March 16, 1914 – “Main Street” Oil Well completed

A well completed in 1914 produced oil from about 1,770 feet beneath Barnsdall, Oklahoma. The popular TV program Ripley’s Believe It or Not would proclaim the well the “World’s Only Main Street Oil Well.”

March oil history image of oil pump in main street of Barndsall, OK

An oil well pump in the middle of Main Street in Barnsdall, Osage County, Oklahoma, was drilled in 1914. Photo by Bruce Wells.

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

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.

petroleum history images of Sun Oil logo evolution

Sun Oil Company brands from 1894 to 1920 (top) and 1920 to 1954.

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 in 1948 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

petroleum history march rare photo of first hydraulic fracture of oil well

The first commercial hydraulic fracturing job (above) took place in 1949 about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy Halliburton.

A team 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.

March 18, 1937 – New London School Explosion Tragedy

Photo of March 1937 gas explosion at New London, Texas, school

Roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield rushed to the school and searched for survivors throughout the night. Photo courtesy New London Museum.

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 an explosion heard 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 – 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. 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 – Ghost Town recognized as Historic in Pennsylvania

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 USGS Director

petroleum history march John Wesley Powell at his desk

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

President James Garfield appointed John Wesley Powell director of the United States Geological Survey. Today considered by the American Geosciences Institute among 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 a highly regarded ethnologist, geologist, and geographer. 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.

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Recommended Reading: 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).

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Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. 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. Contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

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