• This Week in Petroleum History, December 15 to December 21


    December 17, 1884 –  Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons

    December oil history

    Especially in the Great Plains, frequent lightening strikes caused oil tank fires. This rare photograph is from the collection of the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.

    “Oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” is the reporter’s catchy phrase in a New England magazine article in 1884.

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology publishes “A Thunder-Storm in the Oil Country” – a firsthand account of the problem of lightning strikes in America’s oilfields.

    MIT not only reports on the fiery results of an lightning strike, but also the practice of using Civil War cannons to fight such conflagrations.

    Especially in the Great Plains, where new oil discoveries have begun following the Civil War, lightening strikes are igniting oil tanks.

    It’s a technological challenge for the young petroleum industry, which learns that shooting cannon balls into the base of burning tanks allow oil to drain into a holding pit until fires die out.

    The MIT article explains that “it is usually desirable to let (oil) out of the tank to burn on the ground in thin layers; so small cannon throwing a three inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.” Read more in Oilfield Artillery.

    December 17, 1903 – Natural gas fuels  Wright Workshop

    December oil history

    Powered by natural gas, a three-horsepower engine drives belts in the Wright workshop.

    A homemade engine burning 50 octane gasoline for boat engines powers Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic 59 second flight into aviation history at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

    The brothers’ “mechanician” Charlie Taylor fabricated a 150-pound, 13-horsepower engine in their Dayton, Ohio, workshop. “We didn’t make any drawings,” Taylor later recalled.

    The Wright brothers used Ohio natural gas to power their workshop. A “one lunger” (single cylinder) three-horsepower natural gas engine drove the overhead shaft and belts that turned a lathe, drill press – and a rudimentary wind tunnel.

    Natural gas had reached the brothers’ printing business from Mercer County, about 50 miles northwest. Read about advances in high-octane aviation fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc.

    December 17, 1910 – Petrolia Oil Strike

    Although traces of oil had been found since 1904 in Clay county, Texas, a 1910 gusher reveals an oilfield named after on of America’s earliest petroleum boom towns, Petrolia, Pennsylvania.

    The Dorthulia Dunn No. 1 gusher produces 700 barrels a day from a depth of 1,600 feet. Three years before the Petrolia oil gusher, the Clayco Oil & Pipeline Company claimed the first commercial natural gas well in Texas.

    In addition to oil and natural gas, the field produced helium. In 1915 the U.S. Army built a helium extraction plant, at the time the country’s sole source of helium.

    December 20, 1951 – First Oil Discovery in Washington State

    Oil is discovered in Washington when an exploratory well in Grays Harbor County flows at 35 barrels a day. The Hawksworth Gas and Oil Development Company discovers the oil with its Tom Hawksworth-State No. 4 well near Ocean City, Washington.

    December oil history

    Washington’s only commercial well is plugged in 1961 after yielding only 12,500 barrels of oil.

    The well flows at 35 barrels a day with 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas from a depth of 3,711 feet. It is soon abandoned as non-commercial.

    Eight years later, in 1967, Sunshine Mining Company reopens the well and deepens it to 4,532 feet in an effort to develop commercial production – but with only intermittent shows of oil and natural gas, the well is shut in again.

    Although 600 wells are drilled in 24 counties by 2010, only one produces commercial quantities of oil – the Medina No. 1, completed by Sunshine Mining in 1959. The well is about 600 yards north of the failed Hawksworth-State site.

    That Sunshine well, Washington’s only commercial producer, is closed in 1961 after yielding just 12,500 barrels of oil.

    When it comes to drilling for oil, Washington state is far down on the list of places where petroleum companies wish to explore notes a newspaper in Bremerton, Washington, citing  a geologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

    “We would probably be last, or next to last,” explains the expert. “The geology is too broken up and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.”

    For facts about the petroleum-producing states, see this website’s State Energy Education Contacts.

    December 21, 1842 – Birth of a Boom Town “Aero View” Artist

     Thaddeus Fowler depicted Wichita Falls, Texas, probably in the fall of 1890. For a suitable fee, the artist included homes and business as insets. Source: Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

    Thaddeus Fowler depicted Wichita Falls, Texas, probably in the fall of 1890. For a suitable fee, the artist included homes and business as insets. Source: Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

    Panoramic maps artist Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler is born  in Lowell, Massachusetts. Following the fortunes of America’s early petroleum industry, he will produce hundreds of unique maps of the earliest oilfield towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.

    Fowler is one of the most prolific of dozens of bird’s-eye view artists who crisscrossed the country during the latter three decades of the nineteenth century, notes the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

    December oil history

    More than 400 Thaddeus Fowler panoramas have been identified by the Library of Congress, including this detail of the booming oil town of Sistersville, West Virginia, published in 1896.

    December oil history

    Oil City, Pennsylvania, prospered soon after America’s first commercial oil discovery in 1859 at nearby Titusville.

    “He produced at least 17 views of different Texas cities in 1890 and 1891, but that output is dwarfed by his production of almost 250 views of Pennsylvania between 1872 and 1922,” explains the museum’s Texas Bird’s-Eye Views exhibit.

    His panoramic maps became a hugely popular cartographic form used to depict towns and cities in great detail. Created without the use of observation balloons, they were marketed as “aero views.”

    Fowler featured many of Pennsylvania’s oil earliest oilfield towns, including Titusville and Oil City – along with the booming oil community of Sistersville in the new state of West Virginia. He traveled through Oklahoma and North Texas in 1890 and 1891 similarly documenting such cities as Bartlesville, Tulsa and Wichita Falls. Learn more in Oil Town Aero Views.

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