This Week in Petroleum History, August 21 – 27
August 21, 1897 – Olds Motor Vehicle Company founded.
American automotive pioneer Ransom Eli Olds (1864–1950) founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, Michigan. Renamed Olds Motor Works in 1899, the company became the first auto manufacturer established in Detroit.
“By 1901 Olds had built 11 prototype vehicles, including at least one of each power mode: steam, electricity and gasoline,” notes George May in R.E. Olds: Auto Industry Pioneer. “He was the only American automotive pioneer to produce and sell at least one of each mode of automobile.”
The modern assembly line concept also began with Olds, who used a stationary assembly line (Henry Ford would be the first to use a moving assembly line). Olds Motor Works sold the first mass-produced automobile, beginning in 1901. Also see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
August 24, 1892 – Gladys City Oil Company founded by “Prophet of Spindletop”
Patillo Higgins, who will become known as the “Prophet of Spindletop,” founded the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company 125 year ago.
Higgins, a self-taught geologist, and three partners leased 2,700 acres near Beaumont, Texas. He was convinced that an area known as “Big Hill” – Spindletop Hill – four miles south of Beaumont, contained oil. Almost all earth science experts said he was wrong.
Higgins had noticed oil and natural gas seeping on the hill while taking his Sunday school class on picnics. He later oversaw the planning of Gladys City, named for his favorite Sunday school student.
Although Higgins left his Gladys City venture in 1895, Capt. Anthony Lucas drilled the “Lucas Gusher” for the company in January 1901 and forever changed the petroleum industry. It would not be long before the Spindletop oilfield alone produced more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.
August 24, 1923 – University of Texas receives Royalty Check
The University of Texas received the first oil royalty payment ($516.53) three months after the Santa Rita No. 1 well discovered an oilfield on university-owned land in the Permian Basin.
After 21 months of difficult drilling, the Texon Oil and Land Company’s well had revealed the 4.5-square-mile Big Lake field. Within three years of the discovery, petroleum royalties endowed the university with $4 million.
In 1958, the university moved the Santa Rita well’s walking beam and other equipment to the Austin campus. A student newspaper described the historic well as “one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”
August 24, 1937 – Music Mountain Oil Discovery
No one had expected it, not even the Niagara Oil Company that drilled it, notes the Bradford Landmark Society about a 1937 gusher near Bradford, Pennsylvania in McKean County.
For the first time since oil strikes in the early days of the great Bradford field 70 years earlier, an exploratory well on Music Mountain erupted and revealed a new oilfield. The discovery was made at a depth of 1,630 feet, deeper than earlier wells.
The producing formation was beneath the older, highly prolific Bradford sands first discovered in the 1860s. The region’s high-paraffin oil is still considered among the highest grade natural lubricants in the world. One Bradford refinery (today’s American Refining Group) has been refining McKean County oil since 1881.
August 27, 1859 – U.S. Petroleum Industry begins
America’s petroleum industry was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Hired by the Seneca Oil Company, former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake and William Smith, a blacksmith, drilled America’s first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. It produced 25 barrels a day.
Although earlier “spring pole” and cable-tool drillers of brine wells had found small amounts of oil – an unwanted byproduct – Drake specifically drilled for it. His investors wanted to refine the oil into a highly demanded new product, kerosene.
Drilling at Oil Creek, Drake pioneered new drilling technologies, including a method of driving an iron pipe down to protect the bore’s integrity. But after five months of financial setbacks and drilling problems, the locals called the well “Drake’s Folly.” To improve his reputation, Connecticut investors addressed their letters to “Colonel” Edwin Drake.
On a late summer day in 1859, Edwin Drake’s driller “Uncle Billy” Smith noticed oil floating at the top of the pipe. The bit had reached what would become known as the First Venango Sand. To begin pumping the oil, Drake borrowed a kitchen water pump.
August 27, 1959 – Stamp celebrates Petroleum Centennial
“No official act could give me greater pleasure than to dedicate this stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry,” declared the keynote speaker in 1959.
U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield addressed a large crowd gathered for “Oil Centennial Day” in Titusville, Pennsylvania. During his introduction of the new four-cent commemorative postage stamp, he described the role of U.S. petroleum in war and peace.
“The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry,” Summerfield proclaimed. “It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.”
Fifty years later, the U.S. Postal Service Stamp Advisory Committee in 2009 rejected requests for a stamp recognizing the 150th anniversary of the U.S. petroleum industry. It earlier had granted commemorative stamps for Kermit the Frog and nine other Muppets. Learn more in the Centennial Oil Stamp Issue.
Recommended Reading: R.E. Olds: Auto Industry Pioneer (1977); Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery at Beaumont, Texas, in 1901 (2008); Santa Rita: The University of Texas Oil Discovery (1958); Growing Up In The Bradford Oil Fields (2008); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); Black Gold: The Philatelic History of Petroleum (1995).
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 calls in on the last Wednesday of each month. AOGHS welcomes sponsors to maintain this website and preserve U.S. petroleum heritage. Please support our energy education mission with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on levels and types of sponsorships. © 2017 Bruce A. Wells.