The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) established this page as a method to help our members share ideas, especially when seeking detailed information about petroleum history, which AOGHS does not have staff or resources to pursue.
When contacted about oilfield- related family heirlooms, the society maintains the Oil & Gas Families page to help locate suitable museum collections for preserving these unique histories.
Seeking Historical Information
As noted on the Research & Artifacts page, AOGHS maintains this post as one way to help researchers share ideas and oil and gas historical information. Contact the society at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like your research question added.
Want to help? Use the comment section to answer or make suggestions for these questions. Simply post your answers in the comment section at the end of this post.
Seeking Info about California Oilfield Photo, Circa 1900
Detail from unidentified California oilfield, circa 1900.
My grandfather worked the oilfields in California in the early 1900’s.
He worked quite a bit in Coalinga and also Huntington Beach. He had this in his old pictures. I would like to identify it if possible.
The only clue that I see is the word Westlake at the bottom of the picture.
What little research I could do led me to believe it might be the Los Angeles area?
I would appreciate any help you can provide. — Bruce
Cities Service Bowling Teams
I was wondering if there are any records or pictures of bowling leagues and teams for Cities Service in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Houston, Texas, or Lafayette, Louisiana. I would appreciate any information. My dad was on the team. — Lisa
Oilfield Storage Tanks
My family has a farm in western PA and once had a small oil pump on the land. I’m trying to learn how the oil was transported from the pump. I know a man came in a truck more than once each week to turn on the pump and collect oil, but I don’t know if there was a holding tank, how he filled his truck, etc. (My mother was a child there in the ’40s and simply can’t recall how it all worked.) Can anyone point me at a resource that would explain such things? I’m working on a children’s book and need to get it right. Thank you. — Lauren
Author seeking Historical Oil Prices
Can anyone at AOGHS tell me what the ballpark figures are in the amount of petroleum products so far extracted, versus how much oil-gas is left in the world? Also: the price per barrel of oil every decade from the 1920s to the present. And the resulting price per gallon during the decades from 1920 to the present year? I have almost completed my book about an independent oilman — John
Painting related to Standard Oil (ESSO)
I am researching an old oil painting on canvas that appears to be a gift to Esso Standard Corp. Subject: Iris flowers. There is some damage due to age but it is quite interesting. The painting appears to be signed in upper right corner: Hirase?
On the back, along each side, is Japanese writing that I think translates to “Congratulations Esso Standard” and “the Tucker Corporation” or “the Naniwa Tanker Corporation.” Date unknown, possibly 1920s.
I am not an expert in art nor Japanese culture, so some of my translation could be incorrect. I was hoping you or your colleagues might shed some light on this painting. — Nancy
Early Gasoline Pumps
For the smaller, early stations from around 1930, was the gas stored in a tank in the ground below the dispenser/pump?– Chris
Oilfield Jet Engines
I was wondering about a neat aspect of oil and natural gas production; namely, the use of old, retired aircraft jet engines to produce power at remote oil company locations, and to pump gas/liquid over long distances in pipelines. Does anyone happen to recall what year a jet engine was first employed by the industry for this purpose? Nowadays, there is an interesting company called S&S Turbine Services Ltd. (based at Fort St. John, British Columbia) that handles all aspects of maintenance, overhaul and rebuilding for these industrial jets. — Lindsey
Natalie O. Warren Propane Tanker Memorabilia
My father spent his working life with Lone Star Gas, he is gone many years now I am getting on. Going through a few of his things. A little book made up that he received when he and my mother attended the commissioning of the Natalie O. Warren Propane Tanker. I am wondering if it is of any value to anyone. Or any museum. — Bill
Elephant Advertising of Skelly Oil
My grandfather owned a Skelly service station in Sidney, Iowa in the 1930s and 1940s. I have a photo of him with an elephant in front of the station. I recall reading somewhere that Skelly had this elephant touring from station to station as an advertising stunt. Does anyone have any more history on the live elephant tour for Skelly Oil? I’d love to find out more. — Jeff
Tree Stumps Oilfield Architecture
I am a graduate student at the Architectural Association in London working on a project that looks at the potential use of tree stumps as structural foundations. While researching I found the following extract from an article on The Petroleum Industry of the Gulf Coast Salt Dome Area in the early 20th century: “In the dense tangle of the cypress swamp, the crew have to carry their equipment and cut a trail as they go. Often they use a tree stump as solid support on which they set up their instruments.” I have been struggling to find any photos or drawings of how this system would have worked (i.e. how the instruments were supported by the stump) I was wondering if you might know where I could find any more information? — Andrew
Texas Road Oil Patch Trip
“Hi, next year we are planning a road trip in the United States that starts in Dallas, Texas, heading to Amarillo and then on to New Mexico and beyond. We will be following the U.S. 287 most of the way to Amarillo and would like to know of any oil fields we could visit or simply photograph on the way. From Amarillo we plan to take the U.S. 87. We realise this is quite a trivial request but you help would be much appreciated.” — KristinAntique Calculators: Slide Rules – Here’s a question about those analog calculating devices that became obsolete when electronic pocket calculators arrived in the early 1970s…Learn more in Refinery Supply Company Slide Rule.
Antique Calculator: The Slide Rule
Here’s a question about those analog calculating devices that became obsolete when electronic pocket calculators arrived in the early 1970s…Learn more in Refinery Supply Company Slide Rule.
Calming petroleum markets by curbing speculators trading oil and pipeline certificates.
In a sign of the growing power of John D. Rockefeller at the end of the 19th century, Standard Oil Company brought a decisive end to Pennsylvania’s highly speculative – and often confusing – oil trading markets.
The Oil City, Pennsylvania, Oil Exchange incorporated in 1874. In 1877, it was the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America, behind New York and San Francisco.
On January 23, 1895, the Standard Oil purchasing agency in Oil City notified independent oil producers it would only buy their oil at a price “as high as the markets of the world will justify” – and not necessarily “the price bid on the oil exchange for certificate oil.”
Standard Oil’s action would bring an end to a popular “paper oil” market of brokers and buyers.
Before the 1870s, oil buyers took on-site delivery in wooden barrels they provided. Soon a rapidly growing pipeline infrastructure spawned “oil certificates” or “pipeline certificates.” These negotiable new instruments were based on the number of barrels in a pipeline issued for delivery in kind. (more…)
At 3:17 p.m. on March 18, 1937, with just minutes left in the school day and more than 500 students and teachers inside the building, a natural gas explosion leveled most of what had been the wealthiest rural school in the nation.
Roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield rushed to New London school after the March 18, 1937, explosion – and searched for survivors throughout the night. Photo courtesy New London Museum.
Hundreds died at New London High School in Rusk County after odorless natural gas leaked into the basement and ignited.
The sound of the explosion was heard four miles away. Parents, many of them roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield, rushed to the school.
Despite immediate rescue efforts, 298 died, most from grades 5 to 11 (dozens more later died of injuries). They are remembered today at the New London Museum.
After an investigation, the cause of the school explosion was found to be an electric wood-shop sander that sparked unscented gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school.
“The school was newly built in the 1930s for close to $1 million and, from its inception, bought natural gas from Union Gas to supply its energy needs,” notes History.com. “The school’s natural gas bill averaged about $300 a month.”
In early 1937 the school board canceled its contract with Union Gas to save money and tapped into a pipeline of residue gas (also called casinghead gas) from Parade Gasoline Company, according to historian James Cornell. “This practice – while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies – was widespread in the area,” he notes in The Great International Disaster Book. “The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off.”
Walter Cronkite reaches Scene
A young man working for United Press in Dallas, Walter Cronkite, was among the first reporters to reach the scene of the disaster south of Kilgore, between Tyler and Longview. It was dark and raining. “He got his first inkling of how bad the incident was when he saw a large number of cars lined up outside the funeral home in Tyler,” notes one local historian. At the scene, floodlights cast long shadows.
The explosion hurled a concrete slab 200 feet onto a 1936 Chevrolet. Rusk County, Texas, had one of the richest rural school districts in the United States. On March 18 students were preparing for the next day’s Inter-scholastic meet in Henderson. Photos courtesy New London Museum.
“We hurried on to New London,” Cronkite noted in his book, A Reporter’s Life. “We reached it just at dusk. Huge floodlights from the oilfields illuminated a great pile of rubble at which men and women tore with their bare hands. Many were workers from the oilfields.”
Decades later, Cronkite would add, “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”
David M. Brown, who researched the tragedy for a 2012 book, described the “sad irony” of how the East Texas oil boom financed building the wealthiest rural school in the nation in 1934 – and the faulty heating system that permitted raw gas to accumulate beneath it. According to Brown, it was partly the result of school officials making a bad decision. To save money on heating the school building, the trustees had authorized workers to tap into a pipeline carrying “waste” natural gas produced by a gasoline refinery.
The New London Museum includes extensive personal accounts of the tragedy taken from newspaper articles and personal interviews. Considered state-of-the-art for its time, the school housed grades K-11.
“Many burials were made in the local Pleasant Hill cemetery that to this day, still symbolize the great loss that families endured, added Hilliard, among those who have maintained the museum’s website. “Many of the grave sites display porcelain pictures of the victims,” he said. “Marbles that were once played with were pushed into the cement border outlining the graves.”
Making Natural Gas Safer
A granite cenotaph was dedicated in 1939 to the more than 300 students and teachers who perished.
As a result of the disaster, Texas was the first state to pass laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a “malodorant” to give early warning of a gas leak. Other states quickly followed.
Today, the rotten-egg smell associated with natural gas is Mercaptan, the odorant added to indicate the potentially dangerous leaking of gas.
New London’s community museum, across the highway from the school site, began in 1992 thanks to years of work by its founder and first curator, Mollie Ward, who was 10 when she survived the devastating explosion.
Ward said in a 2001 interview that among the museum’s exhibits was a blackboard found in the rubble.
“Sometime in the night a worker found a blackboard that had been on the wall that read ‘Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing,'” said Ward, who spent years helping start a former students association that reunited survivors of the New London explosion.
One museum exhibit is a recovered blackboard that reads: “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing.” Photo by Bruce Wells.
Near the museum is a 32-foot-high granite cenotaph dedicated in 1939. In December 1938, a contract for building a monument was awarded to the Premier Granite Quarries of Llano, Texas. Donald Nelson of Dallas was appointed designing and supervising architect for the project.
After a competition in which seven Texas sculptors submitted preliminary models, Herring Coe of Beaumont was awarded the task of making the model for the sculptural block at the top.
A 20-ton sculptured block of Texas granite – supported by two monolithic granite columns – depicts twelve life-size figures, representing children coming to school, bringing gifts and handing in homework to two teachers.
Citation Information – Article Title: “New London School Explosion.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/new-london-texas-school-explosion. Last Updated: March 14, 2020. Original Published Date: March 11, 2011.
Like their pioneering onshore counterparts, these ocean roughnecks include skilled petroleum engineers, geologists, landmen – and an increasing number of CEOs.
Published in 2019, Rebecca Ponton’s “condensed biographies” of 23 women reads like a collection of short stories. Her book deserves a wide audience, especially among young people – and energy industry leaders.
Rebecca Ponton’s book, published in 2019, tells the stories of the industry’s “WOW – Women on Water,” the introductory chapter’s title. Her following “condensed biographies” are from 23 women of all nationalities, ages, and responsibilities within the industry, Many have achieved ‘firsts” in their fields.
Ponton, a journalist and professional landman, interviewed this diverse collection of energy industry professionals, producing an “outstanding compilation of role models,” according to Dave Payne, vice president, Chevron Drilling and Completions.
“Everyone needs role models – and role models that look like you are even better. For women, the oil and gas industry has historically been pretty thin on role models for young women to look up to,” notes the Chevron executive. “Rebecca Ponton has provided an outstanding compilation of role models for all women who aspire to success in one of the most important industries of modern times.”
Each chapter offers an account of finding success in the traditionally male-dominated industry – sometimes with humor but always with determination. Among the offshore jobs described are stories from mechanical and chemical engineers, a helicopter pilot, a logistics superintendent, a photographer, fine artist, federal offshore agency director, and the first female saturation diver in the Gulf of Mexico – Marni Zabarski, who describes her career and 2001 achievement.
Additional insights are provided from water safety pioneer Margaret McMillan (1920-2016), who in 1988 was instrumental in creating the Marine Survival Training Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 2004, McMillan was the first woman to be inducted into the Oilfield Energy Center Hall of Fame in Houston.
Another chapter features the 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, petroleum geologist Eve Howell, the first woman to work – and eventually supervise – Australia’s prolific North West Shelf. The book relates the story of 21-year-old Alyssa Michalke, an Ocean Engineering major who was the first female commander of the Texas A & M Corps of Cadets.
As the publisher of Breaking the Gas Ceiling explains, “In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, including the up and coming generation of energy industry leaders, Rebecca made it a point to seek out and interview young women who are making their mark in the sector as well.”
The milestones of these notable “women on water” may not receive the attention given to NASA’s women space walkers, but they also deserve recognition. Today’s offshore petroleum industry needs all the skilled workers it can get of any gender. The oilfield career histories told in Breaking the Gas Ceiling and books like Anomalies – Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917 to 2017, should help.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Women of the Offshore Petroleum Industry tell Their Stories.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/women-of-the-offshore-petroleum-industry-tell-their-stories. Last Updated: February 18, 2020. Original Published Date: February 18, 2020.
After taming oil boom towns, the famed lawman retired in 1951 to served as a consultant for radio, motion pictures, and television shows.
During much of the 1920s, a Texas Ranger became well known for strictly enforcing the law in booming oilfield communities and on the border. By 1930, the discovery year of the great East Texas field, he was known as “El Lobo Solo” – the lone wolf – who would bring order to a boomtown famous worldwide.
Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas was born in 1891 in Cádiz, Spain, to a Spanish father and Canadian mother who were naturalized U.S. citizens. At age 15 he witnessed the murder of his only two brothers and the wounding of his parents when bandits raided their home. Fourteen years later, he joined the Texas Rangers.
“Give Texas more Rangers of the caliber of ‘Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas and the crime wave we are going through will not be of long duration,” reported the Dallas Morning News in 1934.
“He was a soft-spoken man and his trigger finger was slightly bent,” independent oilman Watson W. Wise characterized him during a 1985 interview in his office in Tyler, Texas. “He always told me it was geared to that .45 of his.”
When Kilgore became “the most lawless town in Texas” after the October 1930 oil boom started, Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas was the Texas Ranger sent out to tame it, according to Wise, himself a distinguished oilman and philanthropist who moved to Texas in 1925.
Gonzaullas – five feet, nine inches tall, with a scarred face, and no sense of humor – was “a very serious type fella,” Wise noted.
“He was sent out to Pecos one time to stop a riot out there, added Wise. “When he got off the train there was a great posse waiting to greet him, and when they saw he was alone, they said, ‘Where’s all your help Mr. Gonzaullas?’ and he said, ‘There’s only one riot isn’t there?’”
He rode a black stallion named Tony and often sported two pearl-handled, silver-mounted .45 pistols. On his chest was a shining Texas Ranger star. Everybody in Kilgore soon knew he was around. (more…)
Howard Hughes and the CIA project to raise a lost Soviet submarine in early 1970s.
The Glomar Explorer, once the world’s most advanced deep water drill ship, ended up in a scrap yard in Zhoushan, China, in 2015. But it left behind two remarkable offshore histories.
Considered the pioneer of all modern drill ships, Glomar Explorer was decades ahead of its time working at extreme depths for the U.S. offshore petroleum industry. Relaunched in 1998 as the latest offshore technological phenomenon, Glomar Explorer had begun in 1972 as a secret project of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The ship’s future career with the CIA began on March 8, 1968, when the U.S.S.R. ballistic missile submarine K-129 mysteriously sank somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii. Wreckage of the lost sub would never be found – or so it seemed. Unknown to the Soviets, sophisticated U.S. Navy sonar technology located the K-129 on the seabed 16,500 feet deep. But that depth was unreachable by any known technology (see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench).
The K-129 sinking presented the CIA with a staggering espionage opportunity. President Richard Nixon approved a top-secret operation to attempt raising the vessel – intact – from the ocean floor. Secretive billionaire Howard Hughes Jr. of Hughes Tool Company joined the mission, code-named Project Azorian (mistakenly called Project Jennifer in press accounts). The recovery effort would involve years of deception. Deep ocean mining would be the cover story for construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer.
CIA Cover Story: Ocean Mining
Scientists and venture capitalists had long seen potential in ocean mining, but when Hughes appeared to take on the challenge, the world took notice. The well-publicized plan described harvesting magnesium nodules from record depths with a custom-built ship that would push engineering technology to new limits, typical of Hughes’ style. The story spread.
But from concept to launch, the Hughes Glomar Explorer really had only one purpose: raise the sunken Soviet Golf-II class submarine from 1968 – and any ballistic missiles. In 1972, construction began in a Delaware River dry-dock south of Philadelphia. There, the $350 million (about $1.4 billion in 2018), Hughes’ high-tech ship was ostensibly built to mine the sea floor.
Two years later, on August 8, 1974, the “magnesium mining vessel” secretly raised part of the 2,000-ton K-129 through a hidden well opening in the hull and a “claw” of mechanically articulated fingers that used sea water as a hydraulic fluid. But news about Project Azorian leaked within six months. On February 7, 1974, the. Los Angeles Times broke the story: “CIA Salvage Ship Brought Up Part Of Soviet Sub Lost In 1968, Failed To Raise Atom Missiles.” The article, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, abruptly ended the advanced vessel’s spying career.
In 1976, the federal government transferred the Hughes Glomar Explorer to the Navy for an extensive $2 million preparation for storage in dry dock. With its CIA days over, Hughes Glomar Explorer spent almost two decades mothballed at Suisun Bay, California.
Pioneer of Modern Drill Ships
Thirty-years after K-129 sank and after a $180 million shipyard conversion, the Glomar Explorer emerged in the late 1990s and began its career as a record-setting deep water drill ship.
Launched on January 30, 1998, on its first contract for Chevron and Texaco, the former spy vessel spudded a well 7,718 feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface – a world record at the time.
London-based Global Marine had converted the CIA vessel for commercial use. The company hired Electronic Power Design of Houston, Texas, to work on the advanced electrical system. After almost 20 years in storage, condition of equipment inside the ship surprised Electronic Power Design CEO John Janik. “Everything was just as the CIA had left it,” Janik explained, “down to the bowls on the counter and the knives hanging in the kitchen. Even though all the systems were intact, this was by no means an ordinary ship.”
Janik noted in 2015 for The Maritime Executive that his company’s retrofit was “a tough job because the ship’s wiring was unlike anything we had ever seen before,” although preservation had been helped by nitrogen pumped into the ship’s interior for two decades. Conversion work later included a Mobile, Alabama, shipyard adding a derrick, drilling equipment, and 11 positioning thrusters capable of a combined 35,200 horsepower.
When completed in 1998 as the world’s largest drillship, Glomar Explorer, began a long-term lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for $1 million per year. The ship spent the next 17 years drilling deep water sites as far away as Africa’s Nigerian delta, the Black Sea, offshore Angola, Indonesia, Malta, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Following a series of corporate mergers, Glomar Explorer became part of the largest offshore drilling contractor, the Swiss company Transocean Ltd. When it entered that company’s fleet, the ship was renamed GSF Explorer, and in 2013 was re-flagged from Houston to the South Pacific’s Port Vila in Vanuatu.
When GSF Explorer arrived at the Chinese ship breaker’s yard in 2015, many offshore industry trade publications took notice of the ship’s demise after years of exceptional deep drilling service.
The ship was “decades ahead of its time and the pioneer of all modern drill ships,” concluded Electronic Power Design’s CEO in The Maritime Executivearticle. “It broke all the records for working at unimaginable depths and should be remembered as a technological phenomenon.”
Soon after the former Glomar Explorer was sold for scrap, Tom Speight of the engineering firm O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun, reflected in a company post, “This is a shame, not only because of the ship’s nearly unbelievable history, but also because in 2006 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated this technologically remarkable ship a historic mechanical engineering landmark.”
The ASME award ceremony, which took place on July 20, 2006, in Houston, included members of the original engineering team and ship’s crew among the attendees. Past President Keith Thayer noted the important contributions the ship made to the development of mechanical engineering and innovations in offshore drilling technology.
But the Glomar Explorer name also will be forever be linked to the ship’s CIA brief service during the Cold War. For many veteran journalists, the agency’s chronic response to inquiries, “We can neither confirm nor deny,” is still known as the “Glomar response.”
Citation Information – Article Title: “Secret Offshore History of Drill Ship Glomar Explorer.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/secret-offshore-history-of-the-glomar-explorer. Last Updated: February 7, 2020. Original Published Date: February 8, 2020.