This Week Nov. 5 to Nov. 11
November 6, 1860 – Refinery will produce New Light Source – Kerosene
Construction begins on the first multiple-still refinery in the Pennsylvania oil region, one mile south of Titusville on the north bank of Oil Creek. William Barnsdall (driller of the first well to follow Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 discovery), James Parker, and W. H. Abbott build six stills at a cost of $15,000.
Much of the equipment is purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny by boat to Oil City, then up Oil Creek to the construction site. Completed and brought on stream January 22, 1861, the stills produce two grades of illuminating oil, the white and the less expensive yellow. Each barrel of oil yields about 20 gallons of kerosene.
November 7, 1965 – Jet Fuel powers New Speed Record
Using high-octane jet fuel, Ohio drag racer Art Arfons sets the land-speed record at 576.553 miles per hour at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. His home-made Green Monster is powered by JP-4 fuel (a 50-50 kerosene-gasoline blend) in an afterburner-equipped F-104 Starfighter jet engine.
Between 1964 and 1965, referred to as “The Bonneville Jet Wars,” Arfons sets the record three times. On October 23, 1970, the Blue Flame – powered by liquefied natural gas – sets a new record of 630 mph that stands for 13 years. See “The Blue Flame – Natural Gas Rocket Car.”
November 8, 1880 – Death of Edwin L. Drake, Founder of U.S. Petroleum Industry
Edwin Laurentine Drake, today recognized as the founder of the American petroleum industry, dies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the age of 61.
Drake drilled just three oil wells — but his first, which found oil on Saturday, August 27, 1859, and produced about 20 barrels a day — launched the modern energy industry and transformed America’s future.
Although the petroleum industry will bring economic prosperity to many, in 1863 Drake loses all his money to oil speculation. By 1873 he is so ill and destitute that the Pennsylvania legislature votes him a $1,500 pension in recognition of his historic contributions.
Originally buried in Bethlehem, Drake is moved to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Titusville, where a monument in his honor is dedicated in 1901. His first well, drilled to 69.5 feet, is nearby at the Drake Well Museum.
November 10, 1854 – Oil Seep will lead to Historic Discovery
The stage is set for the start of America’s petroleum industry when the lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sells to George H. Bissell and Jonathan G. Eveleth 105 acres at the junction of the east (Pine Creek) and west branches of Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The lumber company had previously hired Joel D. Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) to collect and sell medicinal “Seneca Oil” from a known oil seep on this acreage where they operated a sawmill.
Thanks to research by his friend Benjamin Silliman Jr., a Yale chemist, Bissell recognized that the oil could be used to produce kerosene for lamps.
Deciding to attempt to produce this oil commercially, Bissell and Eveleth form the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company — and hire Edwin L. Drake to drill their first well in 1859. Drake’s well will launch the American petroleum industry.
“The successful commercial development of the oil seeps…was the fulfillment of a vision Bissell had five years earlier when he was first shown samples of petroleum taken from the site,” notes Pennsylvania petroleum historian Neil McElwee.
“Among the great oil pioneers of the first decades, Bissell was a giant,” concludes McElwee. “The oil men and writers of the nineteenth century as one recognized George Bissell as the patriarch of their industry.”
November 11, 1884 – Birth of Consolidated Edison Company of New York
America’s largest gas utility company is created in New York City when six gas-light companies merge to form the Consolidated Gas Company. Now known as Consolidated Edison Company, “Con Edison” can trace its history still six decades earlier to the New York Gas Light Company.
In 1823, New York Gas received a charter from the New York State Legislature to serve all of Manhattan south of an east-west line created by Grand, Sullivan, and Canal Streets.
“Like most early gas companies, New York Gas would focus its efforts on street lighting, in this case, supplementing or replacing the whale-oil lamps that were installed by the city beginning in the 1760s,” explains the Con Edison website. In 1833, the Manhattan Gas Light Company was established to cover Manhattan above Grand and Canal Streets.
“Another new company came on the scene in 1855 when the Harlem Gas Light Company was granted a franchise to serve customers north of 79th Street, adds Con Edison. In 1858, the Metropolitan Gas Light Company was granted a city-wide charter and went into direct competition with the existing gas companies.
Over time, additional companies were formed, including New York Mutual Gas Light in 1866 and the Municipal Gas Light Company in 1876.
“With six major gas companies serving New York City, the streets were constantly being torn up by one company or another installing or repairing their own mains – or removing those of a rival,” notes the Con Edison website.
From time to time, work crews from competing companies would inadvertently meet on the same street and literally battle for customers, giving rise to the term “gas house gangs.”
However, just as company executives were looking forward to the financial stability and profitability the agreement would bring, a new problem was brewing, Con Edison explains. In December 1879, Thomas Edison demonstrated his newest invention – the incandescent light bulb.
As the electric lamp quickly became the light of choice, the competing New York gas companies countered by finding new uses for their product – especially using gas for heating and cooking. But the future survival of the gas business seemed to depend on consolidation.
Consolidated Gas Company will result from the November 11, 1884, merger of New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan, Municipal, Knickerbocker and Harlem gas companies. Through the years, it will acquire steam, gas and electric companies serving New York City and Westchester County. It is renamed the Consolidated Edison Company of New York in 1936.
Today, Con Edison distributes natural gas to more than one million customers in Manhattan, the Bronx, part of Queens, and most of Westchester County. More than 4,200 miles of gas mains and nearly 400,000 service pipes transport more than 200 million dekatherms of natural gas a year.
Learn about the history of New York’s petroleum industry – which began in 1865 – at the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.
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Editor’s Note — Happy birthday to Dorothy Jean Womack of Eufaula, Oklahoma, born on November 7, 1928. She is a founding member of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society – and mother of the executive director. Happy birthday, mom.