This Week in Petroleum History, May 30 – June 5
May 30, 1911 – First Indianapolis 500
The first Indianapolis 500 begins with a 40-car field; only a dozen will finish the 1911 test of endurance and automotive technology. The winner averages almost 75 mph. The race lasts about seven hours.
All the cars – except the No. 32 Marmon Wasp – have two seats. Drivers travel with “riding mechanics,” who manually pump oil.
Created to showcase the new sport of automobile racing, early races emphasize engine endurance. Ray Harroun, driver of the winning Marmon Wasp, later develops a kerosene carburetor. “Let the fuel people fight it out amongst themselves, I’ll have a car soon that will burn anything they send,” he declares. Gasoline powered less than 1,000 of all U.S. cars just a decade before the first Indy 500. Learn more at Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
Read about a record setting, natural gas fueled motor in Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car.
May 30, 1987 – Million Barrel Museum Opens in West Texas
The Million Barrel Museum opens in 1987 on a 14.5-acre site in Monahans, Texas. The museum’s main attraction is a large elliptical oil storage tank built in 1928 to store Permian Basin oil.
The experimental concrete tank – 525 feet by 422 feet – is designed to hold more than a million barrels of oil. The highly productive West Texas region lacks oil pipelines.
The tank’s 30 foot earthen walls slope at a 45 degree angle and are covered in concrete. It includes a roof made of California redwood.
Unfortunately, repeated efforts cannot stop oil from leaking at seams. Shell eventually abandons the giant structure, which will be patched and briefly become a water park in the 1950s – until it leaks again. Read Million Barrel Museum of Monahans.
June 1, 1860 – First U.S. Petroleum Book published
Less than a year after Edwin Drake’s historic discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Thomas Gale publishes an 80-page pamphlet many regard as the first book about America’s petroleum resources.
The 1860 Rock Oil, The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere describes the new fuel source for illumination.
“Those who have not seen it burn, may rest assured its light is no moonshine; but something nearer the clear, strong, brilliant light of day,” Gale writes. “In other words, rock oil emits a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world; a light fit for Kings and Royalists, and not unsuitable for Republicans and Democrats.”
June 1, 1940 – Dallas Artist depicts Texas Oil Patch
Artist Jerry Bywaters exhibits his newly completed Oil Field Girls in the Fine Arts Palace of San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. His 1940 image of two young women framed in the booming West Texas oil patch becomes one of Bywaters’ best known works.
Almost 70 artists, including famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, participate in the International Exposition’s Art in Action exhibition. Oil Field Girls will move on to the Dallas Museum of Art and eventually into the collection of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.
“A canny mixture of reportage and editorial commentary, Oil Field Girls is a history painting that captures a surprisingly humane narrative of a specific time and place,” notes the museum. The oil-on-board painting’s companion piece, Oil Rig Workers (Roughnecks), also painted in 1940, is in a private collection.
June 3, 1979 – Campeche Oil Spill
The Ixtoc One, an exploratory well in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico, blows out in 1979. Although three million barrels of oil are spilled, its environmental impact is limited, according to an ecological study.
“Nature played the biggest role in attacking the slicks as they floated across the Gulf,” the 1981 report explains. “Ultraviolet light broke down the oil as it crept toward land. So did oil-eating microorganisms. Hot temperatures spurred evaporation.”
June 4, 1892 – Floods and Fires devastate Oil Region
After weeks of heavy rain in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek Valley, a mill dam on Oil Creek bursts on June 4, 1892.
Torrents of water kill 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. Oil field photographer John A. Mather, whose studio and 16,000 glass-plate negatives are destroyed, documents the devastation.
When Mather dies in 1915, the Drake Well Memorial Association purchases the surviving negatives. Today, the Drake Well Museum preserves this rare record of America’s early petroleum industry.
June 4, 1872 – New York Chemist invents Petroleum Jelly
Robert A. Chesebrough patents “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he names Vaseline. His June 4, 1872, patent proclaims the virtues of this purified extract of petroleum distillation residue as a lubricant, hair treatment, and balm for chapped hands.
When the 22-year-old chemist visited the new Pennsylvania 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 oil field drilling crews.
Chesebrough returned to New York, where he began working in his laboratory to purify the oil well goop, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.” He experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his new product.
Chesebrough’s female customers found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline made an impromptu mascara. It is said that in 1913, Miss Mabel Williams, while dating her future husband Chet Hewes, employed just such a concoction.
Read more Vaseline history – and how it will lead to the cosmetic giant Maybelline – in the Oil, Vaseline and Maybelline Cosmetics.
Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program, Exploring Energy, 9 a.m – 10 a.m., ET. On the fourth Wednesday of each month AOGHS Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in to discuss petroleum history. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS, This Week in Petroleum History.