This Week in Petroleum History, December 25 to December 31
December 26, 1905 – Nellie Bly’s Ironclad Patent of the 55-Gallon Metal Barrel
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
Three days after Christmas in 1930, a major oil discovery on the farm of the widow Lou Della Crim revealed the extent of the mighty East Texas oilfield.
Some said a gypsy predicted the oil discovery for J. Malcolm Crim. Others claimed it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman. For whatever reason, following the first discovery of oil in East Texas in early October, Malcolm Crim believed there was more to be found near Kilgore. He ignored geologists who claimed the Kilgore area was barren. On October 17 he began drilling on land belonging to his mother. The well that produced a gusher on December 28 is named Lou Della Crim No. 1.
His discovery well, which initially produced 20,000 barrels per day, indicated the East Texas oilfield was a giant. One month later and 15 miles to the north, the Lathrop No. 1, indeed proved the oilfield extended more than 480 square miles. Learn more in Lou Della Crim Revealed.
December 30, 1854 – America’s First Petroleum Company incorporates
America’s first oil company – the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company – incorporated in 1854. George Bissell, Jonathan Eveleth and five other trustees formed the company in Albany, New York, capitalized at $250,000. Struggling to attract wealthy investors, they reorganized it in September 1855.
The “Wall Street Panic” of 1857 rendered control of the company to New Haven financier Robert Townsend, who then incorporated the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in March 1858.
Oil was expected to be found near Oil Creek on the 105 acre Hibbard Farm in Venango County, Pennsylvania. Townsend hired an acquaintance, former railroad man Edwin L. Drake, to manage the drilling on the Hibbard Farm lease. Drilling proved expensive and time consuming; locals called the company’s investment “Drake’s Folly.”
But on August 27, 1859, Drake’s discovery well near Titusville marked the birth of the American oil industry. This Pennsylvania well launched the first U.S. oil company. Many others soon followed to likewise “raise, manufacture, procure and sell Rock Oil.” Also see George Bissell’s Oil Seeps.
December 31, 1954 – Dry Hole sets California Drilling Depth Record
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.
In a 1954 article about deep drilling technology, The Petroleum Engineer noted the Kern County well of Ohio Oil set a record, despite being “halted by a fishing job” and ending up as a dry hole.
Another 1953 Kern County well drilled by Richfield Oil Corporation produced oil from 17,895 feet, according to the magazine. The average cost for the nearly 100 U.S. wells drilled below 15,000 feet was about $550,000 per well. More than 630 exploratory wells were drilled in California during 1954.
Founded in 1887, the Ohio Oil Company in 1926 discovered the giant Yates oilfield in the Permian Basin of New Mexico and West Texas. The company later purchased its Yates field drilling partner Transcontinental Oil, acquiring the Marathon product name and Greek runner trademark (see Marathon of Ohio Oil). To learn more deep drilling history, see Anadarko Basin in Depth.
Recommended Reading: Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994); The Black Giant: A History of the East Texas Oil Field and Oil Industry Skulduggery & Trivia (2003); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); Portrait in Oil: How Ohio Oil Company Grew to Become Marathon (1962).
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