This Week in Petroleum History, January 13 to January 19

January 14, 1928 – Illustrating Ads for Standard Oil launches Career of Future Dr. Seuss

New York City’s Judge magazine included its first cartoon drawn by Theodor Seuss Geisel – who would develop his skills as “Dr. Seuss” while working for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.

January petroleum history Dr. Seuss first ad for Flit bug spray

Standard Oil’s “Flit” was a popular bug spray.

In the 1928 cartoon that launched his professional career as an advertising illustrator, Geisel drew a peculiar dragon trying to dodge Flit, a popular bug spray of the day.

“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” soon became a common catchphrase nationwide. Flit was one of Standard Oil of New Jersey’s many consumer products derived from petroleum.

Throughout the Great Depression hundreds of Geisel’s fanciful critters populated Standard Oil advertisements, providing him much-need income. Ad campaigns included cartoon creatures for Esso gasolines, lubricating oils, and Essomarine Oil and Greases. He later acknowledged that this experience, “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”

January petroleum history Standard Oil ad drawn by future Dr. Seuss

During the Great Depression, Theodor S. Geisel – Dr. Seuss – created popular advertising campaigns for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.

Learn more in Seuss I am, an Oilman.

January 14, 1954 – Oil discovery in South Dakota

A Shell Oil Company wildcat well in Harding County, South Dakota, began producing oil from about 9,300 feet deep, revealing South Dakota’s first oilfield. This single well drilled in what proved to be the Buffalo field produced more than 341,000 barrels of oil for the next five decades.

january petroleum history wooden oil derrick and cars circa 1929

A wooden cable-tool rig drilled a Custer County dry hole in 1929. Photo courtesy South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Although South Dakota had a long history of petroleum exploration (natural gas production began in 1899), drilling in Harding and Custer counties had resulted in dry holes, according to Gerald McGillivray of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

By 2010, Harding County’s cumulative production was 44.4 million barrels of oil, almost 89 percent of the state’s total production, McGillivray noted in South Dakota Oil & Gas Development, Past, Present and Future. Harding County still produces the bulk of the state’s oil. Although the Bakken shale of North Dakota does not extend into South Dakota, exploration companies have noted a number of oil-producing formations, such as the Tyler and Three Forks, that do extend into the state. Also see First North Dakota Oil Well.

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This Week in Petroleum History, January 6 to January 12

January 7, 1905 – Humble Oilfield Discovery rivals Spindletop

C.E. Barrett discovered the Humble oilfield in Harris County, Texas, with his Beatty No. 2 well, which brought another Texas oil boom four years after Spindletop launched the modern petroleum industry. The Beatty well produced 8,500 barrels of oil per day from a depth of 1,012 feet.

The town of Humble grew from 700 to 20,000 in a few months as production from the field – the largest in Texas in 1905 – reached almost 16 million barrels of oil. The field would lead to the founding of the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1911 by a group that included Ross Sterling, a future governor of Texas.

petroleum history january Humble Texas postcard

An embossed postcard circa 1905 from the Postal Card & Novelty Company, courtesy the University of Houston Digital Library.

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This Week in Petroleum History, December 30 to January 6

December 31, 1954 – Ohio Oil Company sets California Drilling Depth Record

petroleum history December magazine headline

A January 1954 trade magazine noted the record depth reached by the Ohio Oil Company’s deep well in Kern County – a dry hole.

As deep drilling technologies continued to advance in the 1950s, a record depth of 21,482 feet was reached by the Ohio Oil Company in California.

The well was about 17 miles southwest of Bakersfield in prolific Kern County, in the San Joaquin Valley. At more than four miles deep, the well’s down-hole drilling technology was not up to the task and became stuck.

Petroleum Engineer noted the well set a depth record, despite being “halted by a fishing job” and ending up as a dry hole. More than 630 exploratory wells were drilled in California during 1954.

Founded in 1887, the Ohio Oil Company discovered the Permian Basin’s giant Yates field in 1926 and later purchased Transcontinental Oil, acquiring the Marathon product name – and Greek runner trademark. To learn more about deep drilling history, see Anadarko Basin in Depth.

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This Week in Petroleum History, December 23 to December 29

December 23, 1943 – Major Oilfield found in Mississippi

The Gulf Oil Company discovered a new Mississippi oilfield at Heidelberg in Jasper County. As early as 1929, company surveyors had recognized the geological potential of the area southeast of Jackson. For the next decade Gulf Oil used the latest seismographic and core drilling technologies to look for what was believed to be a potentially huge oil formation. After selecting a drilling site in October 1943, the discovery well revealed one of the state’s largest oilfields since the first Mississippi oil well was completed in 1939.

December 24, 2007 – Top Holiday Film includes Novelty Oil Product

wax lips petroleum product in Christmas story
The 1984 holiday classic “A Christmas Story” featured Ralphie, his 4th-grade classmates – and an unusual petroleum product. Photos courtesy MGM Home Entertainment.

The 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story” began airing in an annual 24-hour marathon on the TNT network. In addition to its infamous plastic leg-lamp, the popular holiday movie has featured another petroleum product, a novelty candy.

Paraffin, a byproduct of petroleum distillation used in candles and waxes, makes its brief appearance when Ralphie Parker and his fourth-grade classmates smuggle Wax Fangs into class, only to dejectedly hand them over to their teacher.

An older generation may recall the peculiar disintegrating flavor of Wax Fangs, Wax Lips, Wax Moustaches, and Wax Bottles (officially Nik-L-Nips) from bygone Halloweens and birthday parties. Few realize the candy cultural icons started in oilfields.

Learn more in the Oleaginous History of Wax Lips and explore these articles about other petroleum products.

December 28, 1898 – Mary Alford inherits Pennsylvania Nitroglycerin Factory

Byron S. Alford died, leaving his nitroglycerin factory to his wife, Mary Alford, who would make the business thrive, becoming in the process “the only known woman to own a dynamite and nitroglycerin factory,” explained a 2017 Smithsonian.com article, which credited the American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory. She and her husband had built the dynamite factory in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1883. When technology for “shooting wells” was developed, nitroglycerin became an important part of oil production. Mrs. Alford became “an astute businesswoman in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield.”

December 26, 1905 – Nellie Bly’s Ironclad Patent of the 55-Gallon Metal Barrel

december petroleum history Nellie Bly metal barrel company
Nellie Bly was assigned a 1905 patent for the “Metal Barrel” by its inventor, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked at her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

Henry Wehrhahn of Brooklyn, New York, received two 1905 patents that would lead to the modern 55-gallon steel drum. He assigned them to his employer, the world-famous journalist Nellie Bly, who was then president of the Ironclad Manufacturing Company.

“My invention has for its object to provide a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation,” Wehrhahn noted in his patent for a flanged metal barrel with encircling hoops for better control when rolling. A second patent issued at the same time provided a means for detaching and securing a lid. A superintendent at Ironclad Manufacturing, Wehrhahn assigned his inventions to Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (Nellie Bly). She was the recent widow of the company’s founder. In 1895, at age 30, she had married the wealthy 70-year-old industrialist Robert Seaman.

Well known as a reporter for the New York World, Bly manufactured early versions of the “Metal Barrel.” It would become today’s 55-gallon steel drum. Wehrhahn later became superintendent of Pressed Steel Tank Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When Iron Clad Manufacturing succumbed to debt, Bly returned to newspaper reporting. She died at age 57 in 1922. Learn more in the Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum. Also see History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel.

December 28, 1930 – Lou Della Crim’s Well reveals Size of East Texas Oilfield

“Mrs. Lou Della Crim sits on the porch of her house and contemplates the three producing wells in her front yard,” notes the caption of this undated photo courtesy Neal Campbell, Words and Pictures.

Three days after Christmas, a major oil discovery on the farm of the widow Lou Della Crim of Kilgore revealed the extent of the giant East Texas oilfield. Her son, J. Malcolm Crim, had ignored advice from most geologists and drilled the well about 10 miles north of the field’s discovery well, drilled in October by Columbus “Dad” Joiner on the farm of another widow, Daisy Bradford.

The Lou Della Crim No. 1 well erupted oil on a Sunday morning while “Mamma” Crim was attending church. The well initially produced 20,000 barrels of oil a day. A month later, 15 miles farther north, a third wildcat well, the Lathrop No. 1 well, (drilled by Fort Worth wildcatter W.A. “Monty” Moncrief), confirmed the size of what proved to be a massive oilfield extending more than 480 square miles.


Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

This Week in Petroleum History, December 16 to December 22

December 17, 1884 –  Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons

petroleum history december
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” was the reporter’s catchy phrase in a New England magazine article in 1884.

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

MIT not only reported on the fiery results of a lightning strike, but also the practice of using Civil War cannons to fight such conflagrations. Operators learned that shooting cannon balls into the base of burning tanks allowed oil to drain safely into a holding pit until the fire died out. The MIT article noted cannons were “kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.” Learn more in Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.

December 18, 1929 – California Oil Boom in Venice

oilfield artist JoAnn Cowns

AOGHS member JoAnn Cowens of Fullerton, California, has painted oilfields since the 1960s, preserving derricks long since removed.

The Ohio Oil Company completed a wildcat well in Venice, California, east of the Grand Canal on the Marina Peninsula, two blocks from the ocean. The discovery well initially produced 3,000 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 6,200 feet.

Ohio Oil (today’s Marathon Oil) had received a zoning variance permitting exploration within the city limits. The well launched another California drilling boom just a few years after the world-famous discovery at Signal Hill.

In the 1960s, California artist JoAnn Cowans painted scenes of the historic steel derricks in Venice and Marina del Rey before they were removed. She published a book of her artwork in 2009, Black Gold, the Artwork of JoAnn Cowans.

December 18, 1934 – Hunt Oil Company founded in Texas

december petroleum history H L Hunt

H.L. Hunt’s oil career began in Arkansas and East Texas and spanned much of the industry’s history, notes Hunt Oil Company. Photo circa 1911.

Hunt Oil Company, today one of the largest privately held U.S. companies, incorporated in Delaware and opened its first office in Tyler, Texas. Four years earlier, H.L. Hunt had acquired the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well from C. Marion “Dad” Joiner at Kilgore.

“H.L. Hunt bought the lease out ‘lock, stock and barrel,’ financing the deal with a first-of-its-kind agreement to make payments from future ‘down-the-hole’ production,” notes a company history. “The Bradford No. 3 turned out to be the discovery well of the great East Texas oilfield, which, at the time, was the greatest oilfield in the world.”

Hunt Oil moved its headquarters to Dallas in 1937, and developed the first oil well in Alabama in 1944. The company entered offshore exploration in 1958 with leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

December 20, 1913 – “Prince of Petroleum” opens Tulsa Refinery

A refinery built by Joshua Cosden – soon to be known in Oklahoma as the “Prince of Petroleum” – went on stream in Tulsa. With a capacity of 30,000 barrels oil oil a day, the refinery was among the largest in the country in 1913. A successful independent producer, in March 1924 Cosden would pay $2 million for a single 160-acre lease at a famous Osage lease auction. He later earned $15 million in West Texas oilfields – but  lost almost everything during the Great Depression. He died at age 59 in 1940. His Tulsa refinery continues operating  today as a part of Dallas-based HollyFrontier Corporation.

December 20, 1951 – Oil discovered in Washington State

A short-lived oil discovery in Washington foretold the state’s production future. The Hawksworth Gas and Oil Development Company Tom Hawksworth-State No. 4 well was completed near Ocean City in Grays Harbor County. It produced just 35 barrels of oil a day.

petroleum history december

Washington’s lone well yielded a total of 12,500 barrels of oil.

The well, which also produced 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas from a depth of 3,700 feet, was abandoned as non-commercial. In 1967, Sunshine Mining Company reopened the Hawksworth well and deepened it to 4,532 feet. But with only minor shows of oil and natural gas, the well was shut in again.

Although 600 Washington wells would be drilled in 24 counties by 2010, only one produced commercial quantities of oil. It was completed by Sunshine Mining in 1959 about 600 yards north of the failed Hawksworth site. That Sunshine well, Washington’s only commercial producer, was closed in 1961.

Washington has not been a good state for petroleum exploration, noted a geologist at the Washington Department of Natural Resources in 1997. “The geology is too broken up and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.” Learn more about West Coast geology in California Oil Seeps

December 21, 1842 – Birth of an Oil Town “Bird’s-Eye View” Artist

 petroleum history december

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.

 petroleum history december

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

Panoramic maps artist Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler was born  in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1842. Following the fortunes of America’s early petroleum industry, he would produce hundreds of unique maps of the earliest oilfield towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.

Fowler was one of the most prolific of the 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. The views were drawn without help from a balloon.

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

December 22, 1875 – Grant seeks Asphalt for Pennsylvania Avenue

 petroleum history december

President Grant first directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad bitumen in 1876. In 1907, asphalt distilled from petroleum repaved the pathway to the Capitol, above.

President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875 convinced Congress to repave Pennsylvania Avenue’s badly deteriorated plank boards with asphalt. Grant delivered to Congress a “Report of the Commissioners Created by the Act Authorizing the Repavement of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The project would cover 54,000 square yards. “Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor-intensive process.”

With work completed in the spring of 1877, the asphalt – obtained from a naturally occurring bitumen lake found on the island of Trinidad – would last more than 10 years.

In 1907, the road to the Capitol was repaved again with new and far superior asphalt made from U.S. petroleum. By 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reported that more than 2.6 million miles of America’s roads are paved. Learn more in Asphalt Paves the Way.

december petroleum history

Baker Tools founder Carl Baker in 1919.

December 22, 1903 – Carl Baker patents Cable-Tool Bit

Reuben Carlton “Carl” Baker of Coalinga, California, patented an innovative cable-tool drill bit in 1903 after founding the Coalinga Oil Company.

“While drilling around Coalinga, Baker encountered hard rock layers that made it difficult to get casing down a freshly drilled hole,” notes a Baker-Hughes historian. “To solve the problem, he developed an offset bit for cable-tool drilling that enabled him to drill a hole larger than the casing.”

Coalinga was “every inch a boom town and Mr. Baker would become a major player in the town’s growth,” adds a local historian. He helped establish several small oil companies, a bank and the local power company. After drilling wells in the Kern River oilfield, Baker added another technological innovation in 1907 when he patented the Baker Casing Shoe, a device ensuring uninterrupted flow of oil through the well.

By 1913 Baker organized the Baker Casing Shoe Company (renamed Baker Tools two years later). He opened his first manufacturing plant in Coalinga in a building that today houses the R.C. Baker Museum. Although Baker never advanced beyond the third grade, “he possessed an incredible understanding of mechanical and hydraulic systems.” Learn more in Carl Baker and Howard Hughes.

December 22, 1975 – Strategic Petroleum Reserve established

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established when President Gerald Ford signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. With a capacity of 713.5 million barrels of oil in 2018, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency oil in the world. SPR storage sites include five salt domes near the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas. In addition to SPR, the Department of Energy maintains a northeast home heating oil reserve of one million barrels of diesel and heating oil for homes and businesses in a region heavily dependent the fuels, and a one million barrel supply of gasoline for northeastern U.S. consumers.

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Recommended Reading: Black Gold, the Artwork of JoAnn Cowans (2009); The Three Families of H. L. Hunt: The True Story of the Three Wives, Fifteen Children, Countless Millions, and Troubled Legacy of the Richest Man in America (1989); Tulsa Oil Capital of the World, Images of America (2004); Bird’s Eye Views: Historic Lithographs of North American Cities (1998).

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Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

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This Week in Petroleum History, December 9 to December 15

December 9, 1921 – GM Scientists discover Anti-Knock Properties of Leaded Gas

Leaded gas was good for engines, bad for people.

GM researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead. They had spent years examining properties of knock suppressors such as bromine and iodine. When tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) was added to gasoline of a one-cylinder engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared.

GM’s new leaded compound, which first went on sale on February 2, 1923, at a service station in Dayton, Ohio, proved vital during World War II. However, concerns about tetraethyl lead’s serious health dangers continued to grow. This resulted in its phase-out for use in cars beginning in 1976 (it is still used in modern aviation fuel).

Learn more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas.

December 9, 1924 – Bethel Oilfield adds to Oklahoma Drilling Boom

Another Oklahoma drilling boom began in the Seminole area following discovery of a giant oilfield. The Amerada Petroleum Company well uncovered the Bethel field and a new, highly prolific producing zone, the Wilcox sand. In October 1923, Joe Cromwell also had found a Seminole area oilfield with a well that produced 300 barrels of oil a day from about 3,500 feet deep. In March 1926, yet another discovery well opened the Earlsboro field, which was followed a few days days later by a well producing 1,100 barrels of oil a day from the Seminole City field. Learn more in Seminole Oil Boom.

December 10, 1844 – Pennsylvania couple adopt future “Coal Oil Johnny”

petroleum history december
John Washington Steele

A baby who would grow up to become famously known as “Coal Oil Johnny” was adopted by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele (adopted with his sister Permelia) was brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

The petroleum drilling boom prompted by Edwin L. Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – would lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in oil royalties. She left the money to Johnny when she died in 1864. At age 20, he inherited $24,500 and $2,800 a day in royalties.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele earned his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that the New York Times later reported: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3 million ($45 million in 2013 dollars) in less than a year.” Learn about his extraordinary life in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.

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