of Burkburnett, Texas, displays machinery from the height of a 1918 North Texas oil boom.

“World’s Littlest Skyscraper.”

A footnote of the North Texas oil boom is the “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” in Wichita Falls. Just 40 feet tall with 118 square feet per floor, it has survived since 1919.

The building is a monument of the boom town era – and a Philadelphia con man who convinced oilmen (who were desperate for office space) to approve fraudulent blueprints.

J. D. McMahon disappeared after collecting $200,000 and completing his promised “skyscraper.” The fine print his investors overlooked noted a scale in inches - not feet.

“Apparently too busy to keep an eye on construction, investors ultimately found themselves owners of a building that looked more like an elevator shaft than high-rise office space,” notes Carlton Stowers, author of “Legend of the World’s Littlest Skyscraper.”

“The completed building’s outside dimensions were a closet-sized 11 feet by 19 feet. Stairwells that led to the upstairs floors occupied 25 percent of the interior,” Stower says. “Dallas and Houston may have sparkling skyscrapers so tall that they require oxygen in the penthouses, but has Ripley’s Believe It or Not ever paid them attention?”

The brick building has become a Wichita Falls landmark. Today it attracts oil-patch knowledgeable tourists. The city also is headquarters for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.

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

 

Among its records for dry holes, Florida’s first – but certainly not last – unsuccessful attempt to find commercially viable oil reserves began in 1901, not far from the Gulf Coast panhandle town of Pensacola.

Florida’s first oil well’s site is by present day Big Cypress Preserve in southwest Florida, about a 30 minute drive from the resort city of Naples — where a museum exhibit describes the discovery.

Two test wells were drilled, the first to 1,620 feet and the second a hundred feet deeper. Both were abandoned. Whether that wildcatter was following science or intuition, contemporary accounts of his efforts reveal only a small historical footnote: “Florida’s first dry holes.”

Twenty years later, as America’s oil demand continued to soar, oil still had not been found in Florida. The state’s panhandle still looked promising – despite a growing list of failed drilling ventures.

Indian legends and a wildcat stock promoter’s claim of oil inspired yet another attempt near today’s Falling Waters Park, about 100 miles east of Pensacola. A tall, wooden derrick and steam-driven rig were used to drill.

At a depth 3,900 feet, a brief showing of natural gas excited area residents with a false report of a possible gusher. Undeterred, the oilmen continued to drill to a depth of 4,912 feet before finally giving up.

No oil of commercial quantity was found and the well was capped in 1921. Another dry hole. Read the rest of this entry »

 

This section of the society’s energy education contacts begins with petroleum-related programs of the U.S. government, including a list of federal resources for teachers, students and industry researchers. Please support AOGHS outreach, including this website, by making a donation today. Also see our list of State Energy Education Contacts.

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In 1958, the University of Texas Board of Regents moved the Santa Rita No. 1 well’s walking beam and other equipment to the Austin campus. After the dedication, the student newspaper described the well “as one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”

The Permian Basin, once known as a “petroleum graveyard,” began to make U. S. petroleum history in 1920 with a discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County in West Texas. But when completed, his well produced just 10 barrels a day.

It would be another discovery well, the Santa Rita No. 1, that convinced wildcatters to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.

Although many experts still considered West Texas barren of oil, the Santa Rita well will produce for seven decades after tapping into the vast commercial oil production of the Permian Basin.

Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made its major oil strike May 28, 1923 – after 21 months of cable-tool drilling that averaged less than five feet a day. Read the rest of this entry »