December 17, 1884 –  Article features Oilfield Thunder and Lightning, Fires and Cannons

Especially in the Great Plains, frequent lightening strikes caused oil tank fires. This rare photograph is from the collection of the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.

“Oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” is the reporter’s catchy phrase in a New England magazine article.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology publishes “A Thunder-Storm in the Oil Country” – its firsthand account of the problem of lightning strikes in America’s oilfields.

MIT not only reports on the fiery results of an lightning strike, but also the practice of using artillery to fight such conflagrations.

Especially in the Great Plains, where new oil discoveries have begun following the Civil War, lightening strikes are igniting oil tanks.

It’s a technological challenge for the young petroleum industry, which learns that shooting cannon balls into the base of burning tanks allow oil to drain into a holding pit until fires die out.

The MIT article explains that “it is usually desirable to let (oil) 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.”

Today, several Great Plains museums have cannons donated from oil companies on exhibit to educate visitors. Oil museums in Seminole and Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and El Dorado, Kansas, include these unusual representatives of this early fire-fighting technology. Read more in Oilfield Artillery.

December 17, 1903 – Fueling the Wright’s First Flight

Powered by natural gas, a three-horsepower engine drives the overhead shaft and belts in the Wright Brothers’ Dayton, Ohio, workshop.

A homemade engine burning 50 octane gasoline for boat engines powers Wilbur and Orville Wright’s 59 second flight into aviation history at Kittyhawk, North Carolina.

The brothers’ genius “mechanician” Charlie Taylor fabricated a 150-pound, 13-horsepower engine in their Dayton, Ohio, workshop. “We didn’t make any drawings,” Taylor later recalled.

“One of us would sketch out the part we were talking about on a piece of scratch paper, and I’d spike the sketch over my bench,” he added. “It took me six weeks to make that engine.”

The Wright brothers used Ohio natural gas to power their workshop. A “one lunger” (single cylinder) three-horsepower natural gas engine drove the overhead shaft and belts that turned a lathe, drill press – and a rudimentary wind tunnel.

Natural gas had reached the brothers’ printing business from Mercer County, about 50 miles northwest – in an area previously judged by the official state geologist to be “barren.”

Read about advances in high-octane aviation fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc.

December 20, 1913 – “Prince of Petroleum” opens Tulsa Refinery

The Tulsa refinery built by Joshua Cosden in 1913 continues to operate today.

A refinery built by Joshua Seney Cosden – who will become known as the “Prince of Petroleum” –  goes on stream in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

With a capacity of 30,000 barrels a day, his refinery is among the largest in the country. It continues operating today. The Cosden Oil Refinery is the oilman’s second. He builds on his success by forming companies that acquire and transport oil to the refineries. He amasses a fortune estimated to be $50 million.

However, in 1925 Cosden loses control of his petroleum assets to the Mid-Continent Oil Company. He will make another $15 million in the oil fields of West Texas – but like many others he loses everything during the Great Depression. Although Cosden dies at 59 in 1940, his Tulsa refinery today continues as a part of a Dallas-based corporation.

December 20, 1951 – First Oil Discovery in Washington State

Oil is discovered in Washington when an exploratory well in Grays Harbor County flows at 35 barrels a day. The Hawksworth Gas and Oil Development Company discovers the oil with its Tom Hawksworth-State No. 4 well near Ocean City, Washington.

Washington’s only commercial well is plugged in 1961 after yielding only 12,500 barrels of oil.

The well flows at 35 barrels a day with 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas from a depth of 3,711 feet. It is soon abandoned as non-commercial.

Eight years later, in 1967, Sunshine Mining Company reopens the well and deepens it to 4,532 feet in an effort to develop commercial production – but with only intermittent shows of oil and natural gas, the well is shut in again.

Although 600 wells are drilled in 24 counties by 2010, only one produces commercial quantities of oil – the Medina No. 1, completed by Sunshine Mining in 1959. The well is about 600 yards north of the failed Hawksworth-State site.

That Sunshine well, Washington’s only commercial producer, is closed in 1961 after yielding just 12,500 barrels of oil.

When it comes to drilling for oil, Washington state is far down on the list of places where petroleum companies wish to explore notes a newspaper in Bremerton, Washington, citing Ray Lasmanis, a geologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“We would probably be last, or next to last,” explains Lasmanis. “The geology is too broken up and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.”

For facts about the petroleum-producing states, see this website’s State Energy Education Contacts.

December 21, 1842 – Birth of a Boom Town “Aero View” Artist

Oil City, Pennsylvania, prospered soon after the 1859 oil discovery – considered America’s first – at nearby Titusville. Thaddeus Fowler published his maps of both communities in the 1890s.

Panoramic maps artist Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler is born  in Lowell, Massachusetts. Following the fortunes of America’s early petroleum industry, he will produce hundreds of unique maps of the earliest oilfield towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.

Fowler is one of the most prolific of dozens of bird’s-eye view artists who crisscrossed the country during the latter three decades of the nineteenth century, notes the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

More than 400 Thaddeus Fowler panoramas have been identified by the Library of Congress, including this detail of the booming oil town of Sistersville, West Virginia, published in 1896.

“He produced at least 17 views of different Texas cities in 1890 and 1891, but that output is dwarfed by his production of almost 250 views of Pennsylvania between 1872 and 1922,” explains the museum’s “Texas Bird’s-Eye Views” exhibit.

His panoramic maps became a hugely popular cartographic form used to depict towns and cities in great detail. Created without the use of observation balloons, they were marketed as “aero views.”

Fowler featured many of Pennsylvania’s oil earliest oilfield towns, including Titusville and Oil City – along with the booming oil community of Sistersville in the new state of West Virginia. He traveled through Oklahoma and North Texas in 1890 and 1891 similarly documenting such cities as Bartlesville, Tulsa and Wichita Falls. In total, he produced 426 unique maps.

Learn more in Oil Town Aero Views.

December 22, 1875 – Grant wants Asphalt for Pennsylvania Ave.

President Ulysses S. Grant urges Congress to repave Pennsylvania Avenue’s badly deteriorated plank boards with asphalt.

President Ulysses S. Grant first directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad bitumen in 1876. Thirty-one years later, asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol, above.

Grant delivers a “Report of the Commissioners Created by the Act Authorizing the Repavement of Pennsylvania Avenue” to Congress.

The project will cover 54,000 square yards. “Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor-intensive process.”

With work completed in the spring of 1877, the asphalt – obtained from a naturally occurring bitumen lake found on the island of Trinidad – will last more than 10 years. In 1907, the road to the Capitol will be repaved again with new and far superior asphalt made from U.S. petroleum.

By 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reports that more than 2.6 million miles of America’s roads are paved. See Asphalt Paves the Way.

December 22, 1975 – Birth of Strategic Petroleum Reserve

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve storage facilities are connected to commercial pipeline networks and marine terminal facilities. The Department of Energy’s St. James Terminal, above, is on about 173 acres 30 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) is established when President Gerald Ford signs the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

Today, the 727-million-barrel U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency oil in the world.

In addition to creating SPR, the 1975 legislation mandated increasing automobile fuel efficiency through a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard mileage goal of 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985.

SPR was a revolutionary idea in 1974, notes the Suburban Emergency Management Project.

When the newly created Department of Energy assumed management in 1977, “it was generally believed that the mere existence of a large, operational reserve of crude oil would deter future oil cutoffs and would discourage the use of oil as a weapon.”

SPR today includes five large underground caverns – naturally occurring salt domes near the U.S. Gulf Coast in both Louisiana and Texas.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society is a 501 (c)-3 nonprofit program dedicated to preserving the history of U.S. exploration by providing advocacy for organizations that work to preserve that history through exhibition, material preservation – and especially educational programming.

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