This Week in Petroleum History, August 29 to September 4
August 30, 1919 – Natural Gas Boom (and Bust) at Snake Hollow
About 300 petroleum companies sprang up near Pittsburgh within months of a major natural gas discovery – the “Snake Hollow Gusher” of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
Drilled near the Monongahela River, the discovery well produced more than 60 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. It prompted an exploration frenzy that saw $35 million invested in a nine-square-mile area.
“Many residents signed leases for drilling on their land,” the local newspaper later reported. “They bought and sold gas company stock on street corners and in barbershops transformed into brokerage houses.”
But excitement in the McKeesport natural gas field ended in just seven months. At the beginning of 1921, natural gas production had declined in 180 wells – and more than 440 exploratory wells were dry holes. Of the millions invested during the boom, only about $3 million came out. The field was soon described as “the scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.” Learn more in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and the McKeesport Gas Company.
August 30, 2002 – Birth of ConocoPhillips
Almost 100 years after Frank and L.E. Phillips completed their first oil well and 128 years after Continental Oil delivered its first can of kerosene in a horse-drawn wagon, Phillips Petroleum Company and Conoco Inc. combined to face energy challenges of the 21st century.
The two successful companies joined their complementary strengths to create a new industry giant, ConocoPhillips. Each brought a history of innovation to a highly competitive world marketplace.
Although many people have forgotten the early business ventures that played roles in building today’s ConocoPhillips, historians (and two petroleum museums) remember companies like Anchor Oil & Gas, Transcontinental Oil & Transportation, 101 Ranch Oil, Marland Oil, Mutual Oil, and Continental Oil and Refining, to name just a few. In 2011, ConocoPhillips decided to separate its refining and marketing business into a stand-alone, publicly traded corporation. Phillips 66 debuted in May 2012 as an independent downstream energy company.
August 31, 1850 – San Francisco Utility incorporates to manufacture Gas
The San Francisco Gas Company incorporated in 1850 to produce and distribute “manufactured gas” extracted from coal. Irish immigrants Peter and James Donahue and engineer Joseph Eastland will erect a coal gasification plant at San Francisco Bay to distill coal for manufacturing a gas for lighting. Their company, now part of Pacific Gas & Electric, illuminated its first “town gas” street lamps in 1852.
According to PG&E, over the next half-century, the company merged with competitors, ultimately concluding in the 1905 merger of San Francisco Gas and Electric and California Gas and Electric to form Pacific Gas and Electric Company. By 1915 there were almost 8,500 San Francisco street lamps – each hand lit and shut off every day. The last coal-gas lamp was extinguished in 1930. To learn more about early gas-light utility companies, see Con Ed – America’s Largest Utility.
August 31, 1859 – The First Dry Hole
Just four days after the first American oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a series of far less known “firsts” were achieved by local entrepreneur John Grandin in August 1859.
Although Edwin L. Drake used a steam-powered cable-tool rig to drill his historic well, Grandin used the simpler, time-honored spring-pole “kick down” method for his well at nearby Gordon Run Creek. The well reached a depth of 134 feet – about 65 feet deeper than Drake’s – but produced no oil despite desperate attempts.
Not to be remembered as America’s second commercial oil discovery, Grandin’s August 1859 dry hole achieved other petroleum industry milestones. His drilling attempt would be credited with the first stuck tool, the first “shooting” of a well with black powder – and first well ruined by a failed shooting attempt. Learn more in First Dry Hole.
September 1, 1862 – Union taxes Manufactured Gas
In order to help fund the Civil War, a new federal tax took effect – up to 15 cents tax per thousand cubic feet of manufactured gas (coal gasified by heating).
Editors at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle soon accused the local gas company of passing on the tax, which “shifts from its shoulders its share of the burdens the war imposes and places it directly on their customers.”
“Not so,” replied the Brooklyn Gas Light Company. “We do not contemplate anything of the kind.” Still in need of revenue to fund the war, in 1864 the federal government will impose a $1 per barrel oil tax.
September 2, 2009 – Gulf of Mexico Depth Record
BP announced a major oil discovery 250 miles southeast of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico.
The 2009 Tiber Prospect – estimated to hold more than three billion barrels of oil – was drilled by the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon offshore rig. The discovery well set a world depth record by drilling 30,923 feet into seabed from a platform floating more than 4,130 feet above.
After being moved to a new site, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sunk in April 2010, killing 11 and spilling almost five millions barrels of oil.
September 4, 1841 – Advance in Percussion Drilling Technology
Early drilling technology advanced when William Morris patented a “Rock Drill Jar” in 1841 – a drilling innovation he had begun experimenting with 10 years earlier.
“The mechanical success of cable tool drilling has greatly depended on a device called jars, invented by a spring pole driller, William Morris, in the salt well days of the 1830s,” explains petroleum historian Samuel T. Pees.
“Little is known about Morris except for his invention and that he listed Kanawha County (now in West Virginia) as his address,” he adds. “Later, using jars, the cable tool system was able to efficiently meet the demands of drilling wells for oil.”
The drilling innovation will help provide a growing number of settlers with much-needed salt for preserving food. Morris, using his experience as a brine well driller, patented his device, No. 2243 – a “manner of uniting augers to sinkers for boring artesian well.”
According to Pees, the upper link of the jars worked with the overlying sinker bar to perform an important function: causing the lower link to strike a strong blow to the underlying auger stem on the upstroke. This upward blow could dislodge the bit if it was stuck in the rock formation.
The Morris telescoping link apparatus increased efficiency of percussion drilling because it could “slacken off as the bit hit bottom and pick up the bit with a snap on the upstroke.” Cable-tool drilling technology evolved rapidly as drillers improved upon Morris’ patented jars. Cable-tool rigs and jars are still in use around the world. Learn more in Making Hole — Drilling Technology.
September 4, 1850 – Chicago Streets get Gas Light
The Chicago Gas Light & Coke Company delivered its first manufactured gas to customers in 1850. “The Gas Alight! – Wednesday marked an era in Chicago,” reports Gem of the Prairie.
“The gas pipes were filled, and the humming noise made by the escaping gas at the tops of the lamp-posts indicated that everything was all right,” the article continues about the gas manufactured from coal.
“Shortly afterward the fire was applied and brilliant torches flamed on both sides of Lake Street as far as the eye could see and wherever the posts were set.”
By 1855 nearly 78 miles of pipe had been installed and there were almost 2,000 manufactured-gas consumers in Chicago.
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.