Trans-Alaska Pipeline History

North Slope oil began moving through Alaska’s 800-mile pipeline system in 1977.

 

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, designed and constructed to carry billions of barrels of North Slope oil to the port of Valdez, has been recognized as a landmark of engineering.  On June 20, 1977, the 800-mile pipeline began carrying oil from Prudhoe Bay oilfields to the Port of Valdez at Prince William Sound. The oil began arriving 38 days later.

In July 1973, a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Spiro Agnew in the U.S. Senate had passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act after years of debate about the pipeline’s environmental impact. Concerns included spills, earthquakes, and elk migrations.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline illustration of zig-zag design and heaters.

The Alaskan Pipeline system’s 420-miles above ground segments are built in a zig-zag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe.

With the laying of the first section of pipe on March 27, 1975, construction began on what at the time was the largest private construction project in American history. 

The 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, including pumping stations, connecting pipelines, and the ice-free Valdez Marine Terminal, ended up costing billions. The last pipeline weld occurred on May 31, 1977, and oil from the Prudhoe Bay field began flowing to the port of Valdez on June 20, traveling at four miles an hour through the 48-inch-wide pipe. 

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

The completed pipeline system, at a cost of $8 billion, including terminal and pump stations, will transport about 20 percent of U.S. petroleum production. Tax revenues alone earned Alaskans about $50 billion by 2002.

Engineering Milestones

Special engineering was required to protect the environment in difficult construction conditions, according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Details about the pipeline’s history include:

  • Oil was first discovered in Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope in 1968.
  • Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was established in 1970 to design, construct, operate and maintain the pipeline.
  • The state of Alaska entered into a right-of-way agreement on May 3, 1974; the lease was renewed in November of 2002.
  • Thickness of the pipeline wall: .462 inches (466 miles) & .562 inches (334 miles).
  • The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System crosses the ranges of the Central Arctic heard on the North Slope and the Nelchina Herd in the Copper River Basin.
  • The Valdez Terminal covers 1,000 acres and has facilities for crude oil metering, storage, transfer and loading.
  • The pipeline project involved some 70,000 workers from 1969 through 1977.
  • The first pipe of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was laid on March 27, 1975. Last weld was completed May 31, 1977.
  • The pipeline is often referred to as “TAPS” – an acronym for the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
  • More than 170 bird species have been identified along the pipeline.
  • First oil moved through the pipeline on June 20, 1977.
  • 71 gate valves can block oil flow in either direction on the pipeline.
  • First tanker to carry crude oil from Valdez: ARCO Juneau, August 1, 1977.
  • Maximum daily throughput was 2,145,297 on January 14, 1988.
  • The pipeline is inspected and regulated by the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office.
Trans-Alaska Pipeline maps with pumping stations 1 to 12.

The Alaskan pipeline brings North Slope production to tankers at the port of Valdez. Map courtesy USGS.

At the peak of its construction in the fall of 1975, more than 28,000 people worked on the pipeline. There were 31 construction camps built along the route, each built on gravel to insulate and help prevent pollution to the underlying permafrost.

The above-ground sections of the pipeline (420 miles) were constructed in a zigzag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe because of temperature changes.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Specially designed anchor structures, 700 feet to 1,800 feet apart, securely hold the pipe in position. In warm permafrost and other areas where heat might cause undesirable thawing, the supports contain two, two-inch pipes called “heat pipes.”

An essential to Alaska’s economy, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline zig zags through spring flowers.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline today has been recognized as a landmark engineering feat. It remains essential to Alaska’s economy.

The first tanker carrying North Slope oil from the new pipeline sailed out of the Valdez Marine Terminal on August 1, 1977. By 2010, the pipeline had carried about 16 billion barrels of oil. Alaska’s total oil production in 2013 was nearly 188 million barrels, or about seven percent of total U.S. production.

Rise and Fall of Production

The first Alaska oil well with commercial production was completed in 1902 in a region where oil seeps had been known for years. The Alaska Steam Coal & Petroleum Syndicate produced the oil near the remote settlement of Katalla on Alaska’s southern coastline. The oilfield there also led to construction of Alaska Territory’s first refinery.

Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and Exxon discovered the Prudhoe Bay field in March 1968 about 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The oilfield proved to be the largest in North America at more than 213,500 acres (exceeding the East Texas Oilfield, discovered in 1930).

Bell chart of Alaska oil production, 1975-2020.

Alaska’s daily oil production peaked in 1988 at about 2 million barrels of oil per day, according to the Department of Energy Energy Information Administration (EIA), Petroleum Supply Monthly.

Annual Alaska oil production peaked in 1988 at 738 million barrels of oil — about 25 percent of U.S. oil production at the time, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Production averaged about 448,000 barrels of oil per day in 2020, the lowest level in more than 40 years. 

“Crude oil production in Alaska averaged 448,000 barrels per day (b/d) in 2020, the lowest level of production since 1976,” the agency noted in its April 2021 Today in Energy report. “Last year’s production was over 75 percent less than the state’s peak production of more than 2 million b/d in 1988.”

Petroleum history is important. Support link for AOGHS.

The decline in the state’s oil production has decreased deliveries in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, EIA added. Lower oil volumes caused oil to move more slowly in the pipeline, and the travel time from the North Shore to Valdez increased by 18 days in 2020.

For America’s pipeline history during the World War II, see Big Inch Pipelines of WW II and PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WWII.

_______________________

Recommended Reading:  The Great Alaska Pipeline (1988); Amazing Pipeline Stories: How Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Transformed Life in America’s Last Frontier (1997); Oil and Gas Pipeline Fundamentals (1993); Oil: From Prospect to Pipeline (1971). 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. Please become an AOGHS annual supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Trans-Alaska Pipeline History.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/trans-alaska-pipeline. Last Updated: June 16, 2024. Original Published Date: June 20, 2015.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Powered by a diesel-electric engine in 1934, a streamliner cut steam locomotion travel time by half.

 

“Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?” — Bing Crosby, 1932.

By the early 1930s, America’s passenger railroad business was in deep trouble. In addition to the Great Depression, the once dominant transportation industry faced growing competition from automobiles. New refineries produced vast amounts of gasoline, thanks to giant oilfield discoveries like Spindletop Hill in Texas.

Art Deco illustration of famous Burlington Zephyr passenger train.

Diesel-electric engines pioneered by General Motors and Winton Engine Company saved America’s railroad passenger industry with a four-fold power to weight gain. Photo courtesy Model Railroader magazine, January 1999.

Despite the hard economic times, gasoline powered more than 30 million cars, trucks, and buses on U.S. roads (many without asphalt paving).

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Primitive diesel engines of the day remained heavy and slow, but a powerful railroad diesel-electric engine was in the future. It had been 60 years since coal-burning steam locomotives and the transcontinental railroad had linked America’s east and west coasts on May 10, 1869. 

Smoke billowing from a train's diesel engines.

Used since about 1925, diesel engines were heavy — producing only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight.

Although railroad steam engine technology had advanced since the “golden spike” of 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah, locomotives still “belched steam, smoke, and cinders,” noted one railroad historian, adding “Passengers often felt like they had been on a tour of a coal mine.” 

Famous railroad passenger streamliners M-1000 and Burlington Zephyr at station.

The two streamliner trains that changed America’s railroad industry in the late 1930s: the Union Pacific M-10000 (left) and Burlington Zephyr. Today the Zephyr is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Photo courtesy Union Pacific Museum.

Gasoline-Electric Hybrid

While most U.S. locomotives were still steam-powered, General Electric in 1913 designed and built the first commercially successful gasoline-powered engine locomotive. Two General Motors 175-horsepower V-8s powered two 600-volt, direct current generators to propel the 57-ton locomotive to a top speed of 51 miles per hour. 

petroleum history june

The locomotive Dan Patch, considered by many to be the first successful internal combustion engine locomotive in the United States.

The Electric Line of Minnesota Company purchased the new gasoline-powered electric hybrid for $34,500, naming it Dan Patch in honor of the world’s champion harness horse of the time. By 1930, powerful diesel engines with electric generators transformed train travel with streamliners.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

In rail yards, low-geared diesels had been used from about 1925, mainly as engines for “switcher” locomotives used for maneuvering, but they were slow, according to historian Richard Cleghorn Overton. The railroads’ distillate-burning engines proved heavy and difficult to maintain. 

Poster promoting 1934  public exhibition of diesel-electric Burlington Zephyr.

The powerful diesel-electric Zephyr arrived in 1934; its technology was a result of the Navy’s search for an improved submarine engine.

Overton, author of Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines, noted the burning fuels ranged from a low-grade gasoline to painter’s naphtha and diesel. Distillate railroad engines emitted an oily smoke and often produced only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight. The common four-stroke engines fouled easily and required multiple spark plugs per cylinder.

Help for America’s failing passenger railroads would come from U.S. Navy diesel-electric engine technology, wrapped in a stainless steel Art Deco locomotive. 

"Making of a Motor Car" exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago.

New diesel-electric engines generated power for the “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago. The assembly line fascinated visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

“Wings to the Iron Horse…Burlington pioneers again — the first diesel streamline train,” proclaimed passenger rail advertisements in the 1930s. The long awaited technology for railroad diesel-electric engines had arrived.

Diesel-Electric Hybrid 

With the Nazi threat and war on the horizon, the U.S. Navy needed a lighter weight, more powerful diesel engine for its submarine fleet. The Navy also recognized it had been too slow converting its surface vessels from coal to fuel oil (see Petroleum and Sea Power).

General Motors joined the nationwide competition to develop a new diesel engine for the Navy.

Seeking engineering and production expertise, in 1930 GM acquired the Winton Engine Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Winton, established in 1896 as Winton Bicycle Company, was an early automobile manufacturer. Winton Engine Company evolved into a developer of engines for marine applications, power companies, pipeline operators — and railroads.

Burlington Zephyr,, the first diesel-electric passenger train.

America’s first diesel-electric train, the Burlington Zephyr, was a transportation milestone.

With GM’s financial backing, Winton engineers designed a radical new two-stroke diesel that delivered one horsepower per 20 pounds of engine weight. It provided a four-fold power to weight gain.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

The Model 201A  prototype — a 503-cubic-inch, 600 horsepower, 8-cylinder diesel-electric engine — used no spark plugs, relying instead on newly patented high pressure fuel injectors and a 16:1 compression ratio for ignition.

Art deco posters for Burlington Zephyr "streamliner" and 1933 Chicago Worlds fair.

Powered by an eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel engine, the revolutionary streamliner traveled the 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours — a passenger train record.

At Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933, GM evaluated two railroad diesel-electric engines, using them to generate power for its “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit. The working demonstration of a Chevrolet assembly line fascinated thousands of visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

One visitor happened to be Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (known as the Burlington Line). Budd recognized the locomotive potential of these extraordinary new diesel-electric power plants. He saw them as a perfect match for the lightweight “shot-welded” stainless steel rail cars pioneered by the Edward G. Budd (no relation) Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia.

Newspaper with headline about record-breaking run of the Zephyr train.

During its “dawn to dusk” record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned only $16.72 worth of diesel fuel.

Edward Budd was the first to supply the automobile industry with all steel bodies in 1912. His success in steel stamping technology made the production of car bodies cheaper and faster. By 1925, his system was used to produce half of all U.S. auto bodies.

The Depression, however, put the Budd Manufacturing Company almost $2,000,000 in the red — prompting its fortuitous diversification into the railroad car market to generate revenue. When approached by Burlington President Ralph Budd in 1933, this Budd was ready.

Chicago World's Fair visitors in line to see the Burlington Zephyr.

Chicago World’s Fair visitors line up to admire the stainless steel beauty of the Burlington Zephyr, which will soon be featured in a Hollywood movie. Eight major U.S. railroads soon convert to efficient diesel-electric locomotives. Photo from a Burlington Route Railroad 1934 postcard.

Within a year, the two technologies were successfully merged with the creation of the Winton 201A powered Burlington Zephyr, America’s first diesel-electric train. It would change railroad transportation history.

Art Deco Silver Streak

The Zephyr rolled into Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition on May 26, 1934, ending a nonstop 13 hour, 4 minute, and 58 second “dawn to dusk” promotional run from Denver.

Powered by a single eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel, the streamliner cut average steam locomotive time by half. The Zephyr traveled 1,015 miles at an average speed of 76.61 miles per hour and reached speeds along the route in excess of 112 mph — to the amazement and delight of track-side spectators from Colorado to Illinois.

During its record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned just $16.72 worth of diesel fuel (about four cents per gallon). The same distance in a coal steamer would have cost $255. Construction innovations included the specialized shot-welding that joined sheets of stainless steel.

The lightweight steel also resisted corrosion so it didn’t have to be painted.

Movies poster for ''The Silver Streak," a 1934 "B" movie.

Although ”The Silver Streak” was a 1934 “B” movie — intended for the bottom half of double features — it remains a favorite of some railroad history fans.

Americans fell in love with the Zephyr. Four months after its high-speed appearance at Chicago’s Century of Progress, the streamliner made its 1934 Hollywood film debut, starring as “The Silver Streak” for an RKO picture.

The Zephyr was loaned for filming —  and the Burlington logo on its front was repainted to read Silver Streak. “The stream-lined train, platinum blonde descendant of the rugged old Iron Horse, has been glorified by Hollywood in the modern melodrama,” proclaimed the New York Times.

Although the black-and-white “B” movie came and went without making much of a splash, it has won its place in movie history as a rail-fan favorite, according to a 2001 article in the Zephyr Online. “It did have a lot of action, and the location shots of the Zephyr are an interesting record of this pioneer.”

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

The RKO film should not to be confused with 20th Century Fox’s 1976 comedy “Silver Streak,” which was filmed in Canada using Canadian Pacific Railway equipment from the Canadian, a transcontinental passenger train.

WWII Submarine Power

By the end of 1934, eight major U.S. railroads had ordered diesel-electric locomotives. The engine technology’s cost advantages in manpower, maintenance, and support were quickly apparent.

Porpoise (SS-172), the first US submarine to use Winton diesel-electric engines.

Winton diesel-electric engines powered a new generation of U.S. submarines. The Porpoise (SS-172) was the first of its class to join the fleet in 1935 — and served throughout World War II..

Despite the greater initial cost of diesel-electric, a century of steam locomotive dominance soon came to an end. By the mid-1950s, steam locomotives were no longer being manufactured in the United States.

GM won the Navy’s competition for a lightweight powerful diesel — choosing the 16-cylinder Winton Engine Company diesel-electric to power a new class of submarine. In 1935, the USS Porpoise was first to join the fleet, where it served throughout World War II. Diesel-electrics power plants descended from the Burlington Zephyr would remain part of the fleet until replaced by nuclear propulsion.

Petroleum history is important text for support link for AOGHS.

A Zephyr competitor, the Union Pacific M-10000 built by the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company, also showcased railroad diesel-electric engine technology at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

In fact, the aluminum M-10000 streamliner was revealed six weeks earlier than the Zephyr. Recognized as America’s first streamliner, the M-10000 was cut up for scrap in 1942. The Zephyr (later renamed the Pioneer Zephyr) ended up on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

_______________________

Recommended Reading: Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines (1965); Burlington’s Zephyrs, Great Passenger Trains (2004); The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America (2013). 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. Please become an AOGHS annual supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Adding Wings to the Iron Horse.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/adding-wings-to-the-iron-horse. Last Updated: May 20, 2024. Original Published Date: April 29, 2014.

Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum

Famous New York World reporter of 1880s would take charge of Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

 

She was one of the most famous journalists of her day as a reporter for the New York World. Widely known as the remarkable Nellie Bly, Elizabeth J. Cochran Seaman, investigated conditions at an infamous mental institution, made a trip around the world in less than 80 days — and manufactured the first practical 55-gallon oil drum.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.”

Nellie Bly's business card and her oil drum patent drawing assigned to her as Elizabeth Cochran Seaman.

Recognizing the potential of an efficient metal barrel design, Nellie Bly acquired the 1905 patent rights from its inventor, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked at her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

(more…)

Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump

From kerosene to gasoline, an 1892 Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company dispenser preserves petroleum history.

 

Wayne Lease of White Salmon, Washington, owns a rare 1892 self-measuring pump originally designed to dispense kerosene. His pump is one of only 50 manufactured by the Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company during its first year of business in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Lease has researched his petroleum technology artifact, learning it was manufactured for selling kerosene, the popular 19th century lamp fuel sold at mercantile stores. His Wayne Company hand-cranked, measured dispensing pump apparently was later modified to supply gasoline.

Original 1892 Wayne Oil Tank Company pump.

Original 1892 Wayne Oil Tank Company pump, one of just 50 manufactured to dispense kerosene during the company’s first year of business in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

“My research indicates the Wayne pump was never manufactured to be used for gasoline, but rather kerosene only,” Lease noted in a 2020 email to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

He explained that many researchers of gasoline service station pumps have overlooked Wayne and other manufacturers’ altered pumps, “best defined as an ‘after strike,’ which allowed the use in the transfer of the more volatile gasoline.”

Self-measuring pump venders made good use of a dispenser that had become less needed because of electric lighting, Lease added.

The original Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company design was limited to the specific use of kerosene as a lamp fuel, Lease explained. Kerosene was sold in general stores of rural America, where merchandise often could be found at stage coach stops spaced 15 miles to 25 miles apart.

Kerosene lamp fuel would be joined by a new transportation fuel in the early 1900s, gasoline for autos. “Small cities now become the hub of commerce on a larger scale with the introduction of the combustion engine,” he added. Kerosene would succumb to the Rural Electrification Act (1936) as gasoline became the U.S. consumer’s primary need.

“The Wayne pump, one of fifty made in1892, was then certified for the use of the transfer of Gasoline, and the vender made good use of what had become obsolete,” the amateur pump historian concluded in his 2020 email. He continues to research more information about the pump.

Original 1892 Wayne Oil Tank Company pump, one of just 50 manufactured to dispense kerosene during the company's first year of business in Wayne, Indiana.

Detailed Wayne pump measurement scale 70 designed for dispensing kerosene and later, gasoline.

“It is in immaculate condition as you can see by the photographs, Lease noted. He is seeking more information about the pump…and a potential petroleum museum interested in adding the Wayne pump to its collection.  Insights are welcomed in comment section below.

Learn more early transportation and gasoline pump history in First Gas Pump and Service Station and Coin-Operated Gas Pumps.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Wayne Fueling Systems

History from the former Wayne Oil Tank Company, today still operating as Wayne Fueling Systems:

Wayne has been shaping the retail and fleet fueling industry since we designed our first pump in 1891.  We were known as the Wayne Oil Tank Company back then, and from the very beginning we were developing a reputation for quality.

View of trade show display for Wayne Oil Tank and Pump Company equipment.

Trade show display for Wayne Oil Tank and Pump Company equipment, showing gasoline and oil pumps. Sign for Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Co. in background. Handwritten note on back: “Service stations, 1910. Gasoline pump.” Photo courtesy Detroit Public Library.

In fact, this inaugural product won the distinction “The Best Self Measuring Oil Pump” at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago just two years later. Once the motor vehicle entered the scene, our purpose and mission was solidified – to create a reliable, accurate way for motorists to refuel cars...Learn more at About Wayne Fueling Systems.

_______________________

Recommended Reading: Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1993). 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 preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please become an AOGHS supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/waynes-self-measuring-pump. Last Updated: May 11, 2024. Original Published Date: July 14, 2021. 

Densmore Brothers invent First Oil Tank Car

Pennsylvanians advance oil industry infrastructure and later help invent “QWERTY” typewriter keyboard.

 

As Northwestern Pennsylvania oil production skyrocketed following the Civil War, railroad oil tank cars fabricated by two brothers improved shipment volumes from oilfields to kerosene refineries. The tank car designed by James and Amos Densmore would not last long, but more success followed when Amos came up with an innovative keyboard arrangement for typewriters.

Flatbed railroad cars with two wooded oil tank cars became the latest advancement in oilfield infrastructure after the Densmore brothers patented their design on April 10, 1866.

The inventors from Meadville, Pennsylvania, had developed an “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum” one year earlier in America’s booming oil regions. The first U.S. oil well had been drilled just seven years earlier along Oil Creek in Titusville.

Densmore brothers circa 1860s wooden oil tank car exhibit in Pennsylvania.

The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at the Miller Farm along Oil Creek, Titusville, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum and Park.

Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured two tanks in order to ship oil in bulk. The patent (no. 53,794) described and illustrated the railroad car’s design.

The nature of our invention consists in combining two large, light tanks of iron or wood or other material with the platform of a common railway flat freight-car, making them practically part of the car, so as they carry the desired substance in bulk instead of in barrels, casks, or other vessels or packages, as is now universally done on railway cars.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Development of railroad tank cars came when traditional designs, including the flatcar, hopper, and boxcar, proved inadequate for large amounts of oil — often shipped in 42-gallon barrels.

New designs were born out of necessity, as the fledgling oil industry demanded a better car for the movement of its product, according to American-Rails.com.

“Before the car was developed, railroads used a combination of boxcars, flatcars, and gondolas to haul everything from lumber and coal to crude oil, molasses, and water (by use of barrels),” noted Adam Burns in 2022. “One of the most prolific car types you will find moving within a freight train today is the tank car.”

A Densmore two-tank oil tank car is being filled among oil derricks.

Prone to leaks and top heavy, Densmore tank cars provided a vital service, if only for a few years before single, horizontal tanks replaced them.

According to transportation historian John White Jr., the Densmore brothers’ oil tank design essentially consisted of a flat car with wooden vats attached. “The Central Pacific is known to have used such specialized cars to transport water, he noted in his 1995 book, The American Railroad Freight Car.

“However, prior to the discovery of oil by Colonel Edward (sic) Drake near Titusville, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1859, the tank car was virtually non-existent,” added White, a former curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution.

Dual Tank Design

The brothers further described the use of special bolts at the top and bottom of their tanks to act as braces and “to prevent any shock or jar to the tank from the swaying of the car while in motion.”

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

A Pennsylvania historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville commemorates the Densmore brothers’ significant contribution to petroleum transportation technology. Dedicated in 2004, the marker notes:

The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek. It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of oil. A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.

The benefit of such railroad cars to the early petroleum industry’s infrastructure was immense, especially as more Americans eagerly sought oil-refined kerosene for lamps.

Despite design limitations that would prove difficult to overcome, independent producers took advantage of the opportunity to transport large amounts of petroleum. Other transportation methods required teamsters taking barrels to barges on Oil Creek and the Allegheny River to get to kerosene refineries in Pittsburgh.

Abandoned Densmore oil tank cars among derricks with improved horizontal tanks nearby.

Riveted cylindrical iron tank cars replaced Densmore brothers’ wooden vat cars. Discarded Densmore tanks can be seen. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

As larger refineries were constructed, it was found that it cost $170 less to ship 80 barrels of oil from Titusville to New York in a tank car instead of individual barrels. But the Densmore cars had flaws.

They were unstable, top heavy, prone to leaks, and limited in capacity by the eight-foot width of the flatcar. Within a year, oil haulers shifted from the Densmore vertical vats to larger, horizontal riveted iron cylindrical tanks, which also demonstrated greater structural integrity during derailments or collisions.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

The same basic cylindrical design for transporting petroleum can be seen as modern railroads load products from corn syrup to chemicals — all in a versatile tank car that got its start in the Pennsylvania oil industry.

Oil Tanks to Typewriters

Although the Densmore brothers left the oil region by 1867 — their inventiveness was far from over. In 1875, Amos Densmore assisted Christopher Sholes to rearrange the “type writing machine” keyboard so that commonly used letters no longer collided and got stuck. The “QWERTY” arrangement vastly improved Shole’s original 1868 invention.

Densmore typewriter company advertisement.

Amos Densmore helped invent one of the first practical typewriters.

Following his brother’s work with Sholes, inventor of the first practical typewriter, James Densmore’s oilfield financial success helped the brothers establish the Densmore Typewriter Company, which produced its first model in 1891. Few historians have made the oil patch to typewriter keyboard connection — including Densmore biographers. 

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

“Biographies of the Densmores — and even their personal papers now residing at the Milwaukee Public Museum — all refer to their work on typewriters, but make no mention of their pioneering work in railroad tank car design,” notes the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.

_______________________

Recommended Reading:  The American Railroad Freight Car (1995); Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Industry in Pennsylvania (2000); Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (2019); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). 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. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Densmore Oil Tank Cars.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/densmore-oil-tank-car. Last Updated: April 5, 2024. Original Published Date: April 7, 2013.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Crucial time passed before containment, but surprising lessons learned from a zealous remediation process.

 

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission would later report about the March 24, 1989, offshore disaster. 

After nearly a dozen years of routine daily passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, an oil tanker ran aground, rupturing the hull. Supertanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and spilled more than 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount used by Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council as too conservative.

Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

Field studies continue to examine the effects of the Exxon supertanker’s disastrous grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

A General Complacency

When the 987-foot tanker hit the reef shortly after midnight, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” according to the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s initial report. 

“At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system,” the commission noted. Complacency about giant oil tankers ended on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” added the commission’s report. “Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

Map showing days of Exxon oil spill spreading on Alaskan coast in 1989.

“Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. Improved shipbuilding technologies resulted in supersized vessels.

“Whereas tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil…the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil,” the report explained.

Alaskan weather conditions — 33 degrees with a light rain — and the remote location added to the 1989 disaster, the report continues. With the captain not present, the third mate made a navigation error, according to another 1990 investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez.

“The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” the Safety Board concluded.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

Containing Oil Spills

At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate, according to the Oil Spill Commission.

“The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill — but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium,” the commission’s report explained.

Detailed illustration of oil tanks inside 987-oot-long super tanker Exxon Valdez.

At 987 feet long and 166 feet wide, the Exxon Valdez — delivered to Exxon in December 1986 — was the largest ship ever built on the West Coast.

The commission added that the U.S. Coast Guard, “would demonstrate its prowess at ship salvage, protecting crews and lightering operations, but prove utterly incapable of oil spill containment and response.”

Spill Cleanup Lessons

Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist.

“Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” noted a 2001 study for the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

“However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil,” explained scientific diving expert Stephen Jewett, professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.” Jewett added.

His academic paper, “Scuba techniques used to assess the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” brought insights to mitigating the impact of the Alaskan oil spill — which had expedited passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

According to ExxonMobil, the company spent $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, “including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.”

A study conducted by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission resulted in the February 1990 report, “Details about the Accident.”

Experts have continued to review effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef; most have reported that although the ecosystem in Prince William Sound continues to recover, it is healthy.

Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society

In March 2014, a 70-page review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA report), “Twenty-Five Years After the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: NOAA’s Scientific Support, Monitoring, and Research,” examined the incident and NOAA’s involvement in the response, operational monitoring, and subsequent research.

Two decades before Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding, an oil spill from a Union Oil offshore platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, led to the modern environmental movement — and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Learn more about the 1969 California offshore accident in Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill.

_______________________

Recommended Reading:  The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (2018); Amazing Pipeline Stories: How Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Transformed Life in America’s Last Frontier (1997). 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. © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/exxon-valdez-oil-spill. Last Updated: March 15, 2024. Original Published Date: March 24, 2009.

Pin It on Pinterest