This Week June 4 to June 10
June 4, 1892 – Flood devastates Pennsylvania Oil Region
After weeks of heavy rain in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek Valley, Thompson & Eldred’s huge mill dam on Oil Creek at Spartanburg bursts, releasing a torrent of water that kills more than 100 people and destroys homes and businesses in Titusville and Oil City. The disaster is compounded when fire breaks out in Titusville.
“This city during the past twenty-four hours has been visited by one of the most appalling fires and overwhelming floods in the history of this country” reports the New York Times. Noted oilfield photographer John A. Mather – whose studio and 16,000 glass-plate negatives are also ruined – begins documenting the devastation.
The destruction of most of Mather’s 32-year photographic record of Pennsylvania’s oil regions is an irreplaceable loss to history. When Mather dies destitute in 1915, the Drake Well Memorial Association purchases 3,400 surviving negatives for $100. Today, the Drake Well Museum in Titusville preserves this rare record of America’s early petroleum industry.
June 4, 1825 – Natural Gas lights Lafayette’s Visit to America
On a visit to America, Revolutionary War hero and friend to George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, arrives in Fredonia, New York, at 2 a.m. by stagecoach. Local lore says he is surprised to find Mosley Abell’s Inn and the town brilliantly illuminated by natural gas in his honor.
Four years earlier, William Hart, a local gunsmith, had drilled America’s first commercial natural gas well. He found shale at depth of 27 feet and then drilled a 1.5 inch borehole to reach plentiful natural gas at 70 feet. Using lead pipe, Hart supplied gas to Abell’s Inn on the stagecoach route from Buffalo to Cleveland and later expanded to 30 burners for other Fredonia homes and businesses.
Editor’s Note – Learn more New York petroleum history (and the developments in a geological outcrop first located near the village of Marcellus) by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar. The Marcellus Shale has been found in five Appalachian Basin states; it has the potential to be one of the largest natural gas plays on the continent.
June 4, 1872 – Young New York Chemist patents Vaseline
Robert A. Chesebrough patents “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he names Vaseline. His patent (No. 127,568) extols the virtues of this purified extract of petroleum distillation residue as a leather treatment, lubricator, pomade, and balm for chapped hands.
Even before America’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, Chesebrough was in the “coal oil” business in Brooklyn, New York. His expertise was in the reduction of coal into kerosene – a product much in demand.
When the 22-year-old chemist visited the Venango County oilfields in 1865, he noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead.
The only virtue of this goopy “rod wax” was as an immediately available “first aid” for the abrasions, burns, and other wounds routinely afflicting the crews. Chesebrough returned to New York, where he began working in his laboratory to purify the oil well goop, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.”
Soon after receiving his 1872 patent, Chesebrough had a dozen wagons distributing the product around New York. Customers used the “wonder jelly” creatively: treating cuts and bruises, removing stains from furniture, polishing wood surfaces, restoring leather, and preventing rust. Within 10 years, consumers were buying a jar every minute.
“French bakers are making large use of vaseline in cake and other pastry,” noted an 1886 issue of Manufacture and Builder. “Its advantage over lard or butter lies in the fact that, however stale the pastry may be, it will not become rancid.”
Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96 years old. The Drake Well Museum includes a collection of his products.
Read more Vaseline history – and how oil well paraffin made its way to women’s eyelashes – in “A Crude Story: Mabel’s Eyelashes.”
June 6, 1967 – Oil Embargo attempt
One day after the Six-Day War begins, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Algeria pledge to stop supplying oil to the nations friendly to Israel — the United States, Great Britain, and West Germany. A lack of uniformity in enforcing the embargo and increased U.S. production results in the embargo ending after two months.
June 6, 1976 – Oilman J. Paul Getty dies
With a fortune estimated to be as high as $4 billion, J. Paul Getty dies at 83 at his country estate near London. He held a majority or controlling interest in the Getty Oil Company and nearly 200 other concerns, including petroleum reserves, refineries and retail businesses.
Getty (1892-1976) was born into his father’s oil wealth from the Minnehoma Oil Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and made his first million in oil leasing by the time he was 23.
“I started in September 1914, to buy leases in the so-called red-beds area of Oklahoma,” Getty is quoted in the New York Times. “The surface was red dirt and it was considered impossible there was any oil there. My father and I did not agree and we got many leases for very little money which later turned out to be rich leases.”
Getty credited his fortune to his father’s foresight and his own luck and ingenuity. After World War II and contrary to conventional wisdom, he bought oil rights in Saudi Arabia and reputedly became the richest man in the world. An astute art collector, he established the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and left over $661 million of his estate to the museum.
June 9, 1894 – Corsicana Discovery launches Texas Petroleum Industry
The first major oilfield in Texas is discovered in Corsicana – by a water-well contractor hired by the city. Some consider this well on South 12th Street the first commercial discovery west of the Mississippi. The American Well and Prospecting Company makes the strike at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council, still wanting water for its growing community, pays only half of the contracted $1,000 fee.
Although the Navarro County well, about 50 miles south of Dallas in the Mid-Continent oilfield, produces just 2.5 barrels a day, it is the start of the first major Texas oil boom. By 1897, almost 50 oil wells are producing 65,975 barrels. In the 116 years since its discovery, the Corsicana area has produced more than 200 million barrels.
“The oil boom brought a new wave of prosperity to the town,” notes a local historian. “A new courthouse, the one currently still in use, was completed in 1905, and in 1917 the Corsicana Chamber of Commerce was founded. In 1923 a second, even larger oil deposit, the Powell Oilfield, was discovered, unleashing a new oil boom.”
According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) , the first oil refinery in the state was built in 1897, and by 1898 there were 287 producing wells in the Corsicana field.
The association adds that the discovery of oil transformed Corsicana from a regional agricultural shipping town to an important oil and industrial center, creating a number of allied businesses, including the American Well Prospecting Company, producer of the newly invented rotary drilling bits.
“In 1900 Corsicana had grown to 9,313 inhabitants, with three banks, twelve newspapers, eight hotels, forty-nine retail stores, a cotton mill, thirty-two doctors, and thirty-five saloons,” TSHA explains.
In 1976, Corsicana leaders decided to commemorate the community’s rich petroleum exploration history – and its importance to the county’s economic development.
The Derrick Days festival (and popular Chili & BBQ Cook-off) has since become a premier gathering in Navarro County and grown with additional activities each year. In 1895, Lyman Davis of Corsicana developed the original recipe for Wolf Brand Chili.
Editor’s Note — Oil patch historians in Neodesha, Kansas, also claim the first significant oil discovery west of the Mississippi. Two years earlier than the Corsicana well, a well came in at the corner of Mill and First Streets on November 28, 1892. See the Norman No. 1 Oil Well and Museum.
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