This Week in Petroleum History, May 29-June 4
May 29, 1940 – Nebraska’s First Oil Well
After more than a half century of dry holes, Nebraska’s first commercial oil well was completed near Falls City in the far southeastern corner of the state.
Eager to become an oil-producing state, the legislature had offered a $15,000 bonus for the first well to produce 50 barrels of oil daily for two months. Pawnee Royalty Company completed the Bucholz No. 1 discovery well with production of about 170 barrels of oil a day in its first 60 days. The well was about five miles east of a “vein of petroleum” first reported by geologists in 1883. Nebraska petroleum production today is largely in the southwestern panhandle, where oil was found in 1949.
May 30, 1911 – First Indianapolis 500
The first Indianapolis 500 began with a 40-car field; only 12 finished the 1911 test of endurance and automotive technology. The winner averaged almost 75 mph after about about seven hours of racing.
All the cars – except the winning No. 32 Marmon Wasp – had two seats. Most drivers traveled with “riding mechanics,” who manually pumped oil. Ray Harroun, driver of the winning Wasp, would also develop a kerosene carburetor. “Let the fuel people fight it out amongst themselves, I’ll have a car soon that will burn anything they send,” he declares.
Created to showcase the new sport of automobile racing, early races emphasized engine endurance. Gasoline powered less than 1,000 of all U.S. cars just a decade before the first Indy 500. Learn more in Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show. Also learn about the natural gas fueled motor of the 1970’s Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car.
May 30, 1987 – Million Barrel Museum Opens in West Texas
The experimental concrete tank – 525 feet by 422 feet – was designed to hold more than a million barrels of oil. The highly productive West Texas region lacked oil pipelines. The tank’s 30 foot earthen walls sloped at a 45-degree angle and were covered in concrete. It included a roof made of California redwood. But repeated efforts could not stop oil from leaking at seams. Shell eventually abandoned the giant structure, which would be patched to briefly become a water park in the 1950s – until it leaked again.
June 1, 1860 – First U.S. Petroleum Book published
Less than a year after Edwin Drake’s historic discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Thomas Gale published an 80-page pamphlet many regard as the first book about America’s petroleum resources. The 1860 Rock Oil, The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere described the new fuel source for illumination.
“Those who have not seen it burn, may rest assured its light is no moonshine; but something nearer the clear, strong, brilliant light of day,” Gale declared. “In other words, rock oil emits a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world; a light fit for Kings and Royalists, and not unsuitable for Republicans and Democrats.”
June 1, 1940 – Dallas Artist depicts Texas Oil Patch
Artist Jerry Bywaters of Paris, Texas, exhibited his newly completed Oil Field Girls in the Fine Arts Palace of San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. The 1940 painting of two young women framed in the booming West Texas oil patch would become one of Bywaters’ best known works.
Almost 70 artists, including famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, participated in the “Art in Action” exhibition. Oil Field Girls would move on to the Dallas Museum of Art and eventually into the collection of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.
Bywater’s oil-on-board painting’s companion piece, Oil Rig Workers (Roughnecks), was also painted in 1940.
June 2, 1908 – Goose Creek Oilfield discovered
The first offshore drilling for oil in Texas occurred along Goose Creek in Harris County, 21 miles southeast of Houston on Galveston Bay, according to historian Priscilla Myers Benham. Two years earlier, a local land owner had noticed bubbles on the surface of the water where the creek emptied into the bay (he used a match to confirm the bubbles were natural gas).
Goose Creek Production Company – a Houston syndicate of investors – drilled on the marsh of the bay and found oil at 1,600 feet, Benham notes in her 2010 article, Goose Creek Oilfield. Within days the syndicate sold out to a subsidiary of the Texas Company, the future Texaco. Drilling an experimental well near Goose Creek on June 1, 1909, Howard Hughes Sr. would secretly test his new dual-cone roller rock bit that would soon allow oilmen to tap into previously unreachable oil reserves. Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
June 3, 1979 – Bay of Campeche Oil Spill
Drilling in about 150 of water, the semi-submersible rig Sedco 135 suffered a devastating blow out about 50 miles off Mexico’s Gulf Coast. State-owned company Pemex succeeded in reducing the flow to about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, but the well spilled 3.4 million barrels of oil before being brought under control with two relief wells nine months later.
Considering the size of the oil spill, its environmental impact was limited, according to a 1981 report by the Coordinated Program of Ecological Studies in the Bay of Campeche. “Nature played the biggest role in attacking the slicks as they floated across the Gulf. Ultraviolet light broke down the oil as it crept toward land. So did oil-eating microorganisms. Hot temperatures spurred evaporation.” The category-four Hurricane Federic at the end of August also helped disperse the oil.
June 4, 1892 – Floods and Fires devastate Oil Region
After weeks of heavy rain in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek Valley, a dam on Oil Creek burst, sending torrents of water that killed more than 100 people and destroyed homes and businesses in Titusville and Oil City. The disaster was compounded when fires broke out.
“This city during the past twenty-four hours has been visited by one of the most appalling fires and overwhelming floods in the history of this country” reported the New York Times. Oilfield photographer John Mather, whose studio and 16,000 glass-plate negatives would be destroyed, documented the devastation. When Mather died in 1915, the Drake Well Memorial Association purchased his surviving negatives. Today, the Drake Well Museum preserves this rare record of America’s early petroleum industry.
June 4, 1872 – New York Chemist invents Petroleum Jelly
Robert A. Chesebrough patented “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he named “Vaseline.” His June 4, 1872, patent proclaimed the virtues of this purified extract of petroleum distillation residue as a lubricant, hair treatment, and balm for chapped hands.
Earlier, when the 22-year-old chemist visited the new Pennsylvania oilfields in 1865, he had noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead. The only virtue of this “rod wax” was as an immediately available “first aid” for the abrasions, burns and other wounds routinely afflicting oilfield drilling crews.
Chesebrough returned to New York, where he began working in his laboratory to purify the oil well goop, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.” He experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his new product.
Chesebrough’s female customers soon found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline made an impromptu mascara. In 1913, Miss Mabel Williams employed just such a concoction. Her idea helped create a giant company, see A Crude History Maybelline Cosmetics.
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