This Week in Petroleum History, July 8 – July 14
July 8, 1937 – Secretary of War approves Experimental Gulf of Mexico Oil Pier
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, approved an ambitious engineering plan to build a one-mile pier into the Gulf of Mexico to explore for oil. War Secretary Woodring signed off on an application to drill an exploratory well near McFaddin Beach, Texas, by the Humble Oil and Refining Company (later Texaco, thanks to a discovery at Sour Lake). The 60 acre lease was eight miles east of High Island in Galveston County. Humble Oil built the experimental pier with three drilling rigs, but found no oil. A hurricane destroyed the pier in 1938. Learn more at the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum.
July 9, 1815 – Early West Virginia Natural Gas Discovery
Natural gas was discovered accidentally by Capt. James Wilson during the digging of a salt brine well within the present city limits of Charleston, West Virginia (Virginia in 1815). Even earlier, a young surveyor, George Washington, had written about “burning springs” – petroleum seeps – to the north, along the Kanawha River. Awarded a land grant for his service in the French and Indian War, Washington acquired 250 acres along the river. He later explained he chose the location, “on account of a bituminous spring which it contains, of so inflammable a nature that it burns as freely as spirits.” In a history of West Virginia’s oil industry, Where it all Began, author David McKain concluded, “This was in 1771, making the father of our country the first petroleum industry speculator.”
July 9, 1883 – Finding Oil in the Land of Oz: L. Frank Baum’s Oil Business
The future author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz started a business selling petroleum products in Syracuse, New York. The store offered lubricants, oils, greases – and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”
L. Frank Baum – whose father had found success in early Pennsylvania oilfields – served as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which is still in operation.
Reporting on the opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper said Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The axle grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”
Baum’s connection to the petroleum industry began decades earlier when his father closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the oilfields. Although Baum sold the Castorine business in 1900, an Oz historian has researched company records in Rome, New York, and proclaimed that the Tin Man character began with Baum’s oil. Learn more in Oil in the Land of Oz.
July 11, 2008 – World Oil Price hits Historic High
The price of oil reached a record high of $147.27 a barrel before dropping back to $145.08. Prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange had peaked at $145.29 a barrel eight days earlier. As supply fears subsided, oil prices fell below $37 a barrel by January 2009. A survey of academic studies in 2016 found that major oil price fluctuations dating back to 1973 (the OPEC embargo) were largely a result of shifts in the demand for oil. In 2018, annual U.S. crude oil production reached a record level of 10.96 million barrels of oil per day, 17 percent higher than 2017 levels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
July 11, 2013 – Drop of Pitch drips After 69 Years
Physicists at Trinity College Dublin photographed a falling drip of pitch – “one of the most anticipated drips in science,” according to the journal Nature. It was considered one of the longest-running laboratory investigations in the world.
Set up in 1944, the pitch-drop experiment demonstrated the high viscosity (low fluidity) of pitch — a natural hydrocarbon also known as bitumen or asphalt that appears to be solid at room temperature, but is flowing extremely slowly.
“The Trinity College team has estimated the viscosity of the pitch by monitoring the evolution of this one drop, and puts it in the region of two million times more viscous than honey, or 20 billion times the viscosity of water, ” noted the Nature article. Also see Asphalt paves the Way.
July 12, 1934 – The Start of “Clark Super 100”
Two years after paying $14 cash for a closed, one-pump gas station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Emory Clark incorporated what would become the Clark Oil & Refining Corporation.
Clark set out to create a network of simplified filling stations that focused on selling premium gasoline only – delivering “Super 100 Premium Gasoline.” His marketing strategy was to omit common services like maintenance, engine repair, and tire changing. Sales reach $21.1 million in 1949, notes the Harvard Business School Baker Library.
By 1953 the company operated more than 150 service stations in the Midwest under the brand name “Clark Super 100.” In 1967 Clark purchased the large refinery at Wood River, Illinois, and three years later sold gas from 1,500 gas stations. In 1981, the Clark family sold their company holdings – which began with Emory T. Clark’s $14 purchase – to Missouri-based Apex Oil for $483 million.
Founded in 1997, the Wood River Refinery History Museum in Roxana, Illinois, includes exhibits that trace the refinery’s history since 1917.
July 14, 1863 – Diamond “Tool for Boring Rock”
French tunnel engineer Rodolphe Leschot in 1863 patented a “Tool for Boring Rock” – a ring of industrial-grade diamonds on the end of a tubular drill rod and designed to cut a cylindrical core. Water pumped through the drill rod washed away cuttings and cooled the bit.
Leschot’s system proved successful in drilling blast holes for tunneling Mount Cenis on the France-Italy border. By 1865, the use of diamond bits in oil well drilling was being examined in the petroleum regions of western Pennsylvania.
“It is not known if there is any connection between the 1865 experimental diamond core drilling in the Pennsylvania oil region and the Leschot blast hole drilling in France in 1863,” noted oil historian Samuel Pees in 2004. Learn more about Making Hole – Drilling Technology and visit Pennsylvania’s historic oil region and the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.
July 14, 1891 – Rockefeller expands Oil Tank Car Empire
John D. Rockefeller incorporated Union Tank Line Company in New Jersey in 1891. He transferred his fleet of several thousand oil tank cars to the Standard Oil Trust.
Rockefeller systematically acquired control of all but 200 of America’s 3,200 existing oil tank cars. By 1904, his rolling fleet of tank cars had grown to 10,000.
Union Tank Line Company shipped only Standard Oil products until 1911, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision mandated dissolution of his trust. The newly independent company changed its name to Union Tank Car Company – although its official rolling stock reporting mark retained Standard’s UTL or UTLX.
In 1963, the company introduced a 50,000-gallon car, the largest tank car to be employed in ongoing rail service. Learn more about the early days of transporting petroleum in Densmore Oil Tank Car.
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