This Week in Petroleum History, July 24 – 30
July 25, 1543 – First Report of Oil in New World
Spanish explorers for the first time documented petroleum in the New World after a Gulf of Mexico storm forced their brigs to land west of the Sabine River in modern-day Texas.
“The vessels came together in a creek where lay the two brigantines that preceded them, finding a scum the sea cast up, called Copee, which is like pitch and used instead on shipping where that is not to be had, they paved the bottoms of their vessels with it,” noted an account published in 1557.
Don Luis de Moscoso led the expedition after succeeding Hernando de Soto, who had died of fever after crossing the Mississippi River two years earlier. Oil seeps in the region continued as late as 1903. Learn more about the natural seeps in Discovering the La Brea “Tar Pits.”
July 27, 1918 – First Concrete Oil Tanker launched
America’s first concrete vessel designed to carry oil, the Socony, was launched from its shipyard on Flushing Bay, New York. The barge was 98 feet long with a 32 foot beam. Built for the Standard Oil Company of New York, the ship drew nine feet with a cargo of 370 tons.
“Bulk oil is carried in six center and two wing compartments, which have been oil-proofed by a special process,” explained the journal Cement and Engineering News. “Eight-inch cast iron pipe lines lead to each compartment and the oil pump is located on a concrete pump room aft.”
Interest in building concrete tankers had declined by 1930, when innovative electric arc-welding technologies helped construct an oil products tanker for the Texas Company (Texaco), according to Zachary Liollio. (See “The M/S Carolinian: The First Welded Commercial Vessel,” TICCIH Bulletin No. 77, 3rd Quarter 2017, page 13).
July 28, 1924 – Oil Scouts organize
The National Oil Scouts Association of America (today the International Oil Scouts Association) filed its charter in Austin, Texas. With a large number of landmen by 1940, it was renamed “National Oil Scouts and Landman’s Association” until landmen formed their own association in 1955, today’s American Association of Professional Landmen.
Oil scouts had gathered field intelligence on drilling operations since the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry in 1859. They recorded details about the location, lease, depth of well, formations encountered, logs, and other data, which could yield a competitive advantage.
James Tennent, author of The Oil Scouts – Reminiscences of the Night Riders of the Hemlocks, proclaimed in 1915 that scouts “saved the general trade thousands and millions by holding market manipulators in check.” Learn more in Scouts – Oil Patch Detectives.
July 28, 1977 – Prudhoe Bay Oil reaches Port of Valdez
The first barrel of oil from the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield arrived at the Port of Valdez after a 38 day, 800 mile journey through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. By 2010, the 48-inch-wide pipeline carried about 16 billion barrels of oil. Learn more about this engineering feat in Trans-Alaska Pipeline History.
July 29, 1918 – “World’s Wonder Oilfield” discovered in Burkburnett, Texas
A wildcat well struck oil on S.L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on the Red River. By June 1919 there were more than 850 producing wells in what was soon called “the world’s wonder oilfield.”
The North Texas exploration and production frenzy made Burkburnett famous – two decades before “Boom Town,” the popular 1940 movie it would inspire.
The Fowler well was completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, a small town founded in 1907 (originally called Nesterville, the town was renamed after President Theodore Roosevelt went wolf hunting along the Red River with local rancher Samuel Burk Burnett).
Once called “Fowler’s Folly” by some, the 1918 well brought an oil boom to Wichita County. A line of derricks two-miles long greeted Burkburnett visitors. Combined with earlier discoveries in Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917), North Texas oil helped end oil shortages during World War I and allowed the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.”
At the time of the 1918 Burkburnett oil boom, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout working in oilfields near Bigheart, Oklahoma. In 1940 he would star in the MGM movie. Learn more in “Boom Town” Burkburnett. Also see Sunshine State Oil & Refining Company.
July 29, 1957 – Eisenhower limits Imports
As America’s reliance on foreign oil grew, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established a Voluntary Oil Import Program with import quotas by region. He wanted to ensure domestic petroleum supplies were available in case of national emergency. Two years later, Eisenhower replaced the voluntary program with a mandatory one that continued until suspended by President Richard Nixon in 1973 as domestic oil production reached new highs and the Arab oil embargo began.
July 30, 1942 – U-Boat sinks in Gulf of Mexico
The U-166 becomes the only U-boat sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. Just hours earlier it had torpedoed the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee. Despite being depth charged by a Navy escort, the U-boat was believed to have escaped – until petroleum company surveys revealed it did not.
The original 1986 geophysical survey in the Gulf’s Mississippi Canyon area had found two shipwrecks thought to be freighters. The Robert E. Lee was correctly identified, but the U-166’s identity was not learned until improved survey technologies in 2001, notes a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The discovery resulted from an archaeological survey prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline by BP and Shell Offshore Inc.
An autonomous underwater vehicle using side scan sonar revealed the U-166 separated from Robert E. Lee by less than a mile. As a result of the discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site.
Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys. The industry remains a principle user of advanced underwater technologies for seafloor mapping. Learn more in Petroleum Survey discovers U-Boat.
Recommended Reading: Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685 (1985); The Oil Scouts – Reminiscences of the Night Riders of the Hemlocks (1986); Wildcatters: Texas Independent Oilmen (1984); Eisenhower: Soldier and President (1968); Torpedoes in the Gulf: Galveston and the U-Boats, 1942-1943 (1995).
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