This Week in Petroleum History, March 18 to March 24
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.
March 20, 1919 – API 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. In 1921, API established a scale to measure a petroleum liquid’s density relative to water, called API gravity. Today based in Washington, D.C., API represents the largest integrated oil and natural gas companies. The group maintains standards and recommended practices while lobbying for the industry.
March 20, 1973 – Historic Oil Ghost Town
The former oil boom town of Pithole, Pennsylvania, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 1865 discovery of the Pithole Creek oilfield launched a drilling boom for the young U.S. petroleum industry, which had begun in nearby Titusville in 1859. Pithole 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 Director of U.S. Geological Survey
President James Garfield appointed John Wesley Powell director of the United States Geological Survey. Today considered by the American Geosciences Institute to be one of the pioneers who laid the foundation for modern earth science research, Powell would lead USGS for more than a decade.
Born in 1834 at Mount Morris, New York, Powell was a Union officer during the Civil War; he was severely wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After the war he became highly regarded as an explorer, ethnologist, geologist, and geographer, notes AGI. Powell organized early surveys in the West before helping to establish USGS in 1879.
“In the spring of 1869, the one-armed Civil War veteran led an expedition down the Colorado River into a great, unknown, uncharted territory,” AGI reports. “Ninety-nine days later, after one of the most daring journeys in American history, John Wesley Powell emerged from the Grand Canyon to become a contemporary American hero.”
Powell championed national mapping standards and a 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,” he proclaimed to Congress in 1884.
March 23, 1858 – Seneca Oil Company founded
Investors from New Haven, Connecticut, organized the Seneca Oil Company with former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake a shareholder. They had purchased leases of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, America’s first oil company founded with partner George Bissell in 1854.
Bissell, who exploited the idea of using oil to produce kerosene, was excluded despite having studied oil seeps south of Titusville. “The New Haven men then put the final piece of their plan into place with the formation of a new company,” notes William Brice in Myth Legend Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.
Seneca Oil and Drake completed the First American Oil Well in 1859 – thanks to knowledge gained from George Bissell’s Oil Seeps. Both Drake and Bissell would later be called the father of the U.S. petroleum industry.
March 24, 1989 – Supertanker Exxon Valdez runs Aground in Price William Sound
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.
Eight of the supertanker’s 11 oil cargo tanks were punctured. An estimated 260,000 barrels of oil spilled, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. With the captain not present on the bridge, an error in navigation by the third mate had grounded the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload. Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely passed through Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times.
When the 987-foot-long 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,” explains the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s 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.”
A lengthy, massive cleanup began for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (the infamous vessel was sold for scrap in 2012). As a result of the accident, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandated that all new tankers be built with double hulls, requiring the phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters by 2015.
A Texas Tragedy: The New London School Explosion (2012); Oil Boom Architecture: Titusville, Pithole, and Petroleum Center, Images of America (2008); The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey (2017); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011).
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