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. “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,” Powell testified to Congress in 1884.

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 Edwin Drake biography

Learn more in George Bissell’s Oil Seeps

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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.

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 in known as “Wild Mary Sudik.” 

March 27, 1999 – Offshore Platform Rocket Launch Test

The Ocean Odyssey, a converted semi-submersible drilling platform, launched a Russian rocket to place a demonstration satellite into geostationary orbit. The Zenit-3SL rocket, fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket fuel, was part of Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway. On October 9, the first commercial payload reached orbit from the offshore platform, once used by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) for North Sea exploration. The Sea Launch consortium provided orbital launch services until 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.

Learn more in Offshore Rocket launcher.

March 27, 1855 – Canadian Chemist trademarks Kerosene

Canadian physician and chemist Abraham Gesner patented a process to distill coal into kerosene. “I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he proclaimed. Because his new illuminating fluid was extracted from coal, consumers called it “coal oil” as often as kerosene.

petroleum history march 21

A Canadian March 2000 stamp featured kerosene’s inventor.

Gesner, considered the father of Canada’s petroleum industry, in 1842 established the country’s first natural history museums, the New Brunswick Museum, which today houses one of Canada’s oldest geological collections.

The U.S. petroleum industry began when it was learned that crude oil could be distilled as a lamp fuel (and much later, rockets). With new oilfields discovered in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, inexpensive kerosene became America’s main source of light. 

Learn more in Camphene to Kerosene Lamps.

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March 27, 1975 – First Pipe laid for Trans-Alaskan Pipeline

With the laying of the first section of pipe in Alaska, construction began on the largest private construction project in American history at the time. Recognized as a landmark of engineering, the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, including pumping stations and the Valdez Marine Terminal, would cost $8 billion by the time it was completed in 1977.

Learn more in Trans-Alaska Pipeline History.


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); Amazing Pipeline Stories: How Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Transformed Life in America’s Last Frontier (1997). 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 © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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