Oilfield Artillery fights Fires
Early petroleum technologies included cannons for fighting oil-tank storage fires, especially in the great plains where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. Shooting cannon balls into the base of a burning tank allowed oil to drain into a holding pit until fire died.
“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 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,” noted the first-person account in Tech magazine.
The “A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country” article 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,” reported the Tech article.
“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,” it added, noting the burning oil “spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface” before reaching an oil storage tank.
“Suddenly, with loud explosion, the heavy plank and iron cover of the tank was thrown into the air, and thick smoke rolled out,” the writer observed. “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 area of the fire rapidly extended to two more tanks: “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.”
Noting the arrival of “the long looked for cannon,” the article noted that “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.”
In the end, “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, tourists visiting Corsicana, Texas, where oil was discovered while drilling for water in 1894, can see an oilfield cannon donated to the city by Mobil in 1969. Learn about the discovery in First Texas Oil Boom.
Another cannon can be found on exhibit in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, near the state’s first oil well. Discovery One Park, also features a full-sized replica drilling rig. Learn more in First Oklahoma Oil Well.
Another educated tourists in Ohio. The Wood County Historical Center and Museum in Bowling Green displays its own “unusual fire extinguisher” among its collection. 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, adding that more local history can be found in the museum’s documentary “Ohio Crude” and in its exhibit, “Wood County in Motion.” Museums in nearby Hancock and Allen counties also have interesting petroleum collections.
Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.