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 Some historical references claim the lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night.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.

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All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology

From the eccentric wheel to the a counter-balanced “nodding donkey,” inventing new ways to produce petroleum.

 

In a valley in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well, launching the U.S. petroleum industry. For his oil well pump, Drake borrowed a common kitchen hand-pump to retrieve the important new resource from a depth of 69.5 feet.

 

Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a popular lamp fuel, kerosene, Drake’s shallow well created a new exploration and production industry, it wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.

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Shooters – A “Fracking” History

The evolution of technologies for fracturing geologic formations to increase oil and natural gas production.

 

Ever since America’s earliest oil discoveries, detonating dynamite or nitroglycerin down-hole helped increase a well’s production. The technology – commonly used in oilfields for almost a century – would be greatly improved when hydraulic fracturing arrived in 1949. 

 

history of hydraulic fracking E.A.L. Roberts portrait and frac drawing

In 1862, E.A.L. Roberts was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Union Army. In December he “conceived the idea of opening the veins and crevices in oil-bearing rock by exploding an elongated shell or torpedo therein.” Images courtesy Drake Well Museum, Early Days of Oil, Princeton University Press.

Modern hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – can trace its roots to April 1865, when Civil War Union veteran Lt. Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”

In May 1890, Pennsylvania’s Otto Cupler Torpedo Company “shot” its last oil well using liquid nitroglycerin – abandoning nitro but continuing to pursue a fundamental oilfield technology. President Rick Tallini says today’s widely used fracturing systems are much advanced from Col. Roberts’ original patents.

“Our business since Colonel Roberts’ day has concerned lowering high explosives charges into oil wells in the Appalachian area to blast fractures into the oil bearing sand,” says Tallini. His company is based in Titusville – where the American petroleum industry began in August 1859 (learn more in First American Oil Well). (more…)

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…)

Downhole Bazooka

WWII technology improves method for perforating well casings.

Swiss inventor Henry Mohaupt used his experience from creating a World War II anti-tank weapon to develop a new technology for improving production of oil and natural gas wells. He used conically hollowed-out explosive charges to focus each detonation’s energy.

 caparison on Word War II bazooka and shaped charge patent image

In 1951, Henry Mohaupt applied for a U.S. patent for his “Shaped Charge Assembly and Gun,” based on anti-tank technology he had patented a decade earlier – a conically hollowed out explosive fired from bazookas.

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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, “the 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 seeps 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.