This Week April 9 to April 15
April 10, 1866 – Brothers patent Railroad Oil Tank Car
Railroad oil tank cars become an oilfield innovation when James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, are granted a patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” which they developed a year earlier in the booming oil region.
Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured the large wooden tanks in order to ship oil in bulk - “instead of in barrels, casks, or other vessels or packages, as is now universally done on railway cars.” Patent No. 53,794 illustrates the design for two tanks on a railroad car.
An historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville memorializes the Densmore brothers’ contribution to petroleum transportation technology.
The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek. It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of crude oil. A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.
These early oil-tank cars will be gradually be replaced by the more familiar horizontal types beginning in 1868. The Densmore brothers will soon turn from the oil patch to become leaders in development of the typewriter.
In 1875, Amos will assist Christopher Sholes to rearrange the “type writing machine” keyboard so that commonly used letters no longer collide and get stuck. The “QWERTY” arrangement improves Shole’s original 1868 invention.
James Densmore’s oilfield financial success will lead to creation of the Densmore Typewriter Company, which produces its first model in 1891.
April 11, 1957 – Oklahoma Independent Producer William G. Skelly dies
William Grove Skelly, founder of Skelly Oil Company, and one of Oklahoma’s great oilmen, dies in Tulsa at the age of 78. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on June 10, 1878, Skelly began his petroleum career as a 15-year-old, $2.50-a-day tool dresser in Venango County (tool dressers sharpened cable-tool bits among other duties on the floor of wooden derricks).
“Oil booms in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois made Skelly decide that it was time for him to become an independent producer,” explains historian Ken Anderson. “He sought backing for money to buy leases and to drill for oil, and later moved southwest. He first went to Texas but found a greener pasture in the El Dorado Field in Kansas, which had opened in 1916.”
Skelly incorporates Skelly Oil in Tulsa in 1919 and becomes one of the strongest independent oil companies — helping make that small town the “Oil Capital of the World,” Anderson notes in an article for the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“Over the years Skelly became the champion and leader of numerous civic, educational, and charitable causes in Tulsa. He spent many hours in Washington, D.C., and in Oklahoma City representing the petroleum industry,” Anderson concludes. Skelly served as president of the International Petroleum Exposition from 1925 until his death, and in 1928 he founded Tulsa’s Spartan School of Aeronautics.
April 14, 1865 – Failed Oilman turns Assassin
After failing as an oilman in the booming Pennsylvania oilfields, John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Abraham Lincoln. Just one year earlier, Booth had left the stage and drilled oil wells in Venango County.
In January 1864, Booth made the first of several trips to Franklin, Pennsylvania, where he purchased a 3.5-acre lease on the Fuller farm. Maps of the day show the three-acre strip of land on the farm, about one mile south of Franklin and on the east side of the Allegheny River.
Booth’s “Dramatic Oil Company” Wilhelmina No. 1 well will find oil – but the borehole collapses when he and his partners try to increase production using dynamite. As a partner’s son recalled, “the well was ‘shot’ with explosives to increase production. Instead of accomplishing that, the blast utterly ruined the hole and the well.”
Read more in “The Dramatic Oil Company.”
April 14, 1922 – Texans patent Blowout Preventer
To end dangerous and wasteful oil gushers, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron file a patent (No. 1,569,247) for a hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. Oil companies embrace the new technology.
Their revolutionary concept uses rams – hydrostatic pistons – to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure.
“Once nearly a victim of a disastrous blowout himself, Abercrombie had taken his idea for a ram-type preventer to Cameron’s machine shop in Humble, Texas, where they worked out the details, starting with a sketch on the sawdust floor,” notes the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which in 2003 recognized their invention as an “Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.”
Cameron and Abercrombie worked out their invention’s details using simple, rugged parts. When installed on a wellhead, the rams could be closed off, allowing full control of pressure during drilling and production. In 1922, their patented blowout preventer (BOP) could withstand pressures of up to 3,000 psi – a petroleum industry record. Later patents improve performance and the new technology becomes an industry standard.
Abercrombie had started in the oilfields as a roustabout in 1908 working for the Goose Creek Production Company and by 1920 owned several rigs in south Texas. He met Harry Cameron in the machine shops of the Cameron-Devant Company, where Abercrombie was a frequent customer. The two soon became friends and business partners.
Today an Abercrombie and Cameron blowout preventer, once exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is displayed in the lobby of Cooper Cameron headquarters in Houston. Modern drilling technologies continue to evolve to meet far more difficult drilling environments. Blowout preventers now withstand five times the pressure of their April 1922 original design.“Harry Cameron was a great machine-tool man. You could give him a piece of iron and he could make just about anything you wanted,” said Abercrombie.
Read more about the “Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.”
April 14, 1933 – Museum opens in Texas Panhandle
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum opens in Canyon, Texas, on the campus of West Texas A&M University, about 15 miles southwest of Amarillo.
Originally a 12,500-square-foot Art Deco building, today the museum includes 285,000 square feet of exhibit space and annually attracts more than 58,000 visitors. Its Don D. Harrington Petroleum Wing – named for a legendary Panhandle oilman – tells the story of the oil boom years in the Texas Panhandle during the 1920s and 1930s. Two floors of exhibits educate visitors about the oil and natural gas business.
“Popular destinations in this wing include the enormous wooden cable-tool drilling rig from the 1920s, relocated from Borger and reconstructed at the museum, and Cal’s Station, a replica 1930s-era filling station complete with a hand-operated gas pump, a Model T Ford and a vintage truck,” notes Director Guy C. Vanderpool, who adds that the museum hosted programs for 22,984 school children in 2011.
April 15, 1897 – Birth of the Oklahoma Petroleum Industry
A large crowd gathers at the Cudahy Oil Company’s Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well near Bartlesville, in the Indian Territory that will become Oklahoma.
George Keeler’s stepdaughter, Miss Jenni Cass, drops a “go devil” down the well bore to set off a waiting canister of nitroglycerin – producing a gusher that heralds the beginning of Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry. As the discovery well for the giant Bartlesville-Dewey Field, the Nellie Johnstone No.1 ushers in the oil era for Oklahoma Territory. By the time of statehood in 1907, Oklahoma will lead the world in oil production.
In the ten years following the Nellie Johnstone discovery, Bartlesville’s population grew from 200 to over 4,000 while Oklahoma’s oil production grew from 1,000 barrels to over 43 million barrels annually.
Today, a 184-foot derrick and education center, renovated in 2008, tells the story in Bartlesville’s Discovery 1 Park. Read more about the Sooner State’s first commercial oil well in “Discovering Oklahoma Oil.”
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