Call them detectives, night riders, or scouts. These petroleum sleuths separated oil well fact from fiction.
In the hard winter of 1888, 37-year-old oil scout Justus C. McMullen, succumbed to pneumonia — contracted while in the field investigating production data from a Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company well at Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. McMullen, publisher of the Bradford “Petroleum Age” newspaper, already had contributed much to America’s early petroleum industry as a journalist and oilfield detective.
The first American oil well in 1859 launched a Pennsylvania drilling boom — and created a brand new industry. With oil prices rising, margin trading of oil certificates became common – but unpredictable downturns ruined many fortune seeker. If a speculator believed prices would fall, he could “sell short” and turn a profit.
Optimism, pessimism, and rumor influenced the oil market’s behavior in both directions. Enter the oil scout.
Night Riders of the Hemlocks
Since the petroleum industry’s earliest days, “scout tickets” have been the written reports of the progress of oil or natural gas wells drilling in the producing area, according to historian Robert Langenkamp of Cushing, Oklahoma. Scouting “tight holes” required more effort.
“The reports contain all pertinent information — all that can be found out by the enterprising oil scout; operator, location, lease, drilling contractor, depth of well, formations encountered, results of drill stem tests, logs, etc.,” Langenkamp noted in his 2018 Handbook of Oil Industry Terms & Phrases.
“On tight holes the scout is reduced to surreptitious means to get information. Talks to water hauler, to well-service people who may be talkative or landowner’s brother-in-law,” he added.
“The bird-dogging scout estimates the drill pipe set-backs for approximate depth; he notes the acid trucks or the shooting (perforating) crew; and through his binoculars, he judges the expressions on the operator’s face: happy or disgruntled,” noted Langenkamp, further explaining how modern oilfield detectives have worked since the 19th century.
Among the earliest of these detectives was a group that formed in Kinsua, Pennsylvania, in 1870 “for the purpose of exchange current and correct information about drilling wells,” according to the International Oil Scouts Association (IOSA), which was founded in 1924.
Oilfield detecting as a profession arrived as oil pipelines came into wider use in Pennsylvania oilfields. A more efficient way of transporting oil, pipelines brought dramatic changes to the way oil was traded in the 1870s. As the petroleum industry grew complex – and risky – buyers and sellers became more wary.
With pipelines, instead of the oil buyer taking on-site delivery (in wooden barrels he provided), pipeline certificates were issued for oil delivery-in-kind at a negotiated price. These certificates could be bought and sold by anyone. Until Standard Oil Company stepped in and ended the practice, trade in “paper oil” flourished in oil exchanges at Titusville, Petroleum Center, and Oil City.
Oil producers hired oil scouts to protect their investments from surreptitious market manipulation. Scouts searched for the facts about oil production. As with all highly market-driven commodity industries, information and misinformation from speculators pushed prices erratically.
Scouts debunked rumors, “demystified” reports about oil wells and secured accurate information on production (or lack thereof) – sometimes despite armed guards at drilling sites.
James Tennent, author of The Oil Scouts — Reminiscences of the Night Riders of the Hemlocks, proclaimed in 1915 that scouts “saved the general trade thousands and millions by holding market manipulators in check.”
According to Tennett, Justus McMullen left a homestead farm in Orange County, New York, as a young man and eventually attended Cornell University to study civil engineering. McMullen soon began working in the early oil industry as a reliable oil scout — and as the publisher of the “Petroleum Age” in the booming oilfields of Bradford, Pennsylvania (also see Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory).
McMullen’s dedication as an oil scout would lead to his early death on January 31, 1888, at the age of 37. The book History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron & Potter (1890) describes his final days in the Pittsburgh area:
When others telegraphed rumors and guesses, he stayed up all night secretly to run the gauge pole in mystery tanks. A week before his death he started out to collect the data for the monthly report of operation. There were conflicting reports regarding the Pittsburgh Manufacturers’ Gas Company’s well at Cannonsburg, and to settle all doubts Mr. McMullen went to the well to get a gauge.
He was sick then. Other field men went out from Pittsburgh with him. They were told what the well was doing. This was good ‘hearsay,’ evidence, and as the thermometer stood several degrees below zero, the other field men went away satisfied with it. Not so with ‘Mac.’
For more than six hours, he waited there, chilled to the very marrow, until the well flowed again and he had gauged the flow. Then he went back to Pittsburgh sick. But he did not give up…though the pain he suffered was terrible. The data he brought home with him, and dictated to his loving wife from his deathbed, was as accurate and reliable as any ever gathered.
Even with such hard-earned information as McMullen’s, speculation in oil certificates continued to destabilize early oil markets, creating an intolerable burden on both oil producers and refiners. Standard Oil Company put an end to the era when it directed its subordinate, National Transit Company in Oil City, to cease issuing oil certificates.
Standard Oil set prices based on its view of supply and demand — stopping wildly fluctuating speculation, bringing the end of oil exchanges. The last of the oil exchanges to close was in Oil City in 1892. The building was later converted into a theater that featured the earliest U.S. motion pictures from Edison.
Preserving West Virginia Oil History
Oil scout McMullen was the great-uncle of David L. McKain (1934-2014), founding director of today’s Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg, West Virginia. McKain, named “Oilman of the Year” at the 2004 annual Sistersville Oil and Gas Festival.
McKain, a respected geologist and advocate of Parkersburg oil history, was often seen trudging over hills and wading through mud to collect 19th century oilfield artifacts. He wrote The Civil War and Northwestern Virginia — his second book about the history of West Virginia. His first, Where It All Began, was a detailed history of the oil and natural gas industry in West Virginia and Southeastern Ohio.
McKain noted that his great-uncle, in addition to being a widely known and respected oil scout, was a pioneer in early industry trade publications. It was in 1883 when McMullen was scouting wells in Warren and Forest counties, Pennsylvania, that he became a part owner of the “Petroleum Age.” Unfortunately, his early death in 1888 led to it ceasing publication soon after.
According to the book Sketches in Crude Oil, McMullen had previously written about the industry. In 1879, he worked for several newspapers. McMullen’s oil patch reporting was described in Sketches:
“His painstaking, conscientious reports were accepted as strictly reliable. He would trudge over the hills, wade through the miles of mud and ford swollen streams to ascertain the precise status of an important well, rather than approximate it from hearsay. This care and thoroughness gave the highest value to the statistical work of Justus C. McMullen.”
Recommended Reading: The Oil Scouts – Reminiscences of the Night Riders of the Hemlocks (1986); Sketches in Crude Oil. Some Accidents and Incidents of the Petroleum Development in All Parts of the Globe (2019); Western Pennsylvania’s Oil Heritage (2008); Where it All Began: The story of the people and places where the oil & gas industry began: West Virginia and southeastern Ohio (1994). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Scouts – Oil Patch Detectives.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/oil-scouts. Last Updated: January 31, 2022. Original Published Date: December 1, 2006.