This Week in Petroleum History, March 12 to March 18
March 12, 1912 – Tom Slick makes First of Many Oilfield Discoveries
Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” independent producer Thomas B. Slick discovered a giant oilfield on his way to becoming far better known as Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters. His No. 1 Wheeler uncovered the Drumright-Cushing oilfield, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak. Slick then began an 18-year streak of discovering some of America’s most prolific fields in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.
During the Greater Seminole Oil Boom, Slick secured leases and drilled successful wells in oilfields at Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole. The gushers often proved spectacular: No. 4 Eakin well – 10,000 barrels of oil per day; No. 1 Laura Endicott well – 4,500 barrels of oil per day; No. 1 Walker well – 5,000 barrels of oil per day; and No. 1 Franks well – 5,000 barrels of oil per day.
By 1929, Slick was the largest independent operator in the United States with a net worth up to $100 million. By 1930, in the Oklahoma City field alone, he completed 30 wells with the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of oil daily. Stories of his business acumen grew with his fortune. His death from a stroke in August 1930 at age 46 ended a remarkable oilfield career.
March 12, 1914 – Last Coal Powered U.S. Battleship Commissioned
The U.S.S. Texas, the last American battleship built with coal-fired boilers, was commissioned in 1914. Coal-burning boilers, which produced dense smoke and created tons of ash, required the Navy to maintain coaling stations worldwide. Coaling ship was a major undertaking and early battleships carried about 2,000 tons with a crew of “coal passers.”
Dramatic improvement in efficiency came when the Navy began adopting fuel oil boilers. By 1916, the Navy had commissioned its first two capital ships with oil-fired boilers, the U.S.S. Nevada and the U.S.S. Oklahoma. To resupply them, “oilers” were designed to transfer fuel while at anchor, although underway replenishment was soon possible in fair seas.
The U.S.S. Texas was converted to burn fuel oil in 1925. The “Big T” – today the Battleship Texas State Historic Site docked on the Houston Ship Channel – was the first battleship declared to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Learn more in Petroleum and Sea Power.
March 12, 1943 – Secret Mission sends Roughnecks to Sherwood Forest
A top-secret team of 42 American drillers, derrickmen, roustabouts, and motormen boarded the troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth. They were volunteers from two Oklahoma companies, Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling.
Their mission was to drill wells in England’s Sherwood Forest and help relieve the crisis caused by German submarines sinking Allied oil tankers. Four rotary drilling rigs were shipped on separate transport ships. One of the ships was sunk by a U-Boat.
With the future of Great Britain depending on petroleum supplies, the Americans used Yankee ingenuity to drill an average of one well per week. Their secret work added vital oil to fuel the British war effort. Read the little-known story of the Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.
March 12, 1968 – Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay Oilfield Discovered
Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered by Richfield Oil (ARCO) and Humble Oil Company (Exxon).
The Prudhoe Bay State No. 1 exploratory well arrived more than six decades after the first Alaska oil well. It followed Richfield Oil’s discovery of the Swanson River oilfield on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. At more than 213,000 acres, the Prudhoe Bay field was the largest oilfield in North America, surpassing the 140,000 acre East Texas oilfield discovery of October 1930.
Prudhoe Bay’s remote location prevented oil production beginning in earnest until 1977, after completion of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The field’s production exceeded an average rate of one million barrels of oil a day by March 1978, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It peaked in January 1987 at more than 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.
March 13, 1974 – OPEC ends Oil Embargo
A five-month oil embargo against the United States was lifted by Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel formed in 1960.
The embargo, imposed in response to America supplying the Israeli military during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, created gasoline shortages, prompting President Richard M. Nixon to propose and Congress approve voluntary rationing and a ban of gas sales on Sundays.
OPEC ended the embargo after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated an Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the Sinai.
March 14, 1909 – Lake View Gusher of California
The Lake View well in California’s Midway-Sunset oilfield erupted oil at dawn. The San Joaquin Valley had experienced a lot of gushers, including the Shamrock Gusher in 1896 and the 1909 Midway Gusher.
“But none of these wells came close to rivaling the Lakeview No. 1 which flowed, uncapped and untamed, at 18,000 barrels a day for 18 months in 1910 and 1911,” notes one San Joaquin Valley geologist.
The Lakeview No. 1 discovery, which became America’s most famous gusher after Spindletop Hill in 1901, was brought under control by October 1910. The “ram-type” blowout preventer to seal well pressure was invented in 1922.
March 16, 1914 – “Main Street” Oil Well completed
A well completed in 1914 produced oil from about 1,770 feet beneath Barnsdall, Oklahoma. Ripley’s Believe It or Not someday will proclaim the well the “World’s Only Main Street Oil Well.”
The Osage County town, originally called Bigheart for Osage Chief James Bigheart, was renamed in 1922 for Theodore Barnsdall, owner of the Barnsdall Refining Company, which today is a wax refinery owned by Baker Hughes, a GE Company. The well site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
March 17, 1890 – Sunoco begins in Ohio
The Peoples Natural Gas Company, founded four years earlier by Joseph Pew and Edward Emerson to provide natural gas to Pittsburgh, expanded to become the Sun Oil Company of Ohio.
At the turn of the century, the company had acquired promising leases near Findlay and entered the business of “producing petroleum, rock and carbon oil, transporting and storing same, refining, purifying, manufacturing such oil and its various products.”
In the 1920s, the company marketed Sunoco Motor Oil and opened service stations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It got in the oilfield equipment business in 1929, forming Sperry-Sun, a joint venture with Sperry Gyroscope. The Pew family established the Pew Charitable Trusts. Also see Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh.
March 17, 1923 – Discovery reveals Giant Oklahoma Oilfields
The Betsy Foster No. 1 well, a 2,800-barrel-a-day oil gusher near Wewoka, the county seat of Seminole County, Oklahoma, created a major Seminole area boom.
The discovery was followed by others in nearby Cromwell, Bethel (1924), Earlsboro and Seminole (1926) and other small towns south of Oklahoma City.
Thirty-nine separate oilfields were ultimately developed within a region centering on Seminole but also including parts of Pottawatomie, Okfuskee, Hughes and Pontotoc counties. Excessive oil production would drive prices to as low as 17 cents per barrel of oil.
March 17, 1949 – First Commercial Application of Hydraulic Fracturing
Experts from Halliburton and Stanolind companies converged on an oil well about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma, and performed the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing.
A 1947 experimental well had fractured a natural gas field in Hugoton, Kansas, and proven the possibility of increased productivity.
The technique was developed and patented by Stanolind (later known as Pan American Oil Company) and an exclusive license was issued to Halliburton Company to perform the process. Four years later, the license was extended to all qualified oilfield service companies.
“Since that fateful day in 1949, hydraulic fracturing has done more to increase recoverable reserves than any other technique,” proclaimed a Halliburton company spokesman in 2009, adding that more than two million fracturing treatments have been pumped without polluting an aquifer. The earliest attempts to increase a well’s petroleum production began in the 1860s (see Shooters – A ‘Fracking’ History). In 1921, Erle Halliburton patented an efficient well cementing technology that improved oil production while protecting the environment.
March 18, 1937 – New London School Explosion
With just minutes left in the school day, a natural gas explosion destroyed the New London High School in Rusk County, Texas.
Odorless gas (a residual natural gas called casinghead gas) had leaked into the basement and ignited with a force felt four miles away. East Texas oilfield workers – many with children attending the school – rushed to the scene, as did a cub reporter from Dallas, Walter Cronkite.
Despite desperate rescue efforts, 298 people were killed that day (dozens more later died of injuries).
The explosion’s source was later found to be an electric wood-shop sander that sparked odorless gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school. As a result of this disaster, Texas and other states passed laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to give early warning of a gas leak. Learn more about the tragedy in New London School Explosion.
Recommended Reading: “King of the Wildcatters:” The Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883-1930 (2004); Historic Battleship Texas: The Last Dreadnought (2007); The Secret of Sherwood Forest: Oil Production in England During World War II (1973); Discovery at Prudhoe Bay Oil (2008); San Joaquin Valley, California, Images of America (1999); A History of the Greater Seminole Oil Field (1981); The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy (2016); A Texas Tragedy: The New London School Explosion (2012).
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