This Week in Petroleum History, March 11 to March 17
March 11, 1829 – Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well
Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty in 1829 found an oilfield only 171 feet deep. Some historians consider this the earliest commercial oil well in North America.
Beatty, an experienced salt driller from Pennsylvania, had drilled brine wells to meet growing demand from settlers needing the dried salt to preserve food. He bored his wells by percussion drilling – raising and dropping a chisel from a sapling, an ancient technology for making hole.
According to historian Sheldon Baugh, prior to the Cumberland County oilfield discovery, Beatty first found oil in a McCreary County brine well in 1819. That well “provided very little of the useless stuff” and was soon forgotten. The historian described the scene of Beatty’s oil well of March 11, 1829: On that day, well-driller Beatty bragged to bystanders “Today I’ll drill her into salt or else to Hell.” When the gusher erupted he apparently thought he’d succeeded in hitting “hell”! As the story goes “he ran off into the hills and didn’t come back.”
A later newspaper account reported Beatty’s well was neglected for years, “until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities.” Oil from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well eventually found its way to Pittsburgh, where Samuel Kier bottled and sold it as medicine. He would later refine kerosene from oil produced from the first commercial U.S. oil well.
March 11, 1930 – Society of Exploration Geophysicists founded
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists was founded by 30 men and women in Houston as the Society of Economic Geophysicists. Based in Tulsa since the mid-1940s, SEG fosters “the expert and ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources.”
SEG began publishing the award-winning journal Geophysics in 1936 and in 1958 formed a trust to provide scholarships for students of geophysics. The society in 2018 had more than 20,000 members in 128 countries.
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. Slick’s sudden 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 – Lakeview Gusher of California
The Lakeview 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 1911. 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
A team of 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 (learn more in Shooters – A ‘Fracking’ History).
In 1921, Erle Halliburtonn had patented an efficient well cementing technology that improved oil production while protecting the environment.
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