November 6, 1860 – First Multi-Still Oil Refinery started in Pennsylvania

As the Civil War neared, construction began on America’s first multiple-still oil refinery one mile south of Titusville, Pennsylvania. William Barnsdall, who drilled America’s second commercial oil well, would build six stills for refining kerosene. His $15,000 oil refinery used equipment purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny River to Oil City, then up Oil Creek to the site near oilfields. With construction finished in January 1861, the refinery produced two grades of kerosene for lamps – white and the less expensive yellow. Each barrel of oil yielded about 20 gallons of the kerosene.

November 8, 1880 – Death of Edwin L. Drake, Father of U.S. Petroleum Industry

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A monument to Edwin Drake with a bronze statue, “The Driller,” was dedicated in 1901 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It was refurbished after the 2009 sesquicentennial of his historic well. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Edwin Laurentine Drake, the former railroad conductor who drilled America’s first commercial oil well, died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the age of 61. Drake drilled just three wells – but his first – which produced oil  on August 27, 1859 – launched the U.S. petroleum industry.

Although his discovery brought prosperity to many, by 1863 Drake had lost all his money in speculative ventures. A decade later he was so ill and destitute the Pennsylvania legislature voted him a $1,500 pension in recognition of his historic contribution.

After America’s first independent producer died in 1880 in relative obscurity, Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers commissioned a monument for Drake, who was re-interred in 1902 in Woodlawn Cemetery at Titusville. It was long overdue recognition in the valley where he launched the U.S. oil industry.

November 8, 1928 – Oil Discovery near Hobbs reveals Permian Basin in New Mexico

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The 1928 Hobbs oilfield discovery well was commemorated with a cable-tool rig erected in 1952 by the American Petroleum Institute.

Six years after the first New Mexico oil wells, a giant oilfield was revealed in a flat, remote region of Lea County at the southeast corner of the state. Midwest Refining Company (the future Amoco) made a major Permian Basin oil discovery near Hobbs while searching for a northern trend of the Scarborough field, which had launched a 1927 drilling boom in Winkler County, Texas.

At 4,220 feet deep, “having penetrated all the oil-bearing beds, and Midwest’s State No. 1, the discovery well of the future Hobbs oil pool, was completed, producing 700 barrels of oil per day on state land,” noted Gil Hinshaw in his 1976 book, Lea County’s Last Frontier. A January 1930 well drilled by Humble Oil Company (the future Exxon) three miles northwest of Hobbs would initially produce 9,500 barrels of oil a day.

Today, the Lea County Museum in Lovington features petroleum history exhibits and equipment, including a 1946 Aeronca Champ airplane, a type of aircraft used in the industry to check pipelines.

November 10, 1854 – Oil Seeps inspire First American Oil Well

petroleum history november

George Bissell’s interest in oil seeps led to Edwin Drake drilling for the new resource for refining into kerosene for lamps.

America’s petroleum industry began when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a Pennsylvania creek known for having oil seeps. George Bissell of New Hampshire bought the land from the firm of Brewer, Watson & Company. He was interested in what was then known as “rock oil.” He suspected it could be distilled to make kerosene for lamps

Bissell asked a friend at Yale to conduct experiments. Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., a chemist and geologist, confirmed the illuminating potential of the refined oil. Bissell formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company – and hired Edwin L. Drake to drill for oil near the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek, southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania. Learn more in George Bissell’s Oil Seeps.

November 10, 1914 – Woodrow Wilson opened Houston Ship Channel

Houston Ship Channel

A 1915 postcard captures the Houston Ship Channel one year after President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the newly dredged waterway. Photo courtesy Fort Bend Museum, Richmond, Texas.

Dredged 25 feet deep in 1914, the Houston Ship Channel opened for ocean-going vessels. President Woodrow Wilson saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House – reportedly by pushing an ivory button connected by wire to a cannon in Houston.

The now vital industrial waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” notes the Port Authority. Learn more in Houston Ship Channel of 1914.

November 10, 2001 – Oil Patch Warrior Statue dedicated in Oklahoma

November petroleum history

Oil Patch Warrior of WWII.

Ten years after a similar ceremony in England, a second Oil Patch Warrior statue was dedicated in Ardmore, Oklahoma, home to many of the volunteers who secretly drilled in Sherwood forest during World War II.

The seven-foot bronze statues by sculptor Jay O’Meilia of Tulsa honor “The English Project,” which produced more than 3.5 million barrels of oil for the war effort. The roughneck statues stand at parade rest, “with a roughneck’s best weapon – a Stillson wrench – instead of a rifle,” O’Meilia later explained in an interview with the historical society.

Forty-two volunteers from Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling Company of Oklahoma City drilled 94 producing wells between March 1943 and March 1944 (derrickhand Herman Douthit fell to his death). Learn more in Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.

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Recommended Reading: Around Titusville, Pa., Images of America (2004); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); Sheer Will: The Story of the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel (2014); Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (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. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

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