This Week in Petroleum History, November 12 to November 18
November 12, 1899 – Newspaper features Mrs. Alford and her Nitro Factory
An 1899 article in the New York World profiled Mrs. Byron Alford – the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory.” Her dangerous business operated on five acres outside of Bradford, Pennsylvania, with a daily production of 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin and 6,000 pounds of dynamite. Local drillers used the explosives for “shooting” wells to boost production. The New York newspaper reported that Mrs. Alford manufactured the volatile mixtures in 12 separate buildings, all unpainted and made of wood (less expensive to rebuild). Learn more in Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory.
November 12, 1916 – Forest Oil Company formed
Forest Oil Company incorporated and began operations in the Bradford oilfield of northern Pennsylvania. The company, after adopting a “yellow dog” lantern logo, launched an important new technology: water-flooding (injecting water into oil-bearing formations) to stimulate production from depleted wells.
Water-flooding technology for enhanced recovery spread throughout the petroleum industry – and extended many wells’ lives by as much as 10 years. In 1924, Forest Oil consolidated with the January Oil Company, Brown Seal Oil, Andrews Petroleum and Boyd Oil. The publicly held company was headquartered in Denver for decades before merging in 2014 with privately held Sabine Oil & Gas of Houston.
November 12, 1999 – Plastics designated Historic Landmark
The American Chemical Society designated the discovery of a high-density polyethylene process as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at the Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The oil company had first entered the plastics business in 1951, thanks to two employees, chemists J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, who discovered a catalyst for creating solid polymers. “The plastics that resulted — crystalline polypropylene and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — are now the core of a multibillion-dollar, global industry,” the society notes. Among the first customers for Phillips Petroleum plastics was Wham-O, which used it to make Hula Hoops and Frisbees in the 1950s.
November 13, 1925 – New Oil Discovery at Spindletop
The Yount-Lee Oil Company started a second major drilling boom at Spindletop, Texas, when the McFaddin No. 2 well began producing 5,000 barrels of oil a day. The well was completed just south of the famous “Lucas Gusher” of 1901. Miles Yount, who had founded his exploration company in 1914, believed Spindletop Hill held more oil – if drilled deeper on its flanks. His well reached a depth of 2,500 feet (more than twice that of the 1901 well) and proved him right. That evening a Beaumont radio station announced the discovery, launching another Texas oil boom.
November 14, 1927 – Gasometer Explosion shakes Pittsburgh
Three natural gas containers – gasometers – exploded in Pittsburgh, producing “tremors such as might have been caused by a severe earthquake,” according to a 1927 report, which noted the deaths of 28 people and injury of more than 400.
First used in the late 19th century for manufactured gas (and throughout the 20th century for natural gas), gasometers were large, cylindrical containers for storing gas at near atmospheric pressure at ambient temperatures. The volume of stored gas varied, with pressure added from the weight of a movable cap.
According to a 2006 article in Pittsburgh Magazine, workmen from Equitable Gas and Riter Conley had been using acetylene torches to repair a leak on top of the largest tank, with a capacity of 5 million cubic feet of gas. Gasometers have been replaced by high-pressure vessels to store natural gas in liquid form (learn more in Horace Horton’s Spheres). The Carnegie Science Center today stands near the explosion site on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
November 14, 1947 – First Oil Well drilled Out of Sight of Land
The modern offshore petroleum industry began in the Gulf of Mexico with the first oil well successfully completed out of sight of land. Brown & Root Company built the freestanding platform 10 miles offshore for Kerr-McGee and partners Phillips Petroleum and Stanolind.
The unique offshore platform, Kermac 16, could withstand winds as high as 125 miles per hour. Brown & Root constructed the experimental platform at a time when no equipment specifically designed for offshore drilling yet existed.
With $450,000 invested, Kerr-McGee completed the discovery well, which produced 960 barrels of oil a day in about 20 feet of water off Louisiana’s gradually sloping Gulf of Mexico coast.
Kerr-McGee had purchased World War II surplus utility freighters and materials to provide supplies, equipment and crew quarters for the drilling site at Ship Shoal Block 32.
Sixteen 24-inch pilings were sunk 104 feet into the ocean floor to secure the 2,700 square foot wooden deck – which successfully withstood the biggest Category 5 hurricane of the 1947 season a week after drilling had begun.
Kermac 16 produced 1.4 million barrels of oil and 307 million cubic feet of natural gas before being shut down in 1984. Learn more about offshore pioneers and technology in Offshore Petroleum History and Deep Sea Roughnecks.
November 14, 1947 – WW II “Big Inch” Pipelines sold for $143 Million
Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, a company formed 11 months earlier specifically to acquire the World War II surplus 24-inch “Big Inch” and 20-inch “Little Big Inch” pipelines, won with a bid of $143,127,000 – the largest sale of the war’s surplus material to the private sector.
Under government terms, Texas Eastern Transmission converted both oil products pipelines to the transmission of natural gas, which was needed for the Appalachian region. The Little Big Inch line later proved too small for economic transmission of natural gas and was converted back to a common carrier petroleum pipeline in 1957.
November 15, 1906 – Government seeks Breakup of Standard Oil
U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte filed suit to compel dissolution of the Standard Oil of New Jersey. An 1892 court decision had ordered the Standard Oil Trust to be dissolved, but John D. Rockefeller had reorganized it to operate from New York. Although the Justice Department would win this latest suit, Standard Oil would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally affirmed the lower court’s decision in May 1911, mandating dissolution of Standard Oil into 34 separate companies.
November 15, 1952 – Williston Basin produces One-Millionth Barrel of Oil
The massive Williston Basin produced its millionth barrel of oil, which came from five fields in three counties in North Dakota – Williams, McKenzie, and Mountrail. By the end of 1952, monthly production would reach 356,000 barrels of oil.
“Oil was first found in the Williston Basin along the Cedar Creek Anticline in southeastern Montana, in the 1920s,” noted the North Dakota Geological Survey in 1988. “The basin did not become a major oil province until the 1950s when large fields were discovered in North Dakota.” Amerada Petroleum began the search for oil in the basin in 1946 and found it on Clarence Iverson’s farm in 1951, as explained First North Dakota Oil Well.
November 17, 1949 – USGS looks for Oil and Gas Producing Areas
The U.S. Geological Survey embarked on a massive geological study of the United States. More than 70 geologists engaged in intensive investigations covering 22 states and the Alaska Territory. Their mission was to define areas best suited for oil and natural gas exploration. Computer technology would later transform USGS topographic mapping science from prints to digital data and on-line based applications.
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