This Week in Petroleum History, October 31 to November 6
October 31, 1871 – Modern Refinery Method patented
Petroleum refining will become more efficient thanks to an invention by Henry Rogers of Brooklyn, New York. In 1871 he patented his “apparatus for separating volatile hydrocarbons by repeated vaporization and condensation.”
His design, which introduced many elements of modern refinery “fractionating” towers, was a significant improvement over the earlier process of extracting kerosene by simple atmospheric distillation in kettle stills.
“The apparatus which I use is, in many respects, similar to what is known as the column-still for distilling alcoholic spirits, but modified in all the details, so as to make it available for distilling oils,” Rogers noted in his 1871 patent application.
Improved refining technologies proved key for massive facilities like the Standard Oil of Indiana Whiting Refinery, which by the mid-1890s had become the largest the United States.
October 31, 1902 – Paraffin Dirt leads to Oilfield Discovery
On Halloween 1902, oil was discovered near Pine Bayou one mile north of Batson, Texas. Initial production was 600 barrels of oil a day from 790 feet deep. A second well in December produced 4,000 barrels from a depth of 1,000 feet.
Encouraged by the Spindletop Hill oil discovery a year earlier, Beaumont businessmen had organized the Paraffine Oil Company. W.L. Douglas, who had no prior petroleum industry experience, reported seeing “signs” of oil at Baston. “In late October 1903 Paraffine staked a location for a test, the No. 1 Fee, on evidence of paraffin dirt that Douglas found on the surface,” notes the Handbook of Texas Online. “This was the first known use of paraffin dirt as a prospecting guide.”
Along with Spindletop two other prolific salt dome fields – Sour Lake (1901) and Humble (1905) – Batson, “helped to establish the basis of the Texas oil industry when these shallow fields gave up the first Texas Gulf Coast oil.” Read about a 1902 Batson oilfield fire; visit Batson to see its Oil Patch Museum.
November 1, 1865 – First Railroad Oil Tank Car arrives
James and Amos Densmore’s “oil tank car” railroad car arrived at the Miller Farm, four miles south of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The brothers, who soon patented this revolutionary technology, filled their first tank car with oil delivered by Samuel Van Syckle’s oil pipeline (another first) from the booming town of Pithole.
The Miller Farm’s 17 large storage tanks supplied the Oil Creek Railroad, which connected to other rail lines in Corry and on to Pittsburgh, New York City, and other markets. The tank car design featured two large, iron-banded wooden tanks on a flatcar. Although better tank cars would soon be adopted, Amos Densmore later helped create the modern typewriter. Learn more in Densmore Brothers Oil Tank Car.
November 3, 1878 – Haymaker Gas Well lights Pittsburgh
While drilling for oil in 1878, Michael and Obediah Haymaker’s well erupted with natural gas from a depth of almost 1,400 feet. “Every piece of rigging went sky high, whirling around like so much paper caught in a gust of wind. But instead of oil, we had struck gas,” Michael Haymaker later recalled.
Eighteen miles east of Pittsburgh, the out-of-control well in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, produced an estimated 34 million cubic feet of natural gas daily. It was considered the largest natural gas well ever drilled up to that time.
Given oilfield technologies of the late 1880s, there was no way to cap the well and no pipeline to exploit commercial possibilities. The Haymaker well drew thousands of curious onlookers to a flaming torch that burned for 18 months, visible from miles away.
“Outlet of a natural gas well near Pittsburgh – a sight that can be seen in no other city in the world,” noted Harper’s Weekly. The Haymaker well, brought under control, brought gas light to Pittsburgh and produce for years. Read more in Natural Gas Is King in Pittsburgh.
November 3, 1900 – New York City hosts First American Auto Show
America’s first gathering of the latest automotive technologies attracted thousands to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The most popular models proved to be electric, steam and gasoline…in that order.
Manufacturers presented 160 different vehicles and conducted driving and maneuverability demonstrations on a 20-foot-wide wooden track that encircles the exhibits.
About 48,000 visitors paid 50 cents each to witness autos driving up a 200-foot ramp to test hill-climbing power.
New Yorkers welcomed the new models as a way to reduce the 450,000 tons of manure, 21 million gallons of urine, and 15,000 horse carcasses that had to be removed from the streets every year.
Of the 4,200 automobiles sold in 1900, less than a thousand are powered by gasoline. But within five years, consumer preference thoroughly established the dominance of gasoline-powered automobiles that continues today. Read more in Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show and First Gas Pump and Service Station.
November 6, 1860 – First U.S. Multi-Still Kerosene Refinery
Less than six months before the start of the Civil War, construction began on the nation’s first multiple-still oil refinery in Pennsylvania, one mile south of Titusville in the booming oil region.
William Barnsdall, who drilled America’s second commercial oil well in 1859, eventually constructed six stills for refining kerosene. When completed, the first U.S. major refinery would cost $15,000. Much of the equipment was purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny River to Oil City, then up Oil Creek to the site.
With construction finished in January 1861, the refinery produced two grades of kerosene for lamps – white and the less expensive yellow. Each barrel of oil yielded about 20 gallons of the new illuminating resource.
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.