March 20, 1919 – American Petroleum Institute founded – 

Tracing its roots to World War I when the petroleum industry and Congress worked together to fuel the war effort, the American Petroleum Institute (API) was founded in New York City. Within two years, the organization had improved an 1876 French scale to measure petroleum density relative to water — a standard later adopted and called API gravity. Based in Washington, D.C. since 1969, API has represented the interests of major oil and natural gas companies while maintaining standards and recommended industry practices.

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March 20, 1973 – Ghost Town recognized as Historic in Pennsylvania

The once famous oil boom town of Pithole, Pennsylvania, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. An 1865 oilfield discovery at Pithole Creek launched a drilling boom for the early U.S. petroleum industry, which had begun six years earlier in nearby Titusville. Pithole’s oil production would lead to construction of the nation’s first oil pipeline. From beginning to end, the once famous boom town lasted about 500 days.

Learn more in Oil Boom at Pithole Creek.

March 21, 1881 – Earth Scientist becomes USGS Director – 

President James Garfield appointed John Wesley Powell director of the United States Geological Survey, a scientific agency established two years earlier. Powell, who led USGS for the next decade, laid the foundations for modern earth science research.

John Wesley Powell, director of the United States Geological Survey, sits at his desk

John Wesley Powell at his desk in Washington, D.C., in 1896. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Born in 1834 at Mount Morris, New York, Powell was a Union officer during the Civil War, where he lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, he became a respected geologist and expedition leader, organized early surveys in the West, and helped establish USGS in 1879.

Powell advocated national the mapping standards and geodetic system still in use today. In 1884, Powell testified to Congress, “A Government cannot do any scientific work of more value to the people at large than by causing the construction of proper topographic maps of the country.” 

March 23, 1858 – Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company reorganizes as Seneca Oil

Investors from New Haven, Connecticut, organized the Seneca Oil Company with $300,000 in capital after purchasing the Titusville leases of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, which had been founded in 1854 by George Bissell.

Rare photo of Seneca Oil Company stock certificate

Seneca Oil drilled the first U.S. well. Image courtesy William Brice/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Collection.

Bissell, who had investigated oil seeps south of Titusville, originated the idea of producing and refining oil to make kerosene lamp fuel. The New Haven investors nevertheless excluded him from the new company. “The New Haven men then put the final piece of their plan into place with the formation of a new company,” noted oil historian William Brice, PhD, in his 2009 biography of Edwin L. Drake

Learn more in George Bissell’s Oil Seeps.

March 24, 1989 – Supertanker Exxon Valdez runs Aground 

The Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The accident, which came after nearly 12 years of routine oil tanker passages through Prince William Sound, resulted in a massive oil spill. Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely passed through the sound more than 8,700 times.

Eight of the Exxon Valdez’s 11 oil tanks were punctured and an estimated 260,000 barrels of oil spilled, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Investigators later found that an error in navigation by the third mate, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload, had caused the accident.

Tugs pull the Exxon Valdez with gash visible.

Shown being towed away from Bligh Reef, the Exxon Valdez had been outside shipping lanes when it ran aground in March 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

When the 987-foot tanker hit the reef that night, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” noted the Alaska Oil Spill Commission report. “At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system

As result of the accident and spill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandated that all new tankers be built with double hulls and required the phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters. The Exxon Valdez was sold for scrap in 2012. 

Learn more in Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

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March 26, 1930 – Oklahoma City’s “Wild Mary Sudik” makes Headlines

What would become one of Oklahoma’s most famous wells struck a high-pressure formation about 6,500 feet beneath Oklahoma City and oil erupted skyward. The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s Mary Sudik No. 1 well flowed for 11 days before being brought under control. It produced about 20,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas daily — becoming a worldwide sensation.

 Oklahoma City oilfield panorama of “Wild Mary Sudik” oil gusher.

Highly pressured natural gas from the Wilcox formation proved difficult to control in the prolific Oklahoma City oilfield. Within a week of a 1930 gusher, Hollywood newsreels of it appeared in theaters across America. Photo courtesy Oklahoma History Center.

Efforts to control the well in Oklahoma City’s prolific oilfield (discovered in December 1928) were featured in movie newsreels and on radio broadcasts. It was later learned that after drilling more than a mile deep, dangerously high well pressure spiked.

“The exhausted crew failed to fill the hole with mud,” noted Michael Dean in an audio program of the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. “They didn’t know the Wilcox Sand formation was permeated with natural gas under high pressure, and within minutes that sand under so much pressure found a release.”

march petroleum history map of Kklahoma City oilfield in 1940s

Circa 1940s map of the Oklahoma City oilfield.

Although the first ram-type blowout preventer (BOP) had been patented by James Abercrombie in 1926, many high-pressure oilfields would take time to tame.

Learn more about the well that became known as “Wild Mary Sudik.” 


Recommended Reading:  The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey (2017). The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Oil Lamps The Kerosene Era In North America (1978); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); The Oklahoma Petroleum Industry (1980). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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