April 17, 1861 – Oil Well Fire Tragedy in Pennsylvania – 

The early lack of technology for controlling wells led to a fatal oil well fire at Rouseville, Pennsylvania. Among the 19 people killed was leading citizen Henry Rouse, who had subleased the land along Oil Creek. When his well erupted oil from a depth of just 320 feet, the good news attracted most Rouseville residents.

“Henry Rouse and the others stood by wondering how to control the phenomenon,” noted the local newspaper. Then the gusher erupted into flames, perhaps ignited by a steam-engine boiler.

Circa 1861 painting  “Burning Oil Well at Night” painting of Rouseville tragedy.

“Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” a painting by James Hamilton, circa 1861, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

The oilfield tragedy near Titusville would be overshadowed by the Civil War, but it was immortalized in 1861 by Philadelphia artist James Hamilton’s “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” which was added to the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection in 2017.

Learn more in Fatal 1861 Rouseville Oil Well Fire.

April 17, 1919 – North Texas Burkburnett Boom grows

Another major drilling boom began in Wichita County, Texas, when the Bob Waggoner Well No. 1 well began producing 4,800 barrels of oil a day. One year earlier, a well on the Burkburnett farm of S.L. Fowler had brought hundreds of drillers to the Red River town. The county had been producing oil since 1912,  when a shallow well drilled for water found oil instead.

A Burkburnett historical marker today notes the 1919 oil discovery, “became known as the Northwest Extension Oilfield, comprised of approximately 27 square miles on the former S. Burk Burnett Wild Horse Ranch.” The marker adds that “the area was suddenly thick with oil derricks.” 

Learn more in Boom Town Burkburnett.

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April 18, 1939 – Patent for perforating Well Casing

Ira McCullough of Los Angeles patented a multiple bullet-shot casing perforator and mechanical firing system. He explained the object of his oilfield invention was “to provide a device for perforating casing after it has been installed in a well in which projectiles or perforating elements are shot through the casing and into the formation.”

Ira McCullough's 1937 patent drawing for perforating wells.

Ira McCullough’s 1937 patent drawing for perforating wells.

The innovation of simultaneous firing from several levels in the borehole greatly enhanced the flow of oil. McCullough’s device included a “disconnectable means” that rendered percussion inoperative until the charges were lowered into the borehole, acting as “a safeguard against accidental or inadvertent operation.”

Another inventor, Henry Mohaupt, in 1951 would use World War II anti-tank technology to improve the concept by using a conically hollowed-out explosive for perforating wells.

Learn more in Downhole Bazooka.

April 19, 1892 – First U.S. Gasoline Powered Automobile

Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea test drove a gasoline powered automobile they had built in their Springfield, Massachusetts, workshop. Considered the first model to be regularly manufactured for sale in the United States, 13 were produced by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Other manufacturers followed the brothers’ example.

The Duryea brothers in their pioneering auto.

The Duryea brothers (above) built their cars in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In March 1896, the Duryea brothers sold their first Duryea motor wagon. It was reported two months later that in New York City a motorist driving a Duryea hit a bicyclist – reportedly the nation’s first recorded automobile traffic accident. By the time of the first U.S. automobile show in November 1900 at Madison Square Garden, of the 4,200 automobiles sold in the United States, gasoline powers less than 1,000.

April 20, 1875 – Improved Well Pumping Technology

Pumping multiple wells with a single steam engine boosted efficiency in early oilfields when Albert Nickerson and Levi Streeter of Venango County, Pennsylvania, patented their “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells.” The new technology used a system of linked and balanced walking beams to pump oil wells.

Patent drawing for 1875 “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells."

U.S. oilfield technologies advanced in 1875 with an “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells.”

“By an examination of the drawing it will be seen that the walking-beam to well No. l is lifting or raising fluid from the well. Well No. 3 is also lifting, while at the same time wells 2 and 4 are moving in an opposite direction, or plunging, and vice versa,” the inventors explained. Their system was the forerunner of rod-line (or jerk line) eccentric wheel systems that operated into the 20th century using iron rods instead of rope and pulleys.

Learn more in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.

April 20, 1892 – Prospector discovers Los Angeles City Oilfield

The giant Los Angeles oilfield was discovered when a struggling prospector, Edward Doheny, and his mining partner Charles Canfield drilled into the tar seeps between Beverly Boulevard and Colton Avenue. Their well produced about 45 barrels of oil a day.

Artfully camouflaged petroleum production continues today in downtown Los Angeles.

Artfully camouflaged petroleum production continues today in downtown Los Angeles. Edward Doheny discovered the oilfield in 1892. Photo courtesy the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Culver City, California.

Although the first California oil well had been drilled after the Civil War, Doheny’s 1892 discovery near present-day Dodger Stadium launched California’s petroleum industry. In 1897, about 500 Los Angeles City wells pumped more than half of the state’s annual production of 1.2 million barrels of oil. By 1925, California supplied half of all the world’s oil.

Learn more in Discovering Los Angeles Oilfields.

April 20, 2010 – Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Disaster

At 10 a.m., while completing a well in the Macondo Prospect, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 and injuring another 17 workers. An estimated 3.2 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico after the platform’s 400-ton blowout preventer failed, resulting in the largest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history.

April 2010 image of burning offshore platform Deepwater Horizon.

The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire killed 11 and injured 17 workers. USGS Photo.

Six months earlier at another site, the advanced, semi-submersible drilling rig had set a world record for the deepest offshore well (35,050 feet vertical depth in 4,130 feet of water). When the Macondo Prospect well was capped in mid-July, a National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling launched an eight-month investigation. The commission released its final report on January 11, 2011.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

April 21, 1967 – GM celebrates its 100 Millionth Car

The world’s largest automaker, General Motors (GM), celebrated its 100 millionth American-made car. The company was established in 1908, in Flint, Michigan, by William Durant, a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages. Durant also founded Chevrolet Motor Company, which became part of GM in 1916, along with many other auto companies. After World War II, GM was the first American corporation to pay more than $1 billion in taxes, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

April 22, 1926 – Osage Oil Lease Auctioneer Statue dedicated

A statue commemorating the friendship between Colonel E.E. Walters and Osage Indian Chief Baconrind (phonetically, Wah-she-hah) was dedicated in Walters’ hometown of Skedee, Oklahoma.

Beginning in 1912, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters (his real name) and the popular Chief of the Osage Nation raised millions of dollars for the tribe from mineral lease sales.

Skedee, Oklahoma, 1926 statue of a famed auctioneer and Osage chief

The town of Skedee, Oklahoma, has declined in population, but its 1926 statue of a famed auctioneer and Osage chief remains. Photo by Bruce Wells.

The auctions took place beneath an elm tree at the Tribal Council House in Pawhuska, where crowds gathering to witness bidding from Frank Phillips, E.W. Marland and William Skelly. The Skedee unveiling revealed “painted bronze” statues of Walters and the Chief Baconrind shaking hands on a sandstone base. 

Learn more in Million Dollar Auctioneer

April 22, 1930 – Marland unveils Pioneer Woman

One block from his mansion in Ponca City, Ernest Whitworth “E.W.” Marland unveiled The Pioneer Woman statue, his gift to the state to honor the role of women who settled there. A Pioneer Woman Museum opened nearby in 1958. 

“Marland invited sculptors to submit competitive designs in the form of small models,” notes the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). “The models were exhibited across the nation and 750,000 people cast their vote.” The 17-foot bronze cast was erected at a cost of $300,000.

Ponca City's Pioneer Woman statue. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

More than 40,000 gathered in Ponca City for the unveiling of The Pioneer Woman, a 17-foot bronze statue. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.

Marland had lost a fortune in the Pennsylvania oilfields during the panic of 1907 before founding Marland Oil in Ponca City in 1917. An early advocate of using seismography and core drilling for finding oil, by 1920 Marland’s company controlled an estimated 10 percent of the world’s oil production.

April 23, 1878 – Oil Exchange Building opened in Pennsylvania

The Oil Exchange of Oil City, Pennsylvania, opened a new, $100,000 brick building on Seneca Street. Independent producers began meeting there to trade oil and pipeline certificates. They had earlier gathered at local hotels or along Oil City’s Centre Street, then known as the “Curbside Exchange.”

petroleum history april

By 1877, Pennsylvania oil companies had created the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America, behind only New York and San Francisco. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Before the 1870s, most Pennsylvania oil buyers had taken on-site delivery of oil in wooden barrels they provided themselves. A rapidly growing oil pipeline infrastructure created the need for a place to trade certificates as oil commerce expanded. The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey would bring an end to Pennsylvania’s highly speculative oil-trading markets.

Learn more in End of Oil Exchanges.


Recommended Reading: Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Industry in Pennsylvania (2000); Wireline: A History of the Well Logging and Perforating Business in the Oil Fields (1990); The First Cars – Famous Firsts (2014); Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (2001); The Osage Oil Boom (1989). 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 (AOGHS) 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 bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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