Oil in the Land of Oz

Did L. Frank Baum’s 1880s “Castorine” oil inspire the Tin Man?


The Tin Man’s oil can in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz perhaps can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields — where L. Frank Baum founded a lubricant business before becoming the famous children’s book author.

“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” explained Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.

Illustration from 1900 children's book Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum includes the Tim Man -- a petroleum-related character.

Before publishing his children’s book in 1900, L. Frank Baum sold a popular axle oil from a company he founded in Syracuse, New York.

Schwartz’s search for the oil can of the Tin Woodman led him to discovering that in the 1880s, L. Frank Baum and his brother started an petroleum products business in Syracuse, New York. The Baum’s Castorine business continues to this day.

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The future author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oils for a living. 

 Baum's Castorine Company axle oil ad, circa 1880s

L. Frank Baum — whose father found success in Pennsylvania oilfields — served as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which he founded with his brother on July 9, 1883.

In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their business venture offering lubricants, oils, greases — and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with Frank serving as superintendent and chief sales representative for the next four years. The upstate New York business was less than 300 miles from Titusville, Pennsylvania, where first U.S. oil well had been drilled in 1859.

Tin Woodman

As the 20th century approached, L. Frank Baum spent much of his time visiting small towns to marketing the brothers’ oil products, according to a 2011 exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. The exhibit also noted, “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

Promotional illustration for L. Frank Baum's Castorine company axle grease.

L. Frank Baum’s sales trips may have influenced Oz. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

The former exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum also explained that although Baum petroleum lubricating products enjoyed some success, the original business, “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”

Baum wrote of his Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.”

The frustrated businessman sold the business, which by 1879 had new owners — and still doing business as Baum’s Castorine Company. In May 1900, the former oil products businessman published the first of his 14 Oz children’s books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was followed by The Marvelous Land of Oz four years later.

Petroleum Producer’s Son

L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum — one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood.

Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.

Baum's Castorine axle oil products tin advertising sign.

Baum’s Castorine products “are designed to extend machine life and reduce your maintenance costs.”

In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. “Frankie” was then only four and a half years old. Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run would bring his enterprising father great wealth.

“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” wrote Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.

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“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers reported. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”

As U.S. consumer demand for kerosene lamps skyrocketed, Pennsylvania’s oil region produced the new industry’s earliest tycoons, long before Standard Oil Company (also see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”).

By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company and was a well-established independent oil producer. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man.

When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.

The Pioneer Oil Museum of New York, exterior, in 2005.

L. Frank Baum’s father once owned an oil company in Bolivar, New York, where a museum today exhibits the region’s extensive petroleum history. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” according to historian Ronald G. Taylor.

“The plant, owned by B.W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor explained.

Although there were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil regions, there no longer was unlimited free enterprise in oilfields. “John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution,” added Rogers in her book.

“In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”

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Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the planned pipeline. Despite the setback, Baum continued to find success with prolific oil wells in New York. 

After almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum (1821-1887) died in Syracuse, New York. His petroleum wealth had helped him acquire small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania and permitted his son to pursue writing, publishing journals, and writing for the stage — perhaps setting the stage for Frank’s future fame.

Finding Tin Man’s Oil Can

When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life — and that the Tin Woodman’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.

Detail of the Tin Man drawing by W.W, Denslow  from 1899 OZ series book by L. Frank Baum.

L. Frank Baum sold his Baum’s Castorine Company in 1888. His many Castorine sales trips may have led to the idea of a Tin Woodman character for his book, illustrated by W.W. Denslow.

“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explained, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. Schwartz also discovered the company still manufactured industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.

“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz wrote.

“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he noted.

“What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”

Learn about the historic Allegheny petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.

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Recommended Reading: Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story (2009); L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography (2002); Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State (1949). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil in the Land of Oz.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/l-frank-baum-castorine-oil. Last Updated: July 1, 2023. Original Published Date: June 1, 2005.


Smithsonian’s Hall of Petroleum


The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum” in Washington, D.C., opened in the summer of 1967 with an entire wing dedicated to the history of oilfield technology. The collection in the museum building’s west wing included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs and many oilfield-related geology and engineering exhibits.

With a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History today features exhibits relating to the history of transportation, but offers few about the history or U.S. petroleum exploration and production — or the first U.S. well drilled for oil in 1859. It wasn’t always so.


Oil Art of Graham, Texas

Alexandre Hogue and other artists depicted America’s oilfields during the Great Depression.


Oil Fields of Graham, a 1939 mural by Alexandre Hogue, has been preserved in its original Texas oil patch community’s U.S. Postal Service building, now a museum.

When President Franklin Roosevelt created public relief projects, including the New Deal Federal Arts Program, Alexandre Hogue and other artists were commissioned to paint American history on the walls of public buildings.


Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Thousands of glass-negative images document the earliest scenes of U.S. petroleum industry.


Soon after the first American oil well in August 1859 launched the U.S. petroleum industry in remote northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England began documenting oilfield life among the wooden derricks and engine houses. Photographer John Mather created thousands of historic images and became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

The newcomer to America set up his first studio in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1860. The growing town was an ideal location for documenting the people and evolving drilling technologies of petroleum exploration and production. 

John A. Mather (1829-1915) became the premier photographer of the nation’s young oil and natural gas industry. He would amass more than 20,000 glass plate negatives.

Pioneer oilfield photographer John Mather self portrait, circa early 1900s.

Oilfield photographer John Aked Mather, probably a self-portrait circa 1900.

What Civil War photographers Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on  battlefields, Mather accomplished in Pennsylvania’s oilfields. He photographed the iconic image of Edwin L. Drake, standing at the original site soon after the first oil well fire in October 1859.

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Like Brady,  Mather had abandoned one-of-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in favor of wet plate negatives using collodion — a flammable, syrupy mixture also called “nitrocellulose.” With one glass plate, many paper copies of an image could be printed and sold.

Oilfield photographer John Mather's famous image of Edwin Drake standing at his oil well drill site in 1859.

Iconic but often misidentified photo by John A. Mather shows Edwin L. Drake (at right) with a friend standing at the rebuilt derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well of August 1859. An October fire destroyed the originals. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

However, unlike most of the era’s studio photographers, Mather transported his camera and chemicals into the industrial chaos of early Pennsylvania oilfields, where he became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.” Like most of people in the new oil region, Mather was susceptible to “oil fever;” he hoped to drill some successful wells himself.

Having narrowly missed the opportunity for a one-sixteenth share of the Sherman Well, which would be “best single strike of the year,” Mather and three associates invested in wells near Pithole Creek. He proved to be better at using a camera.

oilfield photographer John Mather sitting in his studio

John Mather photographs courtesy Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine and Drake Well Museum, Titusville. Above, the interior of his Titusville studio, circa 1865.

Mather’s investment in exploratory wells at Pithole Creek did not lead to commercial quantities of oil. He tried again on the Holmden Farm off West Pithole Creek. His unsuccessful effort was among the last wells to be drilled at the infamous oil boom town of Pithole.

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Many tried, but few in the increasingly crowded oil region would rival the wealth of the celebrated “Coal Oil Johnny.” Years later, Mather acknowledged that excitement of the drilling for “black gold” was so great that he “forsook photography for the oil business.”

Meanwhile, the young U.S. petroleum industry would learn some hard lessons, including disasters like the fatal Rouseville oil well fire of 1861. 

Returning to the oilfields with his camera, Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio traveled up and down Oil Creek. His more than 16,000 glass negatives were later described by the trade magazine Petroleum Age as “so perfect in finish it stands the test of time.”

Flood and Fire at Oil Creek

On Sunday morning June 5, 1892, and after weeks of rain, Oil Creek’s overflowing Spartansburg Dam failed at about 2:30 a.m. A wall of water and debris swelled towards Titusville and its oil works, seven miles downstream.

“On rushed the mad waters, tearing away bridge after bridge, carrying away horses, homes and people,” one newspaper reported about the flood’s devastation. Then fire erupted from ruptured benzine and oil storage tanks.

oilfield photographer John Mather oilfield images of workers and derricks

Oilfield workers pose on and among their oil derricks and engine houses in this 1864 John Mather photo from the Drake Well Museum collection in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Newspapers all over America carried stories of the disaster. In Montana, the Helena Independent headlines included: “Waters of an Overflowing Creek Become a Rushing Mass of Flames” and victims being, “Spared by the Deluge Only to Become the Prey of the Fire.”

Oilfield photographer John Mather women and children at Pennsylvania oil town.

John Mather’s photographs documented family life in remote early oil boom towns. He also briefly caught “oil fever” and unsuccessfully invested in a few wells in booming Pithole Creek field.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added: “The Waters Subside and The Flames Die Away, Revealing the Full Extent of the Calamity.” Oil City and Titusville were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth.” Mather’s studio flooded to a depth of five feet, destroying expensive equipment and most of his life’s work of prints from glass plate negatives.

photographer John Mather 1892 fire at Oil Creek steam  fire engines

Pennsylvania oil towns were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth” by an 1892 fire and flood that destroyed thousands of Mather’s prints and glass plates. Photo from Drake Well Museum collection.

As the fires and flood continued, Mather set up his camera and photographed the disaster in progress with his bulky equipment, which already was being rendered obsolete by new imaging technologies. 

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Just a  few years before the Titusville flood, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced celluloid roll film and created an entirely new market: amateur snapshot photography. Expertise in preparing fragile glass plates and dangerous chemicals were no longer required. Instead, Kodak offered, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

oilfield photographer John Mather  and his floating studio barge

John Mather often used a floating darkroom to capture his historic images along Oil Creek.

As oil booms moved to discoveries in other states, including the massive 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas, Mather worked little in his later years. His financial circumstances diminished with age and illness.

The Artist of Oil Creek died poor and without fanfare on August 23, 1915, in Titusville. His death certificate reported the cause as cerebral hemorrhage, “complicated by suppression of urine.”

Photographer John Mather's Pennsylvania oilfield in 1865

An 1865 John Mather photo of derricks at Pioneer Run — Oil Creek, Pennsylvania.

To preserve John A. Mather’s petroleum industry legacy, the Drake Well Memorial Association would purchase 3,274 surviving glass negatives for about 30 cents each. Today, the Drake Well Museum and surrounding park allow visitors to see rare artifacts and a visual record of the early U.S. oil and natural industry. Visit it and other Pennsylvania petroleum museums.

More Mather Resources

“Virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, and completely unappreciated — in these few words is a description of John Aked Mather, pioneer photographer, whose skill, devotion, and energy endowed the petroleum industry with one of the finest pictorial records of growth and development of any early all-American industry,” proclaimed Ernest C. Miller and T.K. Stratton in their January 1972 article, “Oildon’s Photographic Historian,” in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Volume 55, Number 1).

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“Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions,” explained a NWPaHeritage article by Stephanie David and Brennen French.

The authors of “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio” added that “Mather was In his obsessive desire to capture the industry in its entirety.”

American Oil & Gas Historical Society (supporting members only) original Research Folder.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfield Photographer John Mather.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/oilfield-photographer-john-mather. Last Updated: May 27, 2023. Original Published Date: March 11, 2005.


Rouseville 1861 Oil Well Fire

Rouseville 1861 Oil Well Fire

A Pennsylvania oilfield tragedy led to new safety and firefighting technologies — and a work of art.


The danger involved in America’s early petroleum industry was revealed when the first commercial well went up in flames just weeks after finding oil in the summer of 1859 — becoming the first oil well fire. More serious infernos would follow as the young industry’s early technologies struggled to keep up.

While Pennsylvania oil region’s grew — and wooden derricks multiplied on hillsides — an 1861 deadly explosion and fire at Rouseville added urgency to the industry’s need for inventing safer ways for drilling wells.

Historical marker for Henry Rouse of Warren County, Pennsylvania.

A marker dedicated in 1996 on State Highway 8 near Rouseville by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Henry Rouse’s reputation made him a respected leader of the early oil industry.

On April 17, 1861, a highly pressurized well’s geyser of oil exploded in flames on the Buchanan Farm at Rouseville, killing the well’s owner and more than a dozen bystanders. Journalist Ida Tarbell had lived in Rouseville as a child.

Sometimes called “Oil Well Fire Near Titusville” but more accurately, Rouseville, the early oilfield tragedy was overshadowed by the greater tragedy of the Civil War. Fort Sumter fell on April 13, 1861; Henry Rouse’s oil well exploded four days later.

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The Little and Merrick well at Oil Creek, drilled by respected teacher and businessman Henry Rouse,  unexpectedly had hit a pressurized oil and natural gas geologic formation at a depth of just 320 feet. Given the limited drilling technologies for controlling the pressure, the well’s production of 3,000 barrels of oil per day was out of control.

The Rouse Estate later reported, “A breathless worker ran up to him, telling him to ‘come quickly’ as they’d ‘hit a big one.’ According to the best accounts of the time, the ‘big one’ was the world’s first legitimate oil gusher. As oil spouted from the ground, Henry Rouse and the others stood by wondering how to control the phenomenon.”

The towering gusher also had attracted people from town; many had become covered with oil. Perhaps ignited by the steam-engine’s boiler, the well suddenly erupted into flames that engulfed Rouse, killing him and 18 others and seriously burning many more.

Detail from “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania”

Detail from “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” a painting by James Hamilton of the 1861 oil well fire that killed Henry Rouse today is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Historian Michael H. Scruggs of Pennsylvania State University found a dramatic account from an eyewitness, who reported:

“One of the victims it would seem had been standing on these barrels near the well when the explosion occurred; for I first discovered him running over them away from the well. He had hardly reached the outer edge of the field of fire, when coming to a vacant space in the tier of barrels from which two or three had been taken, he fell into the vacancy, and there uttering heart-rending shrieks, burned to death with scarcely a dozen feet of impassable heated air between him and his friends.”

Oval portrait of Henry Rouse, circa 1850s.

Henry R. Rouse, 1823-1861.

In his 2010 article, Scruggs noted the 37-year-old Henry Rouse was dragged from the fire severely burned, and expecting the worst, dictated his Last Will and Testament, “to the men surrounding him as they fed him water spoonful by spoonful.”

Engraved on an 1865 marble monument (re-dedicated to Rouse’s memory during a family reunion in 1993) is this tribute:

Henry R. Rouse was the typical poor boy who grew rich through his own efforts and a little luck. He was in the oil business less than 19 months; he made his fortune from it and lost his life because of it. He died bravely, left his wealth wisely, and today is hardly remembered by posterity. — from the Rouse Estate.

The 1865 Atlas of the Oil Regions of Pennsylvania by Frederick W. Beers described this early petroleum industry tragedy in detail:

It was upon this farm (Buchanan) that the terrible calamity of April 1861, occurred, when several persons lost their lives by the burning of a well. The “BURNING WELL” as it has since been called, had been put down to the depth of three hundred and thirty feet, when a strong vein of gas and oil was struck, causing suspension of operations and ejecting a stream from the well as high as the top of the derrick.

Cover of Oil Region of Pennsylvania Atlas, 1865

“Atlas of the Oil Regions of Pennsylvania,” published by Frederick W. Beers in 1865.

Large numbers of persons were attracted to the scene, when the gas filling the atmosphere took fire, as is supposed, from a lighted cigar, and a terrible explosion ensued, which was heard for three or four miles. The well well continued to burn upwards of twenty hours destroying the tanks and machinery of several adjacent wells, and several hundred barrels of oil. The scene is represented as terrific beyond comparison.

The well spouted furiously for many hours, and the column of flame extended often two and three hundred feet in height, the valley being shut in, as it were, by a dense and impenetrable canopy of overhanging smoke. Fifteen persons were instantly killed by the explosion of the gas, and thirteen others scarred for life.

Among the persons killed was Mr. Henry R. Rouse, who had then recently become interested in that locality, and after whom Rouseville takes its name. The well continue to flow at the rate about one thousand barrels per day for a week after the fire, when it suddenly ceased, and has since produced very little oil as a pumping well.

These fires have not been unfrequent, and it is a little remarkable that in every case where wells have been so burned they have never after produced save in very small quantities.

Stereograph of circa 1860s PA oil well with wooden derrick, tank, and workers..

Late 1860s stereograph by William J. Portser showing men and women standing on a storage tank and two men at the top of an oil derrick in Pennsylvania, courtesy Library of Congress.

According to historian Michael H. Scruggs, the knowledge gained from the 1861 disaster along with other early oilfield accidents brought better exploration and production technologies. The first “Christmas Tree” — an assembly of control valves – was invented by Al Hamills after the 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill, Texas.

Although the deadly Rouseville well fire cause devastation, “the knowledge gained from the well along with other accidents has help paved the way for new and safer ways to drill,” Scruggs wrote in a 2010 article.

“These inventions and precautions have become very important and helpful, especially considering many Pennsylvanians are back on the rigs again, this time drilling for the Marcellus Shale natural gas,” he concluded.

Learn more about another important invention, Harry Cameron’s 1922  blow out preventer in Ending Gushers – BOP.

Oil Well Fire at Night

The tragic Pennsylvania oil well fire was immortalized by Philadelphia artist James Hamilton, a mid-19th century painter whose landscape and maritime works are in collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C.

"Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania," by James Hamilton (circa 1861), on display at the Smithsonian Art Museum.

Acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2017, artist James Hamilton’s “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” was on display in 2018. Photo by Bruce Wells.

In 2017, the Smithsonian museum acquired Hamilton’s “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” circa 1861 (oil on paperboard, 22 inches by 16 1⁄8 inches, currently not on view).

“Rouseville, Pennsylvania, lay within a few miles of Titusville and Pithole City, two of the most famous boom towns in Pennsylvania ’s oil fields,” noted the museum’s 2017 description of the painting.

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“From 1859 until after the Civil War, new gushers brought investors, cardsharps, saloons, and speculators into these rural settlements. As quickly as they grew, however, the towns collapsed, often from the effects of fires like the one shown here,” noted the Smithsonian’s description.

Detail from "Burning Oil Well at Night" painting of Rouseville tragedy.

Flames shooting from the wellhead are part of the circa 1861 “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” by James Hamilton.

“In the 1860s, American industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was in the thick of this oil boom, maneuvering to establish the Standard Oil Company,” the museum’s painting description added. “Rockefeller’s investments in railroads and refineries would make him one of America’s richest men, long after the wildcatters in the Pennsylvania fields had gone bust.”

With consumers increasingly demanding kerosene for lamps (and soon gasoline for autos), the search for oilfields moved westward. Meanwhile, the young petroleum industry developed safety and accident prevention methods alongside new oilfield firefighting technologies.


Recommended Reading: Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975); Atlas of the oil region of Pennsylvania (1984); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania (2000); Warren County (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Fatal Oil Well Fire of 1861.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-oil-well-fire. Last Updated: April 14, 2023. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.


“Smokesax” Art has Pipeline Heart

Artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade used petroleum pipelines to create a Texas landmark.


With more than 2.5 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines crisscrossing the United States, an offbeat Texas sculptor in 1993 repurposed about 70 feet to create a work of art.

Most Texas travelers at some point have seen the monumental sculptures of Bob “Daddy-O” Wade, known for “keeping it weird” since making the Austin scene in 1961. The decades of artworks by “Daddy-O” have reflected his unique Texas sense of scale, according to Texas A&M University Press.

In February 1993 on Houston’s west side, Wade (1943-2019) completed an iconic 70-foot blue saxophone (including a steel pipe base) in front of a blues club. (more…)

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