This Week in Petroleum History, February 24 to March 1

February 25, 1918 – Pawnee Bill’s Oklahoma Oil Companies

As World War I neared its end in 1918, Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie entered the oil business in Yale, Oklahoma. Despite not being as famous as his Wyoming friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Lillie was a widely known showman and promoter of his state, according to his biographer.

Pawnee Bill Oil Company stock certificate

Some old oil company certificates are valued collectors.

The Pawnee Bill Oil Company operated a refinery in Yale, leasing 25 railroad tank cars during World War I.

When the end of the war reduced demand for refined petroleum products, his company along with many Oklahoma refineries were soon operating at half capacity – or closed.

Although his oil company was still operating in March 1921, Pawnee Bill was forced to shut down his Yale refinery.

Pawnee Bill’s friend and fellow western showman Col. William Cody also tried his hand in the oil business. Cody’s Shoshone Oil Company had failed about a decade earlier in Wyoming. (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, February 17 to February 23

February 17, 1902 – Lufkin Industries founded in East Texas

The Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company was founded in Lufkin, Texas, as a repair shop for railroad and sawmill machinery. When the pine region’s timber supplies began to dwindle, the company discovered new opportunities in the burgeoning oilfields following the 1901 discovery at Spindletop Hill.

oil history modern Lufkin pump jack unit from front

A Lufkin counterbalanced oil pump. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Inventor Walter C. Trout was working for this East Texas company in 1925 when he came up with a new idea for pumping oil. His design would become an oilfield icon known by many names – nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, and pump jack, among others.

By the end of 1925, a prototype of Trout’s pumping unit was installed on a Humble Oil and Refining Company well near Hull, Texas. “The well was perfectly balanced, but even with this result, it was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism,” Trout explained.

Learn more about the evolution of oilfield production methods in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.

February 17, 1944 – H.L. Hunt discovers First Alabama Oilfield

Alabama’s first oilfield was discovered in Choctaw County when Texas independent producer H.L. Hunt drilled the No. 1 Jackson well. Hunt’s 1944 wildcat well revealed the Gilbertown oilfield. Prior to this discovery, 350 dry holes had been drilled in the state.

Alabama first oil fields maps

Alabama’s major producing regions are in the west. Map courtesy Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Geologist and historian Ray Sorenson has found a detailed 1858 report of natural oil seeps six miles from Oakville in Lawrence County. Sorenson, who has compiled a history of all reports about petroleum prior to the Drake well of 1859, cites Michael Tuomey, who wrote about the geology of Alabama in 1858.

Hunt drilled in Choctaw County and discovered the Gilbertown oilfield in the Eutaw Sand at a depth of 3,700 feet. The field produced 15 million barrels of oil.

Although it took 11 years for another oilfield discovery, new technologies and deeper wells in the late 1980s led to the prolific Little Cedar Creek and Brooklyn fields.

By 2007, scientists began new geologic assessments of potential undiscovered petroleum resources of the Black Warrior Basin of Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties and in the shales of St. Clair and neighboring counties.

Learn more in First Alabama Oil Well.

February 20, 1959 – First LNG Tanker arrives in England

After a 27-day voyage from Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Methane Pioneer – the world’s first liquefied natural gas tanker – arrived at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England.

petroleum history first liquefied natural gas tanker

The world’s first liquefied natural gas tanker, the Methane Pioneer, was a converted World War II Liberty freighter.

The first-of-its-kind vessel demonstrated that large quantities of LNG could be transported safely across the ocean.

The 340-foot Methane Pioneer, a converted World War II Liberty freighter, contained five 7,000-barrel aluminum tanks supported by balsa wood and insulated with plywood and urethane. Owned by Comstock Liquid Methane Corporation, the experimental ship refrigerated its cargo to minus 285 degrees Fahrenheit.

The world’s first purpose-built commercial LNG carrier, the Methane Princess, began regular LNG delivery to the same Canvey Island port in June 1964.

February 20, 1993 – Oil Pipe Saxophone Sculpture erected in Houston 

oil and art combined in pipeline saxophone sculpture in Texas

Texas artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade used oil pipeline segments to create a unique petroleum product.

Petroleum pipelines became pop artwork when Texas artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade debuted his 63-foot saxophone sculpture at a Houston nightclub.

Wade (1943-2019) transformed two 48-inch steel oilfield pipes into the free-standing sculpture. A Volkswagen, beer kegs, and assorted parts complete his blue creation for the Billy Blues Bar & Grill on Richmond Avenue.

After considerable debate, the Houston City Council deemed the oilfield pipeline saxophone to be art rather than signage. The Fort Worth Star Telegram described Wade as a “connoisseur of Southwestern kitsch.”

Learn more in “Smokesax” Art has Pipeline Heart.

February 21, 1887 – Herman Frasch Refining Process brings Riches to Rockefeller

this week in oil history chemist Herman Frasch Sulfur King emist

Herman Frasch (1851-1914).

German inventor Herman Frasch applied to patent his process for eliminating sulfur from “skunk-bearing oils.” Once an employee of Standard Oil of New Jersey, the chemist was quickly rehired by John D. Rockefeller, who owned oilfields near Lima, Ohio, that produced a thick, sulfurous oil. Rockefeller had accumulated a 40-million-barrel stockpile of the cheap, sour “Lima oil.”

Standard Oil Company bought Frasch’s patent for a copper-oxide refining process to “sweeten” the oil. By the early 1890s, the company’s new Whiting oil refinery east of Chicago was producing odorless kerosene from desulfurized oil, making Rockefeller a fortune.

Paid in Standard Oil shares and becoming very wealthy, Frasch moved to Louisiana – where the chemist and mining engineer invented a new method to extract sulphur from underground deposits by injecting superheated water into wells. By 1911, he was known as the “Sulfur King.”

February 22, 1923 – First Carbon Black Factory in Texas 

petroleum history february

Early cars had white rubber tires until B.F. Goodrich discovered carbon black improved strength and durability. Above is a custom 1919 Pierce-Arrow. Photo courtesy Peter Valdes-Dapena.

Texas granted its first permit for a carbon black factory to J.W. Hassel & Associates in Stephens County. It had been discovered that carbon black increased the durability of rubber used in tires.

Modern carbon black, which looks like soot, is produced by controlled combustion of petroleum products, both oil and natural gas. It is used in rubber and plastic products, printing inks and coatings.

Automobile tires were white until B.F. Goodrich Company in 1910 discovered that adding carbon black to the vulcanizing process improved strength and durability. An early Goodrich supplier was Crayola crayon manufacturer Binney & Smith Company.

Learn more in Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons.

February 23, 1906 – Flaming Kansas Well makes Headlines

petroleum history rare photo of Kansas gas well fire

Kansas oilfield workers struggled to extinguish this 1906 well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

A small town in southeastern Kansas found itself making headlines when a natural gas well erupted into flames after a lightning strike. The 150-foot burning tower could be seen at night for 35 miles.

Drilled by the New York Oil and Gas Company, the well became a tourist attraction. Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated their readers as technologies of the day struggled to extinguish the highly pressurized well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”

Postcards were printed of the Caney well, which took five weeks to smother using a specially designed and fabricated steel hood. Learn more about Caney’s famed oilfield in Kansas Gas Well Fire.

February 23, 1942 – Japanese Submarine shells California  Oil Refinery

Japanese postcard of submarine off Los Angeles attacking oilfield

A rare Japanese postcard from World War II commemorates the shelling of the California refinery. Image courtesy John Geoghegan.

Less than three months after the start of World War II, a Japanese submarine attacked a refinery and oilfield near Los Angeles. The shelling caused little damage but created the largest mass sighting of UFOs ever in American history.

Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 fired armor-piercing shells at the Bankline Oil Company refinery in Ellwood City, California. The shelling north of Santa Barbara continued for 20 minutes before I-17 escaped into the night. It was the first Axis attack on the continental United States of the war.

Learn more about 1942 panic of the “Battle of Los Angeles” in Japanese Sub attacks Oilfield.

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Recommended Reading: The Natural Gas Revolution: At the Pivot of the World’s Energy Future (2013); Herman Frasch -The Sulphur King (2013); The B.F. Goodrich Story Of Creative Enterprise 1870-1952 (2010); Caney, Kansas: The Big Gas City (1985); The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942: The Mystery Air Raid (2010).

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Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

This Week in Petroleum History, February 11 to February 16

February 12, 1954 – Persistence pays off with First Nevada Oil Well

After hundreds of dry holes (the first drilled near Reno in 1907), Nevada became a petroleum-producing state. Shell Oil Company’s second test of its Eagle Springs No. 1 well in Nye County produced commercial amounts of oil. The routine test revealed petroleum production at an interval between 6,450 feet and 6,730 feet deep.

Although the Eagle Springs field would produce 3.8 million barrels of oil, finding Nevada’s second oilfield took two more decades. Northwest Exploration Company completed the Trap Spring No. 1 well in Railroad Valley, five miles west of the Eagle Springs oilfield in 1976.

Learn more in First Nevada Oil Well.

February 12, 1987 – Texaco Fine upheld for Getty Oil Takeover attempt

A Texas court upheld a 1985 decision against Texaco for having initiated an illegal takeover of Getty Oil after Pennzoil had made a legally binding bid for the company. By the end of the year, the companies settled their historic $10.3 billion legal battle for $3 billion after Pennzoil agreed to drop its demand for interest. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the pact was vital for a reorganization plan that dictated how Texaco emerged from bankruptcy proceedings, a haven it had sought to stop Pennzoil from enforcing the largest court judgement ever awarded.

February 13, 1924 – Forest Oil adopts Yellow Dog

the 1916 Forest Oil Company yellow dog logoAn independent oil exploration company originally founded in 1916 consolidated with four other independent oil companies to form the Forest Oil Corporation – an early developer of secondary recovery technologies. For its logo, the new company included a two-wicked “Yellow Dog” oilfield lantern used on derricks.

Many believed the lantern’s name came from the two burning wicks resembling a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Originally based in Bradford, Pennsylvania – home to the nation’s “first billion dollar oilfield” – Forest Oil developed innovative water-injection methods to keep the Bradford oilfield productive.

Learn more in Yellow Dog – Oilfield Lantern.

February 13, 1977 – Famous Texas Ranger  “El Lobo Solo” dies

two 45 pistols of Lone Wolf Gonzaullas

Gonzaullas’ “working pistols” usually had the trigger guard cut away.

“El Lobo Solo” – The Lone Wolf – Texas Ranger Manuel T. Gonzaullas died at age 85 in Dallas. During much of the 1920s and 1930s, he had earned a reputation as a strict law enforcer in booming oil towns.

When Kilgore became “the most lawless town in Texas” after discovery of the East Texas oilfield in 1930, Gonzaullas was chosen to tame it. “Crime may expect no quarter in Kilgore,”  the Texas Ranger declared. He rode a black stallion named Tony and sported a pair of 1911 .45 Colts with his initials on the handles.

“He was a soft-spoken man and his trigger finger was slightly bent,” noted independent producer Watson W. Wise during a 1985 interview. “He always told me it was geared to that .45 of his.”

Learn more in Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, Texas Ranger.

February 15, 1982 – Atlantic Storm sinks Ocean Ranger

With massive rogue waves reaching as high as 65 feet during an Atlantic cyclone, the offshore drilling platform Ocean Ranger sank on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Canada, killing all 84 on board. About 65 miles east, a Soviet container ship was struck by the same weather system and sank with the loss of 32 crew members. Described at the time as the world’s largest semi-submersible platform, the Ocean Ranger in November 1981 had begun drilling a third well in the Hibernia oilfield for Mobil Oil of Canada.

February 16, 1935 – Oil States form Compact Commission

Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission building circa 1960s

Renamed the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in 1991, IOGCC has been based in Oklahoma City since the 1930s.

The Interstate Oil Compact Commission began in Dallas with the writing of the “Interstate Compact to Preserve Oil and Gas.” The new organization would be headquartered in Oklahoma City following approval by the U.S. Congress in August.

Representatives from Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas agreed to begin implementing a series of provisions to “conserve oil and gas by the prevention of physical waste thereof from any cause.” Oklahoma Gov. Ernest W. Marland  – who founded Marland Oil Company in 1921 – was elected the first chairman.

“In 1935, six states took advantage of a constitutional right to ‘compact,’ or agree to work together, to resolve common issues,” notes IOGCC, which added the word gas to its name in 1991. “Faced with unregulated petroleum overproduction and the resulting waste, the states endorsed and Congress ratified a compact to take control of the issues.”

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Recommended Reading: Roadside Geology of Nevada (2017); The Taking of Getty Oil: Pennzoil, Texaco, and the Takeover Battle That Made History (2017); Images of America: Around Bradford (1997).

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Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Please support energy education with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

This Week in Petroleum History, February 3 to February 10

February 4, 1910 – Famed Showman “Buffalo Bill” explored for Wyoming Black Gold

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s legacy extends beyond his world-famous Wild West Show, reaching into the Wyoming oil patch.

petroleum history W.F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody at his oil well

W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, center in black hat, and other investors at an oilfield on the Shoshone Anticline near Cody, Wyoming, around 1910. Photo courtesy the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Cody, who in 1896 founded the town that bears his name, in February 1910 bought 7,500 shares of Shoshone Oil Company. It was not his first attempt to strike oil.

Cody and several partners, including Wyoming Rep. Frank Mondell, in 1902 had begun exploring near Cody. They drilled one 500-foot dry hole and ran out of money when a second well also failed to find oil.

In 1910 Cody and the congressman once again ventured into the oil business by forming Shoshone Oil. During a visit to New York City, “Buffalo Bill” carried pocket flasks of oil to interest investors. Some of his eastern friends started calling him, “Bill, the Oil King,” noted one historian, adding, “with what degree of seriousness we cannot know.”

Unfortunately for Shoshone Oil, the state’s major oil strikes came south of Cody, and the company’s drilling funds ran out. By the early 1920s, the Salt Creek oilfield would become one of the most productive in the country.

Learn more in Buffalo Bill Shoshone Oil Company (also see First Wyoming Oil Wells).

February 7, 1817 –  First Street lighted by Manufactured Gas illuminates Baltimore

oil history first gaslight street

The first U.S. gas street lamp illuminated Baltimore in 1821. Photo courtesy BG&E.

America’s first public street lamp fueled by manufactured gas illuminated Baltimore, Maryland. The city’s Gas Light Company became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to make its illuminating gas.

A small monument to the street lamp today stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street. Dedicated in 1997, the lamp is a replica of its original 1817 design. One year earlier, Baltimore artist Rembrandt Peale had hosted a gas lighting demonstration in his Holliday Street museum by burning the artificial gas – dazzling businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”

“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,” notes a historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore.

Learn more in Illuminating Gaslight. (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, January 27 to February 2

January 28, 1969 – Oil Spill at Santa Barbara, California

After drilling 3,500 feet below the Pacific Ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara suffered a blowout.

petroleum history january 25 oil spill map of 1969

Since the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, scientists have found that natural California oil seeps leak tons of petroleum each day.

The offshore accident spilled up to 100,000 barrels of oil into the ocean with some reaching southern California’s beaches, including Summerland – where the U.S. offshore petroleum history began in 1896 with wells drilled from piers.

“Riggers began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit when the mud used to maintain pressure became dangerously low. A natural gas blowout occurred,” explains a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The well, which was controlled after 12 days, turned public opinion against offshore exploration and helped lead to establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970.

Scientists have reported that natural California oil seeps leak up to 25 tons of oil every day – and have done so for thousands of years. Offshore wells actually reduce natural seepage by relieving reservoir pressure. The Santa Barbara Channel remains among the largest seeps in the world; most scientists agree that seepage in the channel has been significantly reduced by oil production. An energy education exhibit at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, a “History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel,” opened in September 2018. (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, January 20 to January 26

January 20, 1886 – Great Karg Well erupts Natural Gas at Findlay, Ohio

The spectacular natural gas well – the “Great Karg Well” of Findlay, Ohio – erupted with an initial flow of 12 million cubic feet a day. The well’s gas pressure was so great that it could not be controlled by the technology of the day.

The flow of natural gas ignited into a towering flame that burned for four months – becoming a popular Ohio tourist attraction. Eight years earlier, a gas well in neighboring Pennsylvania had made similar headlines (see Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh).

 petroleum history January Great Karg Well historic marker

A plaque dedicated in 1937 in Findlay, Ohio, commemorated the state’s giant natural gas discovery of 1886.

Although Ohio’s first natural gas well was drilled in Findlay in 1884 by Findlay Natural Gas Company, the Karg well launched the state’s first major natural gas boom and brought many new industries.

Glass companies especially were “lured by free or cheap gas for fuel,” according to a commemorative marker at the Richardson Glass Works in Findlay. “They included eight window, two bottle, two chimney lamp, one light bulb, one novelty, and five tableware glass factories.”

By 1887, Findlay became known as the “City of Light,” adds another historical marker at the first field office for the Ohio Oil Company, which changed its name to Marathon Oil In 1962. The Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay includes Great Karg Well exhibits and is less than two miles from the site of the famous well. Read about other early natural gas discoveries in Indiana Natural Gas Boom

January 21, 1865 – First Roberts Torpedo detonated

Civil War veteran Col. Edward A.L. Roberts detonated eight pounds of black powder 465 feet deep in a well south of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The “shooting” of the well increased daily production from a few barrels of oil to more than 40 barrels, according to Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine. The Titusville Morning Herald in 1866 reported, “Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo. The results have in many cases been astonishing.” Learn more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History. (more…)