This Week in Petroleum History, November 7 to November 13
November 8, 1880 – Death of Edwin L. Drake
Edwin Laurentine Drake, the former railroad conductor who drilled America’s first commercial oil well, died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the age of 61. Drake drilled just three wells – but his first – which produced oil on August 27, 1859 – launched the U.S. petroleum industry.
Although his discovery brought prosperity to many, by 1863 Drake had lost all his money in speculative ventures. A decade later he was so ill and destitute the Pennsylvania legislature voted him a $1,500 pension in recognition of his historic contribution.
After Drake died in 1880 in relative obscurity, Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers commissioned a monument for Drake, who was re-interred in Titusville’s Woodlawn Cemetery in 1902. “This was the beginning of the long overdue recognition for Drake. It took place in the valley where he made his great contribution to the oil industry,” noted historian Samuel Pees.
November 10, 1854 – Oil Seeps lead to First U.S. Oil Well
The stage was set for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps. George Bissell of New Hampshire bought the land from the lumber firm of Brewer, Watson & Company in 1854. Bissell hired Edwin Drake to drill for oil near the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek, southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Bissell suspected oil could be distilled to make kerosene for lamps. He asked a friend at Yale to conduct experiments. Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., a chemist and geologist, confirmed the illuminating potential of the refined oil. Bissell formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company – and hired Drake to search for oil. Learn more in George Bissell and Oil Seeps.
November 10, 1914 – Woodrow Wilson opens Houston Ship Channel
Dredged 25 feet deep in 1914, the Houston Ship Channel opened for ocean-going vessels.
President Woodrow Wilson officially saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House – reportedly by pushing an ivory button connected by wire to a cannon in Houston.
The now vital waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” notes the Port Authority, which administers the channel. Learn more in Opening the Houston Ship Channel.
November 11, 1884 – Consolidated Edison company established in New York
The largest U.S. gas utility company at the time was created in New York City when six gas-light companies merged to form the Consolidated Gas Company in 1884.
Today known as Consolidated Edison Company, “Con Edison” can trace its roots six decades earlier to New York Gas Light Company, which received a charter from the state legislature in 1823.
“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,” notes Con Edison company history. Six gas companies served New York City prior to the 1884 merger.
The city’s streets were constantly being torn up by the companies. The competing workmen installed or repaired their own main lines – and often removed those of a rival. Sometimes these work crews would meet on the same street and brawl, giving rise to the term “gas house gangs.” Learn more about them in History of Con Edison.
November 12, 1899 – Newspaper features Mrs. Alford and her Nitro Factory
An 1899 article in the New York World profiled Mrs. Byron Alford – the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory.”
Alford’s dangerous business operated on five acres outside of Bradford, Pennsylvania, with a daily production of 3,000 pounds of “nitro-glycerine” and 6,000 pounds of dynamite. Local drillers needed the explosives (an improvement from dynamite) for “shooting” wells to boost production.
The New York newspaper reported that Mrs. Alford manufactured the volatile explosives in 12 separate buildings, all of which were unpainted and made of wood. Discover her little-known story in Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory.
November 12, 1916 – Forest Oil Company formed
Forest Oil Company incorporated and began operations in the Bradford oilfield of northwestern Pennsylvania.The company created a distinctive logo using a “yellow dog” lantern with two wicks.
The company soon would adopt an important new technology: water-flooding (injecting water into oil-bearing formations) to stimulate production from wells once considered depleted. This enhanced recovery technology quickly spread throughout the petroleum industry – extending wells’ lives by as much as 10 years.
In 1924, Forest Oil consolidated with the January Oil Company, Brown Seal Oil, Andrews Petroleum and Boyd Oil to create today’s Forest Oil Corporation headquartered in Denver.
November 12, 1999 – Plastics designated National Historic Chemical Landmark
The American Chemical Society designated discovery of a high-density polyethylene process as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at the Phillips Petroleum Company (now ConocoPhillips) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The company first entered the plastics business in 1951 thanks to J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, who found a catalyst for creating solid polymers. “The plastics that resulted — crystalline polypropylene and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — are now the core of a multibillion-dollar, global industry,” the society notes. Among the earliest customers was Wham-O, which used it to manufacture Hula Hoops and Frisbees.
November 13, 1925 – Spindletop booms Again
More than two decades after its first oil boom, Spindletop, Texas, experienced a second major boom when the Yount-Lee Oil Company drilled a well that produced 5,000 barrels of oil a day. The well was completed just south of the famous 1901 “Lucas Gusher,”notes the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont.
Miles F. Yount, who had founded his exploration company in 1914, believed the area around Spindletop Hill held more oil – if wells on its flanks could be drilled deep enough. He was right, and the McFaddin No. 2 discovery well began to produce oil from 2,500 feet deep on November 13, 1925. That evening a Beaumont radio station announced the discovery, helping to launch another Texas oil boom.
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.