Going broke where a billion-barrel oilfield would be discovered in the 1870s.
When the Seneca Oil Company completed the first U.S. oil well along Oil Creek at Titusville, demand for crude oil from northwestern Pennsylvania boomed. The 1859 oil discovery launched a new industry, which soon constructed refineries to produce kerosene from oil instead of coal (coal oil) as a safe, inexpensive lamp fuel.
Engineer’s Petroleum Company, one of the early companies to explore east of Titusville, decided to search in the hills around the remote town of Bradford, near the New York border. Armed with detailed geologic studies, the company believed it had an edge for finding oil.
In 1836, famed scientist Samuel Prescott Hildreth published a geological study on the possibilities for salt production in southeastern Ohio. The respected pioneer physician and scientist had left Massachusetts in 1898 to settle in Marietta, along the banks of the Ohio River. His expertise helped salt well drillers, who were familiar with the “making hole”technologies the new petroleum industry needed.
Oil, Bane of Brine Drillers
Hildreth’s geological study, “Observations on the Bituminous Coal Deposit for the Valley of the Ohio, and the Accompanying Rock Strata,” identified anticlinal structural traps as features linked to drilling successful brine wells. Intended to help the search for that valuable food-preserving resource, his report’s revelation about the anticlines later would be important for many Ohio oil discoveries.
Importantly, Hildreth reported anticlinal rock formations were frequently associated with oil deposits. This was a warning for Ohio salt well drillers, who considered petroleum a problem, not a resource (see this article about a Kentucky salt driller’s oil well).
“This dale is evidently formed by upheavals which have taken place towards the end of the Devonian period,” explained the geologist seeking a site to drill for oil near Bradford, Pennsylvania. Prospective site’s topography image courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources online mapping.
After Pennsylvania oil discoveries, exploration companies like Engineer’s Petroleum rushed to the state – where drilling equipment and lease prices soared. Hundreds of exploration companies organized in Titusville, Franklin, and Oil City as financiers, speculators, and drillers sought to invest in this new “black gold” industry.
In 1865, after a United States Oil Company oil discovery created the notorious boom town of Pithole, half-acre leases nearby sold for $3,000 each (about $45,000 in 2020 dollars). Fortunes were made or lost or squandered – most famously at the time by “Coal Oil Johnny”.
Under-capitalized speculators had to look to more distant, unproven territory, including Engineer’s Petroleum Company. About 65 miles northeast of Pithole (thorough today’s scenic Allegheny National Forest), a few exploratory wells had been drilled in McKean County, but few believed commercial quantities of oil could be found; leases could be had for at little as six cents an acre.
Falling into Anticlinal Traps
To attract investors, Engineer’s Petroleum Company cited geological reports about likely sites for successful oil wells, accompanied by this document offering lease units for sale. Document image courtesy Charles Laser.
To attract investors, Engineer’s Petroleum Company cited the best geological science of the day. Company executives also sought the well-regarded expertise of former Mississippi State Geologist Lewis Harper. The geology professor used Hildreth’s long-standing structural trap guidance to select a promising 30-acre site, “giving ample room for more than 100 oil wells.”
The exploration company selected a site southwest of Bradford Township, on a tributary of the West Bank of Tunungwant Creek. “This dale is evidently formed by upheavals which have taken place towards the end of the Devonian period, it is not simply a dale formed by the flowing of water run down from the hills,” Harper noted, further explaining:
“If now, before the upheaval of these hills from a horizontal position, petroleum had been formed or such animal or vegetable matter had been accumulated which gives origins to petroleum, this must have run down from the inclined planes and accumulated in the ground which has not been upheaved in the dale formed by the three hills.”
Unfortunately for Engineer’s Petroleum Company and its investors, Professor Harper and his colleagues’ theories were wrong about Pennsylvania’s anticline petroleum geology. Pennsylvania oilfields were mostly found in formations very different from those in Ohio. Historian and author Ray Sorenson has noted the misinterpretation (see Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology) by pointing out, “theories of trapping did not work in the absence of anticlines.”
Early exploration company executives had learned geologists’ theories for finding oil were often no better than traditional creekology (and helpful oil seeps), dowsers, witching, or blind luck. James C. Donnell, later president of the Ohio Oil Company, began his career in Bradford’s early oilfields and declared, “The day The Ohio has to rely on geologists, I’ll get into another line of work.”
Experience and the science of petroleum geology advanced together over coming years, improving the odds of drilling and completing a successful well. Donnell had to revise his opinion of “college boys” when Ohio Oil Company’s first geologist, C.J. Hares, discovered 19 oil and natural gas fields. Donnell declared Hares to be, “the greatest geologist in the world.”
Engineer’s Petroleum Company, which never found oil at its “dale formed by the three hills,” would go bankrupt. But it would be proved right to have looked in the Bradford area. In 1871, another speculative venture, the Foster Oil Company, drilled a series of small producers east of the Main Branch of Tunungwant Creek, about five miles north of the old Engineer’s Petroleum site.
The Penn-Brad Museum and Historical Oil Well Park is located just south of Bradford on Route 219, near Custer City. Photo by Bruce Wells.
The Foster Oil Company wells revealed what ultimately led to America’s first billion-barrel oilfield. Production from the Bradford field peaked in 1881 when it produced more than 27 million barrels of oil – more than 75 percent of the world’s total output that year.
Today, in Custer City, a few miles south of Bradford, the Penn-Brad Oil Museum preserves “the philosophy, the spirit, and the accomplishments of a little-known oil country community — taking visitors back to the early oil boom times of ‘The First Billion Dollar Oil Field.'”
In addition to its historic oilfield – and being home to Zippo Manufacturing Company since the early 1930s – Bradford also boasts the world’s oldest continuously operating petroleum refinery; the American Refining Group, Inc. began processing 10 barrels of Pennsylvania crude oil a day in 1881.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Engineers Petroleum Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/engineers-petroleum-company. Last Updated: March 24, 2020. Original Published Date: March 24, 2020.
African American entrepreneurs began their Oklahoma oil venture in 1917.
Discovery of Oklahoma’s giant Healdton oilfield in August 1913 about 20 miles northwest of Ardmore launched years of investment as companies formed to secure leases and drill.
Healdton’s field was shallow and its low cost of drilling attracted many small ventures that operated on capital raised by aggressive stock sales. “Blue Sky” laws had yet to restrain advertising excesses and competition for investors was fierce (see Homestead Oil Company).
Decades of production from the Healdton oilfield would yield more than 200 million barrels of oil – but leave hundreds of forgotten petroleum companies buried in its history.
Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company
When a group of foundering Coffeyville, Oklahoma, investors gave up on their 100-acre oil lease in 1917, four African American entrepenuers bought out the venture and its unfinished 1,360-foot-deep well, which had encountered “several light sands” and a water-filled borehole. Wilson Newman, J.C. Pratt, S.M. Holland, and Heston Welborn formed the Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company, capitalized at $50,000, and set up offices on East 2nd Street in Oklahoma City.
Today, East 2nd Street is the heart of the “Deep Deuce” district and is known for its historic jazz and culture. But in 1917, that part of downtown was exclusively for “coloreds,” segregated to the other side of the Santa Fe railroad tracks. It was the era of Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray’s Jim Crow laws (the Civil Rights Act was still half a century away), but along East 2nd Street African-American businesses and neighborhoods prospered.
Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company moved into offices at 319 and 321 East 2nd Street, across from the Black Dispatch weekly, established two years earlier by Roscoe Dunjee. Advertised as the “Largest circulation Negro journal in Oklahoma,” the paper soon carried Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company promotions encouraging readers to invest.
“Buy Stock in a Home Company – With Men Whom You Know at its Head…100 acres leased and shallow wells producing the high-grade of oil,” declared one ad. The company announced plans “to deepen our 1,360 foot well to the lower pay.” Early investors could get in for the bargain price of $1 a share.
As Ardmore Lubricating Oil operations continued into June 1919, news reports for stockholders were mixed. The company completed a producing well on its 100-acre lease that yielded one barrel of oil a day of “high grade lubrication oil.” The company’s chemist predicted it would be worth $10 a barrel at a time when ordinary oil was selling for $2 dollars per barrel.
In 1920, Ardmore Lubricating Oil began moving equipment to drill a well just outside Tatums, about 80 miles south of Oklahoma City. The company announced it would build its own refinery there to process its especially valuable oil from the Healdton field. Tatums was one of about 50 all-black towns in the former Indian Territory that grew from post Civil War reconstruction. These self-segregated communities were reflective of the times; they remain as reminders of America’s struggle with race and identity.
The superintendent, manager and stock salesman of the Ardmore Lubricating Oil, H.E. Baker, published a telegraphed message about the Tatums well site: “We have three wells producing the highest grade and most valuable oil found in the United States, the great drug Icthyol Oil, one of the most sought for and needed products of the world today.”
“Icthyol” was a popular European skin ointment produced from dry distillation of sulfur-rich oil shale, but Ardmore Lubrication Oil Company executives declared they could refine it from Tatums’ crude oil and process it in their own laboratory. In February 1920, the company announced a four-day grand opening to celebrate their new lab upstairs.
“The general public is cordially invited to come and see Kerosene, Automobile Oil and Icthyol,” noted an Ardmore Lubrication Oil promotion. Other ads proposed mutually beneficial business arrangements with merchants, investors, farmers, and consumers.
Increasingly creative financing and uninterrupted stock sales were needed for Ardmore Lubrication Oil to remain solvent. The Black Dispatch in 1921 praised H.E. Baker, noting his company’s “development grows by leaps and bounds…You can get into this company now on the ground floor, $10 is all that you can invest at this time for each member of the family, this will insure at the outset an equal opportunity for all, later on the hundreds of stock holders can get together and determine as to the larger plan of organization.”
However, construction of the Ardmore Lubricating Oil refinery in Tatums still had not begun by August 1921. News about the company’s oil wells grew scarce as Baker sold his own leases. The last appeals for new investors appearing in the Black Dispatch were nevertheless optimistic:
“Wonderful Opportunities In Larger Faith And Deeper Hole,” proclaimed the newspaper. “To anyone with a limited amount of brains it can be seen that a little more faith and a deeper hole will bring into the hands of the Negro landholders in this section the millions of dollars, which their white neighbors all around them are reaping hourly from the derricks that have lunched great holes in the earth and are spouting liquid treasure everywhere.”
A few years later, but too late for Ardmore Lubricating Oil, the area around Tatums did experience an oil boom that was celebrated on the big screen. In 1927, townspeople hosted the making of Black Gold, a silent picture produced by Norman Studios and distributed to all-black theaters the next year. The Florida-based studio described its movie as a “stirring epic of the oil fields” with a cast including, “U.S. Marshall L.B. Tatums. and the entire all-colored City of Tatums, Oklahoma.”
The action-packed melodrama featured Ace Brand, his sweetheart Alice, and a one-legged cowboy (named Peg), who overcame both adversity and injustice in the oil patch. While the film’s happy ending delivered an oil gusher, Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company did not. Few financial records remain about the company, but Gateway to Oklahoma History and the Black Dispatch’s archives offer more context to this almost forgotten story from U.S. petroleum history.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Ardmore Lubricating Oil Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/ardmore-lubricating-oil-company. Last Updated: March 1, 2020. Original Published Date: July 4, 2019.
As World War I neared its end, Maj. Gordon William Lillie entered the petroleum business in Yale, Oklahoma.
Although not as famous as his friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody of Wyoming, Maj. Gordon W. “Pawnee Bill” Lillie was “widely known as a showman, a teacher and friend of the Indian,” according to his biographer.
Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill combined their shows from 1908 to 1913 as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East.”
Maj. Lillie also was admired for being a “colonizer in Oklahoma and builder of his state,” noted Stillwater journalist Glenn Shirley in his 1958 book Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie.
The two Bills joined their shows in 1908 to form “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East,” promoted as “a glorious cavalcade of dazzling brilliancy,” Shirley proclaimed, adding that the combined shows offered “an almost endless procession of delightful sight and sensations.”
However, times were changing and public taste was turning to a new form of entertainment, motion pictures. By 1913, the showmen’s partnership was over and their show foreclosed. Lillie turned to other ventures – real estate, banking, ranching, and like his former partner Cody, the U.S. petroleum industry.
Oil discoveries near Yale (population of only 685 in 1913) had created a drilling boom that made it home to 20 oil companies and 14 refineries. In 1916, Petrol Refining Company added a 1,000-barrel-a-day-capacity plant in Yale, about 25 miles south of Lillie’s Oklahoma ranch.
Obsolete financial stock certificates with interesting histories like Pawnee Bill Oil Company are valued by collectors.
The trade magazine Petroleum Age reported that for Pawnee Bill, “the lure of the oil game was too strong to overcome.” He founded the Pawnee Bill Oil Company on February 25, 1918, and bought Petrol Refining’s new “skimming” refinery in March.
An early type of refining, skimming (or topping) removed light oils, gasoline and kerosene and left a residual oil that could also be sold as a basic fuel. To meet growing demand, refineries built west of the Mississippi River often used the inefficient but simple process.
Maj. Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie.
Lillie’s company became known as Pawnee Bill Oil & Refining and contracted with the Twin State Oil Company for oil from nearby leases in Payne County.
Under headlines like “Pawnee Bill In Oil” and “Hero of Frontier Days Tries the Biggest Game in All the World,” the Petroleum Age extolled that “Pawnee Bill, sole survivor of that heroic band of men who spread the romance of the frontier days over the world…who used to scout on the ragged edge of semi-savage civilization, is doing his bit to supply Uncle Sam and his allies with the stuff that enables armies to save civilization.”
By July 30, 1919, Pawnee Bill Oil (and Refining) Company had leased 25 railroad tank cars, each with a capacity of about 8,300 gallons. But the end of “the war to end all wars” drastically reduced demand for oil and refined petroleum products.
By 1921, most Oklahoma refineries were operating at about 50 per cent capacity, with 39 plants shut down.
Although Lillie’s refinery was among those closed, he did not give up. In February 1921, he incorporated the Buffalo Refining Company and took over the Yale refinery’s operations. He was president and treasurer of the new company.
However, by June 1922 the Yale refinery was making daily runs of 700 barrels of oil, about half its skimming capacity.
Yale, Oklahoma, in 1909, just a few years before the oil boom that attracted Pawnee Bill from his ranch 20 miles away.
“At the annual stockholders’ meeting held at the offices of the Pawnee Bill Oil company in Yale, Oklahoma, in April, it was voted to declare an eight per cent dividend,” reported the Wichita Daily Eagle.
“The officers and directors have been highly complimented for their judicious and able handling, of the affairs of the company through the strenuous times the oil industry has passed through since the Armistice was signed,” added the Kansas newspaper. “Many of the Independent refineries have been sold at receivers’ sale. The financial condition of the Pawnee Bill company is in fine shape.”
What happened next remains a mystery since financial records of Pawnee Bill Oil Company are rare, but a 1918 stock certificate signed by Lillie is valued by collectors (it can be found online selling for about $2,500). Lillie’s Wyoming friend Cody also formed several oil exploration ventures, including the Shoshone Oil Company.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Pawnee Bill Oil Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/pawnee-bill-oil-company. Last Updated: February 23, 2020. Original Published Date: February 24, 2017.
The Ohio Oil Company in 1954 set a drilling depth record of 21,482 feet.
The Ohio Oil Company in 1930 purchased Transcontinental Oil, a refiner that had marketed gasoline under the trademark “Marathon” since 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
The Ohio Oil Company was founded in 1887 by Henry M. Ernst in northwestern Ohio, at the time a leading oil producing region. It would become Marathon Oil of Ohio.
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust purchased the company – known as “the Ohio” – in 1889 and in 1905 moved headquarters from Lima to Findlay.
Establishing itself as a major pipeline company, by 1908 the Ohio controlled half of the oil production in three states.
The Ohio resumed independent operation in 1911 following the dissolution of the Standard Oil monopoly. Oil exploration expanded as far away as Wyoming. In 1915, the company assigned 1,800 miles of pipeline, as well as gathering and storage facilities, to its newly acquired Illinois Pipe Line Company. The Ohio then purchased the Lincoln Oil Refining Company to better integrate and develop crude oil outlets.
“Ohio Oil saw the increasing need for marketing their own products with the ever increasing supply of automobiles appearing on the primitive roads,” explains Gary Drye. “They finally ventured into marketing in June 1924 with the purchase of Lincoln Oil Refining Company of Robinson, Illinois.
The Ohio Oil Company marketed its oil products as “Linco” after purchasing the Lincoln Oil Refinery in 1920. Undated photo of a station in Fremont, Ohio.
Drye, a collector of gas station antiques, notes that with an assured oil supply for the small refinery, the “Linco” brand expanded.
Meanwhile, a subsidiary in 1926 co-discovered the giant Yates oilfield in the Permian Basin of New Mexico and West Texas.
“With huge successes in oil exploration and production ventures, Ohio Oil realized they needed even more retail outlets for their products,” Drye reports. By 1930 Ohio Oil Company distributed Linco products throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky.
Marathon of Ohio Oil
In 1930 Ohio Oil purchased Transcontinental Oil, a refiner that had marketed gasoline under the trademark “Marathon” across the Midwest and South since 1920. Acquiring the Marathon product name included the Pheidippides Greek runner trademark and the “Best in the long run” slogan.
Adopted in 2011, the third logo for corporate branding in Marathon Oil’s 124-year history.
According to Drye, Transcontinental “can best be remembered for a significant ‘first’ when in 1929 they opened several Marathon stations in Dallas, Texas in conjunction with Southland Ice Company’s ‘Tote’m’ stores (later 7-Eleven) creating the first gasoline/convenience store tie-in.”
The Marathon brand proved so popular that by World War II the name had replaced Linco at stations in the original five state territory. After the war, Ohio Oil continued to purchase other companies and expand throughout the 1950s.
In 1962, celebrating its 75th anniversary, The Ohio changed its name to Marathon Oil Company and launched its new “M” in a hexagon shield logo design. Other milestones include:
1981 – U.S. Steel (USX) purchased the company. 1985 – Yates field produced its billionth barrel of oil. 1990 – Marathon opened headquarters in Houston. 2005 – Marathon became 100 percent owner of Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC, which later became Marathon Petroleum Corp. 2011 – Completed a $3.5 billion investment in the Eagle Ford Shale play in Texas.
On June 30, 2011, Marathon Oil became an independent upstream company and unveiled an “energy wave” logo as it prepared to separate from Marathon Petroleum, based in Findlay. Read a more detailed history in Ohio Oil Company and visit theHancock Historical Museum in Findlay.
Ohio Oil’s California Record
Petroleum Engineer magazine in 1954 noted the well set a record despite being “halted by a fishing job.”
As deep drilling technologies continued to advanced in the 1950s, a record depth of 21,482 feet was reached by the Ohio Oil Company in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
The deep oil well drilling attempt about 17 miles southwest of Bakersfield in prolific Kern County, experienced many challenges. A final problem led to it being plugged with cement on December 31, 1954. At more than four miles deep, down-hole drilling technology of the time was not up to the task when the drill bit became stuck.
The challenge of retrieving obstructions from deep in a well’s borehole – “fishing” – has challenged the petroleum industry since the first tool stuck at 134 feet and ruined a well spudded just four days after the famous 1859 discovery by Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania. See The First Dry Hole. In a 1954 article about deep drilling technology, The Petroleum Engineer noted the Kern County well of the Ohio Oil Company – today’s Marathon Oil – set a record despite being “halted by a fishing job.”
The well was lost. A 1953 Kern County well drilled by Richfield Oil Corporation produced oil from 17,895 feet, according to the magazine. At the time, the average U.S. cost for the nearly 100 wells drilled below 15,000 feet was about $550,000 per well.
Six hundred and thirty-two exploratory wells with a total footage of almost three million feet were drilled in California during 1954, according to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Visit the West Kern Oil Museum.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Marathon of Ohio Oil.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/marathon-ohio-oil. Last Updated: December 30, 2019. Original Published Date: December 28, 2014.
A Kansas professor in 1905 discovered helium could be extracted from natural gas.
Kansas University professor Hamilton P. Cady, above, discovered significant amounts of helium in a natural gas sample from a Dexter, Kansas, well. He and D.F. McFarland made the discovery in 1905. A stock certificate from The Gas, Oil and Developing Company is noteworthy to collectors – but not for producing great wealth for its investors. For this exploration company, which disappeared more than a century ago, more interesting is its connection to “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.”
A Dexter, Kansas, marker notes a nearby gas well led to a scientific discovery that “lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.”
In May 1903, The Gas, Oil and Developing Company drilled an exploratory well on William Greenwell’s farm near Dexter, Kansas, about 45 miles southeast of Wichita.
At a depth of just 560 feet, the company’s drill bit struck a formation that produced “a howling gasser” that flowed an estimated nine million cubic feet of natural gas a day. (more…)
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Can you tell me anything about this old petroleum company (for free)?I found its stock certificate in an attic. Am I rich? Probably not. As shown in the companies below, since the 1850s the U.S. petroleum industry’s boom and bust cycles have left many casualties. For an example of one that actually made it to courts, see Not a Millionaire from Old Oil Stock.