History of oil barrels, railroad cars, storage tanks, pipelines, and more.

“DISPENSE WITH A HORSE and save the expense, care and anxiety of keeping it. To run a motor carriage costs 1/2 cent a miles. THE WINTON MOTOR CARRIAGE is the best vehicle of its kind made. It is handsomely, strongly and yet lightly constructed and elegantly finished. Easily managed. Speed from 3 to 20 miles an hour. The hydrocarbon motor is simple and powerful. No Odor, no vibration. Suspension wire wheels. Pneumatic tires. Ball bearings. Send for Catalogue.” — An 1898 advertisement in Scientific American magazine, believed to be the first American automobile ad. (See Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.)

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Visitors line up to admire the stainless steel Burlington Zephyr during the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, 1933-1934. Eight major U.S. railroads would soon convert to efficient diesel-electric locomotives. Photo from a Burlington Route Railroad postcard.

Although railroad steam engine technology had advanced since the “golden spike” of 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah, locomotives “belched steam, smoke, and cinders” for decades. Primitive diesels brought some improvement, but they were slow, which resulted in a decline in U.S. passenger rail traffic. Help arrived thanks to technology from the U.S. Navy in the form of a diesel-electric engine…wrapped in a stainless steel Art Deco locomotive.

America exports Oil

The fumes alone were “noxious, lurking, and explosive,” and no ship had ever crossed the Atlantic bearing such cargo. It late December 1861, more than 1,300 barrels of oil and kerosene were loaded on the brig Elizabeth Watts at the Port of Philadelphia by import-export firm of Peter Wright & Sons. Forty-five days later, the first U.S. oil export vessel sailed down the Thames River and arrived at London’s Victoria Dock. It took twelve days to carefully unload the petroleum.

America on the Move

The Transportation Hall of National Museum of American History opened in 2003 in Washington, D.C., after a $22 million renovation. Exhibits fill 26,000 square feet of space with 19 historic settings in chronological order. According to the Smithsonian Institution, “America on the Move brings back to life the history of ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles. It also reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.”

Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show

Almost 50,000 visitors paid 50 cents each to see automotive technology inside Madison Square Garden. The most popular models proved to be electric, steam, and gasoline…in that order. New Yorkers welcomed electric models as a way to reduce the estimated 450,000 tons of horse manure removed from the city’s streets each year (in addition to deadly health epidemics from the 15,000 horse carcasses). Of the 4,200 new automobiles sold in the United States, gasoline powered less than 1,000.

Densmore Oil Tank Cars

James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, in April 1866 were granted a patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” which they developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Although their twin tanks on a rail car were prone to leaks and top heavy, the Densmores provided a vital service – but only briefly. A better designed horizontal railroad tank car soon arrived.

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

Dome Gas Station of Takoma Park
A 1921 photo of a Takoma Park, Maryland, gas station from the Library of Congress.

Originally printed from a 1921 eight-inch by six-inch glass negative, a Library of Congress digital image features Takoma Park and its railroad station on the northeastern border of the District of Columbia and Maryland. Dome Oil Company was among the first in D.C. to offer residents fuel oil as an alternative to coal as well as gasoline, which was then at 40 octane to 60 octane. This single photograph tells a bunch of oil stories.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Studies continue to examine the effects of a supertanker’s grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. About 260,000 barrels of oil affected hundreds of miles of coastline (some consider this amount too conservative). “The system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” noted the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s report. “At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system.”

First Car, First Road Trip

Karl Benz invented the modern car when he built his “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine) in Mannheim, Germany, in 1885. His three-wheeled carriage was powered by a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine. In August 1888, his 39-year-old wife Bertha borrowed the car and “became the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile.” Her bold trip proved to be a public relations bonanza for the fledgling car company.

First Gas Pump and Service Station

S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885. Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bowser’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene. By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.”

Flight of the Woolaroc

Four days after Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in May 1927, James Dole of the Dole Pineapple Company offered a $25,000 first prize for an air race of its own – across the Pacific from Oakland to Honolulu, Hawaii. High-octane gas refined by Phillips Petroleum Company powered the “Woolaroc” monoplane to victory in the record-setting but deadly 1927 air race.

History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel

In August 1866 America’s earliest independent oil producers met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed to use the already common barrel of 42 gallons. The region’s new petroleum industry already led the world in production as demand for kerosene for lamps soared. Pipelines would later challenge the teamsters for the business of moving oil, which still depended mostly on men, wagons, horses, flatboats…and barrels.

Horace Horton’s Spheres

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company named their “Hortonspheres” after Horace Ebenezer Horton, the company founder and inventor of the round vessels. His creation of a highly efficient storage tank was one of the great petroleum industry innovations. His company, which had built bridges across the Mississippi River, had first expanded into the manufacture of water tanks.Today, Hortonspheres safely hold liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other highly pressurized fuels and products.

Houston Ship Channel of 1914

Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel opened for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port. President Woodrow Wilson saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.

“I am the only manufacturer in the country who can produce a certain type of steel barrel for which there is an immense demand at present, for the transportation of oil, gasoline, and other liquids.”

Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum

Famous journalist Nellie Bly brought energy and ideas to her late husband’s New York company, which had established itself as a kitchenware manufacturer in the 1880s. The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.” Her employee, Henry Wehrhah, received two 1905 patents that led to the modern 55-gallon steel barrel.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline History

When the last pipeline weld was completed in May 1977, the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline system (including pumping stations) connected the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield to the ice-free Valdez Marine Terminal. A deciding vote in the U.S. Senate by Vice President Spiro Agnew had passed the controversial Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act on July 17, 1973. The final system, built at a cost of $8 billion, earned Alaskans about $50 billion in tax revenue by 2002.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.