THUMS – California’s Hidden Oil Islands

Reversing an earlier ban, in 1962 voters in Long Beach, California, approved petroleum exploration in their harbor. Five oil companies formed a company called THUMS and built four artificial islands to produce the oil.

California’s headline-making 1921 oil discovery at Signal Hill launched a drilling boom that transformed the quiet, residential area. So many derricks sprouted it became known as “Porcupine Hill.”

THUMS island hidden oil derricks in landscape

Island Grissom, one of the four THUMS islands at Long Beach, California, was named after Nasa astronaut Col. Virgil “Gus” Grisson, who died in 1967 in the Apollo spacecraft fire. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.

Many homeowners became aspiring oil drillers and speculators. Much of the hill’s land was sold and subdivided in real estate lots of a size described as “big enough to raise chickens.”

THUMS island illustration of oil reservoir beneath Long Beach

The islands are among the most innovative oilfield designs in the world. Circa 1965 illustration courtesy Oxy Petroleum.

Derricks were so close to one cemetery that graves “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots,” noted one historian. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day.

At the time, a “law of capture” for petroleum production ensured the formerly scenic landscape would be transformed. Competitors crowded around any new well that came in, chasing any sign of oil to the Pacific Ocean.

Naturally produced California oil seep and Santa Barbara led to many discoveries south of the 1892 Los Angeles City field.

By the early 1930s, the massive Wilmington oilfield extended through Long Beach as reservoir management concerns remained in the future.

Long Beach oil derricks circa 1923 panorama

Petroleum reserves brought drilling booms to southern California. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day from Signal Hill, seen in the distance in this detail from a panorama from the Library of Congress.

Onshore and offshore tax revenues generated by production of more than one billion barrels of oil and one trillion cubic feet of natural gas helped underwrite much of the Los Angeles area’s economic growth. But not without consequences. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, “Subsidence, the sinking of the ground surface, is typically caused by extracting fluids from the subsurface.”

Although Californians had experience dealing with groundwater induced subsidence and the building damage it caused, by 1951 Long Beach was sinking at the alarming rate of about two feet each year. Earth scientists noted that between 1928 and 1965, the community sank almost 30 feet. TIME magazine call the bustling port “America’s Sinking City.”

After decades of prospering from petroleum production, the city prohibited “offshore area” drilling to slow the subsidence as the community looked for a solution.

Petroleum Production in Plain Sight

On February 27, 1962, Long Beach voters approved “controlled exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves” underlying their harbor. The city’s charter had prohibited such drilling since a 1956 referendum, but advances in oilfield technologies enabled Long Beach to stay afloat.

THUMS Long Beach CA sinking image

The prospering but “sinking city” of Long Beach would solve its subsidence problem with four islands and advanced drilling and production technologies. Photo by Roger Coar, 1959, courtesy Long Beach Historical Society.

Directional drilling and water injection opened another 6,500 acres of the Wilmington field — and saved the sinking city.

Five oil companies formed a Long Beach company called THUMS: Texaco (now Chevron), Humble (now ExxonMobil), Union Oil (now Chevron), Mobil (now ExxonMobil) and Shell Oil Company. They built four artificial islands at a cost of $22 million (in 1965 dollars). The islands in 1967 were named Grissom, White, Chaffee, and Freemen in honor of lost Nasa astronauts.

Today the four islands, a total of 42 acres, include about 1,000 active wells producing 46,000 barrels of oil and 9 million cubic feet of natural gas every day.

To counter subsidence, five 1,750-horsepower motors on White Island drive water injection pumps to offset extracted petroleum, sustain reservoir pressures, and extend oil recovery. The challenge was once described as “a massive Rubik’s Cube of oil pockets, fault blocks, fluid pressures and piping systems.”

Meanwhile, all of this happens amidst the scenic boating and tourist waters in Long Beach Harbor. The California Resources Corporation operates the offshore part on the islands of the Wilmington field, the fourth-largest U.S. oilfield, according to the Los Angeles Association of Professional Landmen, whose members toured the facilities in November 2017.

“Most interestingly, the islands were designed to blend in with the surrounding coastal environment,” explained LAAPL Education Chair Blake W.E. Barton of Signal Hill Petroleum. “The drilling rigs and other above-ground equipment are camouflaged and sound-proofed with faux skyscraper skins and waterfalls.” Most people do not realize the islands are petroleum production facilities.

From the nearby shore, the man-made islands appear to be occupied by upscale condos and lush vegetation. Much of the design came courtesy of Joseph Linesch, a pioneering designer who helped design landscaping at Disneyland. “It was an exceptional design. The people who were involved at the time were very creative visionaries,” noted Frank Komin, executive vice president for southern operations of the California Resources Corporation, the latest owner of the islands.

THUMS oil platorms picture from above

THUMS Island White, named for Col. Edward White II, the first American to walk in space, who died in 1967 along with Nasa astronauts “Gus” Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee. A fourth island was named for Nasa test pilot Ted Freeman, who in 1963 was the first fatality among the Nasa astronauts. Photo courtesy UCLA Library.

“Even today, those islands are viewed as one of the most innovative oil field designs in the world,” Komin added in a 2015 Long Beach Business Journal article celebrating the production facilities’ 50th anniversary. “The islands have grown to become icons in which the City of Long Beach takes a great deal of pride.”

The Journal article, “THUMS Oil Islands: Half A Century Later, Still Unique, Still Iconic,”  explains that 640,000 tons of boulders, some as large as five tons, were mined and placed to build up the perimeters of the islands. “Concrete facades were constructed for aesthetic purposes but also for practical purposes – to divert any industrial noise away from the residents living nearby,” Komin explained. “For noise abatement purposes, nearly all of the power that’s used to run the islands is electricity.”

The THUMS aesthetic integration of 175-foot derricks and production structures has been described by the Los Angeles Times as, “part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson.”

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “THUMS – California’s Hidden Oil Islands” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/thums-california-hidden-oil-islands. Last Updated: February 24, 2020. Original Published Date:March 8, 2018.

Kansas Gas Well Fire

America’s fascination with “black gold” switched to natural gas for a time in 1906 after lightning ignited a well near a small Kansas town.

As petroleum exploration wells reached far deeper depths by the early 1900s, highly pressurized natural gas formations in Kansas and the Indian Territory challenged well-control technologies of the day.

Once ignited by a lightning bolt, the natural gas well of Caney, Kansas, towered 150 feet high and at night could be seen for 35 miles. The conflagration made national headlines, attracting a host of exploration companies to drill into Mid-Continent oilfields – even as well control technologies tried to catch up.

gas well fire blazes in south Kansas old photo

Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated readers as the technologies of the day struggled to put out the well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”

It would take five weeks to bring the well under control.

In the early 1900s large amounts of natural gas had been discovered between Caney and Bartlesville in Indian Territory. About 20 miles apart, the towns were connected by the Caney River. (more…)

Yellow Dog – Oilfield Lantern

The 1870 patent for a two-wicked safety lamp to prevent “destructive conflagrations” on derricks.

 

Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Others believed the lamp projected a strange and eerie dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

 

yellow dog two wick lantern from 1877 US patent drawing

Jonathan Dillen’s lantern was “especially adapted for use in the oil regions…where the explosion of a lamp is attended with great danger by causing destructive conflagration and consequent loss of life and property.”

Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon.

Some say the unusual spout design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums could find any such evidence.

Many railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like the heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.

Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog’s origins remain in the dark. Some historical references claim the lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Other oil patch lore says the lamps cast a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the “yellow dog” of the U.S. petroleum industry’s early years. The U.S. patent was awarded on May 3, 1870. Dillen’s lamp joined other safety innovations as drilling technologies evolved.

(more…)

Making Hole – Drilling Technology

Answering the call of necessity and the lure of opportunity for finding oil and natural gas at greater depths.

 

The modern petroleum industry’s drilling technologies evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill many miles into the earth.

making hole image from World Struggle for Oil 1924 movie

Often used for drilling brine wells, a “spring-pole” well discovered oil in Appalachia. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” one historian noted. “Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”

– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.

oil well drilling technology

Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to raise and lower drilling tools. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.

Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.

For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” (more…)

Illuminating Gaslight

America’s first gas street lamps illuminated Baltimore in 1817 after a dazzling “gems of light” demonstration at art museum.

 

America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.

 

Illuminating Gaslight plaque at original street lamp replica

The Baltimore gas company used wooden pipes to distribute gas to elegant street lights. Photo courtesy BG&E.

Today, a small monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated in 1991, the lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.

In 1816, noted local inventor, artist and museum founder Rembrandt Peale first illuminated a large room in his Holliday Street museum, burning his artificial gas. The demonstration dazzled local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”

“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” notes a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.

“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” adds another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor.

Illuminating Gaslight painting of first gas light at museum

A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale ignited his “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.

 

manufactured gas the Peale museum exterior

“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.

“Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” notes BG&E.

The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.

Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas.

By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood.  Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.

Following Baltimore, public use of manufactured gas lighting began in New York City in 1823 when the New York Gas Company received a charter from the state legislature to light to parts of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison, Inc. – known as “Con Edison” or “Con Ed” – was created in 1884, when six New York City gas-light companies merged.

Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia

Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of  gas-manufacturing innovations.

By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.

illuminating gas light manufacturing plant 1856

A natural gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.

When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.

Natural Gas Lights

The earliest commercial use of natural gas in a community, according to most historians, took place in Fredonia, New York, in 1825. Natural gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown natural gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider as the father of the natural gas industry.

“He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” noted historian Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company. The nation’s first natural gas company incorporated in 1857.

According to Barris, Hart made three attempts at drilling. “In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” she explained. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”

By 2005, more than U.S. 900 public natural gas systems were serving more than 70 million customers, and the Philadelphia Gas Works had become the largest of them. Learn more about the early natural gas industry in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and Indiana Natural Gas Boom. 

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join AOGHS and help maintain this energy education website, expand historical research, and extend public outreach. For annual sponsorship information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Illuminating Gaslight.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/manufactured-gas. Last Updated: February 3, 2020. Original Published Date: January 30, 2016.

 

Anadarko Basin in Depth

Giant rigs drilled to record depths in Oklahoma during the 1970s. Today, one attracts Elk City tourists.

 

The Anadarko Basin extends across more than 50,000 square miles of West-Central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. It includes some of the most prolific – and deepest – natural gas reserves in the United States.

 

A giant drilling rig attracts tourists off Route 66 in Elk CIty, OK

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 stands on display to welcome Route 66 travelers to Elk City, Oklahoma. It is 180 feet high – one of the tallest in the world. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Beginning in the late 1950s, when technological advances allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled more than two miles deep in search of highly pressurized natural gas zones.

By the 1960s, a few companies began risking millions of dollars and pushing rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”

Although most experts disagreed, Robert Hefner III believed immense natural gas reserves resided even deeper, three miles or more. (more…)