This Week in Petroleum History, November 6 to November 12
November 6, 1860 – First Large, Multi-Still Refinery
As the Civil War neared, construction began on America’s first multiple-still oil refinery one mile south of Titusville, Pennsylvania.
William Barnsdall – who had drilled America’s second commercial oil well in 1859 – would build six stills for refining kerosene. His large, multi-still refinery, which cost $15,000, used equipment purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny River to Oil City, then up Oil Creek to the site.
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
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 10, 1854 – Oil Seeps lead to First U.S. Oil Well
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 and Oil Seeps.
November 10, 1914 – Woodrow Wilson opens Houston Ship Channel
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 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 Opening the Houston Ship Channel.
November 11, 1884 – Consolidated Edison company established in New York
The largest U.S. gas utility company at the time was created in New York City when six gas-light companies merged to form the Consolidated Gas Company in 1884.
Today known as Consolidated Edison Company, “Con Edison” can trace its roots six decades earlier to New York Gas Light Company, which received a charter from the state legislature in 1823.
“Like most early gas companies, New York Gas would focus its efforts on street lighting, in this case, supplementing or replacing the whale-oil lamps that were installed by the city beginning in the 1760s,” notes one Con Edison historian.
Prior to the 1884 merger, streets were often being torn up by competing workmen installing or repairing their own company’s lines – and removing those of a rival. “Sometimes these work crews would meet on the same street and brawl, giving rise to the term “gas house gangs.” Learn more about them in History of Con Edison.
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.”
Alford’s dangerous business operated on five acres outside of Bradford, Pennsylvania, with a daily production of 3,000 pounds of “nitro-glycerine” and 6,000 pounds of dynamite. Local drillers needed the explosives (an improvement from dynamite) for “shooting” wells to boost production.
The New York newspaper reported that Mrs. Alford manufactured the volatile explosives in 12 separate buildings, all of which were unpainted and made of wood. Discover her little-known story 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 created a distinctive logo using a “yellow dog” lantern with two wicks.
The company soon would adopt an important new technology: water-flooding (injecting water into oil-bearing formations) to stimulate production from wells once considered depleted. This enhanced recovery technology quickly spread throughout the petroleum industry – extending 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. A publicly held company in 1969 and headquartered in Denver by 1990, Forest Oil merged with privately held Sabine Oil & Gas in 2014.
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.
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); Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century (1996).
Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.