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Extraordinary maritime project supports petrochemical facilities.


houston ship channel

A 1915 postcard captures the Houston Ship Channel one year after President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the newly dredged waterway. Photo courtesy Fort Bend Museum, Richmond, Texas.


houston ship channel

The Houston Ship Channel on Buffalo Bayou leads upstream to Houston – where downtown can be seen at top right. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library.

Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel opened for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port.

President Woodrow Wilson saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.

The waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It had been used to ship goods to the Gulf of Mexico as early as the 1830s. “Steamboats and shallow draft boats were the only vessels able to navigate its complicated channel,” ASCE adds about the waterway, now part of the part of the Port of Houston.

In 1837, the steamship Laura traveled from Galveston Bay up Buffalo Bayou to what is now Houston, explains the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County. The trip, in water no deeper than six feet, proved the bayou was navigable by sizable vessels and established a commercial link between Houston and the rest of the world. The Houston Ship Channel today is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It supported oil refineries and among the largest petrochemical facilities in the world.

houston ship channel

A “Bird’s Eye” view of Houston in 1891. Today’s Port of Houston is ranked first in foreign cargo and among the largest ports in the world. Map image courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” adds the Port Authority, which administers the channel.

According to ASCE, Harris County citizens in 1909 formed a navigation district (an autonomous governmental body supervising the port) and issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel.

houston ship channel

A museum in Beaumont, Texas, includes refinery exhibits for educating young people about the Port of Houston. Photo courtesy The Texas Energy Museum.

Harris County voters in January 1910 overwhelming approved dredging their ship channel to a depth of 25 feet for $1.25 million. The U.S. Congress provided matching funds. As work began in 1912, similar extraordinary maritime projects of the time included the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

By 1930 eight refineries are operating along the deepwater channel, ASCE notes. The area eventually will support one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Now along the shores are petrochemical facilities and oil refineries, including ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery, among the largest in the United States.

The modern Houston Ship Channel has been extended from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River, ending four miles east of downtown. Although the dredging vessel Texas first signaled (by whistle) completion on September 7, 1914, the official opening date has remained when President Wilson remotely fired his Texas cannon on November 10.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Houston Ship Channel of 1914.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/houston-ship-channel. Last Updated: November 3, 2019. Original Published Date: November 25, 2014.

Early autos shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons.

“Petroleum, which consists of crude oil and refined products such as gasoline, diesel, and propane, is the largest primary source of energy consumed in the United States, accounting for 36 percent of total energy consumption in 2018…More than two-thirds of finished petroleum products consumed in the United States are used in the transportation sector.” — U.S. Energy Information Administration, Today in Energy, August 2, 2019.

America’s first auto show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in November 1900. Gasoline proved to be the least popular source of engine power.

first auto show

Gasoline engines will take time to catch on with consumers.

Charles Duryea had claimed the first American patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. Meanwhile, New York City public workers were removing 450,000 tons of horse manure from the streets every year.

Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea test drove their gasoline powered automobile – built in their Springfield, Massachusetts, workshop – on April 19, 1892. Considered the first automobile regularly made for sale in the United States, a total of 13 of the model was manufactured by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Other manufacturers quickly followed the Duryea example.

Although their company would last only three years, according to the Henry Ford Museum, “brothers Charles and Frank Duryea became the first Americans to attempt to build and sell automobiles at a profit.”

It was reported two months after the company’s first sale in 1896 that a New York City motorist driving a Duryea hit a bicyclist. This was recorded as the nation’s first automobile traffic accident.

A growing number of the new “infernal machines” soon shared unpaved U.S. roads with startled horses. Of the 4,200 new automobiles sold in the United States at the turn of the century, gasoline powered less than 1,000. Read the rest of this entry »

Inventor’s Chicago Bridge & Iron Company field-erected a spherical pressure vessel in 1923.


hortonsphereHortonspheres, the trademarked name of many containers like these, were invented by a bridge builder.

september petroleum history

Hortonspheres made natural gas storage safer.

Seen from the highway, they look like giant eggs or perhaps fanciful Disney architectural projects. The massive globes, once constructed by riveting together wrought iron plates, were invented by a Chicago bridge builder.

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I) named their “Hortonspheres” after Horace Ebenezer Horton, the company founder and inventor of the round vessels. His creation of a highly efficient storage tank was one of the great innovations to come to the oil patch.

Horton (1843-1912), the son of a successful Rochester, New York, real estate developer, grew up in Chicago. Skilled in mechanical engineering, he was 46 years old when he formed CB&I in 1889. His company had built seven bridges across the Mississippi River when its Washington Heights, Illinois, fabrication plant expanded into the manufacture of water tanks.

CB&I erected its first elevated water tank in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1892, according to the company, which notes that “the elevated steel plate tank was the first built with a full hemispherical bottom, one of the company’s first technical innovations.”


Horace E. Horton designed spherical storage vessels for his Chicago Bridge & Iron Company. Photo courtesy CB&I.

When Horton died in 1912, his company was just getting started. Soon, the company’s elevated tank towers were providing efficient water storage and pipeline pressure that benefited many cities and towns. CB&I’s first elevated “Watersphere” tank was completed in 1939 in Longmont, Colorado.

The company had brought its steel plate engineering expertise to the oil and natural gas industry as early as 1919, when it built a petroleum tank farm in Glenrock, Wyoming, for Sinclair Refining Company (formed by Harry Sinclair in 1916).

CB&I’s innovative steel plate structures and its tank building technologies proved a great success. The company left bridge building entirely to supply the petroleum infrastructure market. Newly discovered oilfields in Ranger, Texas, in 1917 and Seminole, Oklahoma, in the 1920s were straining the nation’s petroleum storage capacity.

In the Permian Basin, a West Texas company desperate to store soaring oil production constructed an experimental tank designed to hold up to five million barrels of oil. The structure used concrete-coated earthen walls 30 feet tall and covered with a cedar roof to slow evaporation. But the tank’s seams leaked and it was abandoned. It today is home to the Million Barrel Museum.


A spherically bottomed water tower shown in the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company 1912 sales book.

By 1923, CB&I’s storage innovations like its “floating roof” oil tank had greatly increased safety and profitability as well as setting industry standards. That year the company built its first Hortonsphere in Port Arthur, Texas. Soon, pressure vessels of all sizes where being used for storage of compressed gases such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or propane and butane in a liquid gas stage.

Hortonspheres safely hold liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is produced by cooling natural gas at atmospheric pressure to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it liquefies. In one of engineering’s finest examples of form following function, a sphere is the theoretical ideal shape for a vessel that resists internal pressure.

In that first Port Arthur installation and up until about 1941, the component steel plates were riveted; thereafter, welding allowed for increased pressures and vessel sizes. As metallurgy and welding advances brought tremendous gains in Hortonspheres’ holding capacities, they also have proven to be an essential part of the modern petroleum refining business.

CB&I constructed fractionating towers for many petroleum refineries, beginning with Standard Oil of Louisiana at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1930. The company also built a giant, all-welded 80,000 barrel oil storage tank in New Jersey.

Since 1923, Chicago Bridge & Iron has fabricated more than 3,500 Hortonspheres for worldwide markets in capacities reaching more than three million gallons. The company today says it continues to be the leading spherical storage container builder worldwide.

Poughkeepsie’s Hortonsphere


A Hortonsphere viewed in 2012 from the “Walkway over the Hudson” in Poughkeepsie, New York. Photo courtesy Jeff Buster.

Fascinated by geodestic domes and similiar structures, Jeff Buster discovered a vintage Hortonsphere in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2012 he contacted the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Buster wanted the agency to save Horton’s sphere at at the corner of Dutchess and North Water streets. He asked that an effort be made “to preserve this beautiful and unique ‘form following function’ structure, which is in immediate risk of being demolished.”

Buster posted a photo of the Poughkeepsie Hortonsphere on a website devoted to geodestic domes. “The jig saw pattern of steel plates assembled into this sphere is unique,” he wrote.

“The lay-out pattern is repeated four times around the vertical axis of the tank,” Buster added. “With the rivets detailing the seams, the sphere is extremely cool and organic feeling.”

Although the steel tank, owned by Central Hudson Gas and Electric Company, was demolished in late 2013, Buster’s photo helps preserve its oil patch legacy.

LNG Spheres at Sea

Sphere technology became seaborn as well. On February 20, 1959, after a three-week voyage, the Methane Pioneer – the world’s first LNG tanker – arrived at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England, from Lake Charles, Louisiana. The 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. The successful voyage demonstrated that large quantities of liquefied natural gas could be transported safely across the ocean.

Most modern LNG carriers have between four and six tanks on the vessel. New classes have a cargo capacity of between 7.4 million cubic feet and 9.4 million cubic feet. They are equipped with their own re-liquefaction plant. In 2015 – about 100 years after Horace Ebenezer Horton died – Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced it was building next-generation LNG carriers to transport the shale gas produced in North America.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Horace Horton’s Spheres.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/hortonspheres/. Last Updated: September 23, 2019. Original Published Date: December 14, 2016.

The gasoline service station with the first gas pump can trace its roots to a pump that dispensed kerosene at an Indiana grocery store in the late 1880s.


first gas pump

Gas pumps with dials were followed by calibrated glass cylinders. Meter pumps using a small glass dome with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder as pumps continued to evolve.

S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885.

Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bowser’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product that had been in demand for half a century – soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

first gas pump

Bowser’s “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pumps” became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when unattended.

Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps held up to 42 gallons.

Bowser kerosene pumps used marble valves, a wooden plunger and an upright faucet. With the pump’s popular success at Jake Gumper’s grocery store, Bowser formed the S.F. Bowser & Company and patented his invention in late October 1887.

first gas pump

Bowser’s 1887 patent was a pump for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum.”

Within a decade – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful.

First Gas Pump, First Service Station

By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.”

The original Bowser pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroke lever action.

Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. More design innovations followed. The popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its “clamshell” cover offered security when the pump was left unattended (see the Diamond Filling Station of 1920 in Washington, D.C).

With the addition of competing businesses such as Wayne Pump Company and Tokheim Oil Tank & Pump Company, the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, became the gas-pump manufacturing capital of the world. Some companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.

first gas pump

Manufactured in 1911, an S.F. Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” pumped gas on North Capitol Street in Washington D.C., in 1920. The Penn Oil Company’s pump’s topmost globe, today prized by collectors, survived only as a bulb. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.


 first gas pump

Penn Oil Company filling stations were the exclusive American distributor of Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product made up of “50 percent gasoline and 50 percent of chemicals, the nature of which is secret.” The secret ingredient was likely alcohol. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

First Drive-In Service Station

Although Standard Oil will claim a Seattle, Washington, station of 1907, and others argue about one in St. Louis two years earlier, most agree that when “Good Gulf Gasoline” went on sale, Gulf Refining Company opened America’s first true drive-in service station.

The motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913. Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, an architect purposefully designed the pagoda-style brick facility offered free air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation.

first gas pump

Gulf Refining Company’s decision to open the first service station (above) along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was no accident. By 1913 the boulevard had become known as “automobile row'” because of the high number of dealerships. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere,” notes a Gulf corporate historian. “The evidence indicates that these were simply sidewalk pumps and that the honor of the first drive-in is that of Gulf and Pittsburgh.”

The Gulf station included a manager and four attendants standing by. The original service station’s brightly lighted marquee provided shelter from bad weather for motorists.

first gas pump

Spitlers Auto Supply Company, 205 Commerce Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, closed in 1931. It was an example of curbside pumps used before Gulf Refining Company established covered, drive-through stations.

“On its first day, the station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon. On its first Saturday, Gulf’s new service station pumped 350 gallons of gasoline,” notes the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“Prior to the construction of the first Gulf station in Pittsburgh and the countless filling stations that followed throughout the United States, automobile drivers pulled into almost any old general or hardware store, or even blacksmith shops in order to fill up their tanks,” the historical commission explains.

The decision to open the first station along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh was no accident.

first gas pump

Until about 1925, Gulf Refining Company was the only oil company to issue maps. Gulf was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Map image courtesy Harold Cramer.


first gas pump

This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank. A “clock face” dial let the consumer know how much gas had been pumped. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.

By 1913 when the station was opened, Baum Boulevard had become known as “automobile row” because of the high number of dealerships that were located along the thoroughfare.

“Gulf executives must have figured that there was no better way to get the public hooked on using filling stations than if they could pull right in and gas up their new car after having just driven it off the lot,” notes a commission historian.

In addition to gas, the Gulf station also offered free air and water – and sold the first commercial road maps in the United States.

“The first generally distributed oil company road maps are usually credited to Gulf,” says Harold Cramer in his Early Gulf Road Maps of Pennsylvania.

“The early years of oil company maps, circa 1915 to 1925, are dominated by Gulf as few other oil companies issued maps, and until about 1925 Gulf was the only oil company to issue maps annually,” Cramer notes.

The Gulf Refining Company was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family, along with other investors, as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year – to exploit the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas.

first gas pump

Collectors value station memorabilia, including this pump and globe exhibited at the Northwoods Petroleum Museum outside Three Lakes, Wisconsin, established in 2006.

While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh may have been the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.

“At the turn of the century, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit,” notes Kurt Ernst in a 2013 article.

“In 1905, a Shell subsidiary opened a filling station in St. Louis, Missouri, but it required attendants to fill a five gallon can behind the store, then haul this to the customer’s vehicle for dispensing.

“A similar filling station was constructed by Socal gasoline in Seattle, Washington, opening in 1907,” Ernst explains in his The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.

“Today, 152,995 gas stations dot the landscape, including 123,289 convenience stores,” Ernst reports. On average, each location sells about 4,000 gallons of fuel per day, “quite a jump from the 30 gallons sold at the Gulf station in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.”

Photographs of early service stations remain an important part of preserving U.S. transportation history (also architecture, pump technologies, advertising methods, and more). The Library of Congress maintains a large collection, as do others posted in AOGHS Photography Links. The article Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park also offers insights that can be found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a station in a Washington, D.C., suburb.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First Gas Pump and Service Station.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/first-gas-pump-and-service-stations. Last Updated: September 2, 2019. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.

Bertha Benz’s 60-mile drive made headlines for her husband’s fledgling auto company.

BY 1888, German mechanical engineer Karl Friedrich Benz invented, built, marketed, and sold a three-wheel “motorwagen,” today recognized as the world’s first car.

first car

Just two years after Karl Benz applied for his patent, his wife Bertha in 1888 was the first person to drive his gas-powered motorwagen over a long distance, bringing worldwide attention…and sales.

Others had experimented with electric and steam-powered vehicles. A gasoline powered engine had been placed placed on a pushcart in 1870, but is was Karl Benz who invented the modern car when he built his “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine) in Mannheim, Germany, in 1885.

Benz applied for an Imperial patent for his three-wheeled carriage powered by a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine on January 29, 1886. The Benz patent is recognized as the world’s first for a practical internal combustion engine powered automobile.

Although there had already been “auto-mobiles,” Benz used the internal combustion engine as the drive system for a “self-mover,” notes a Mercedes Benz company historian. “He presented his stroke of genius at the Imperial Patent Office – the car was born.” Since he soon built several identical three-wheeled vehicles, Benz also has been credited with first “production car” in history.

Born in 1844 in Baden Muehlburg, Benz founded a “Iron Foundry and Machine Shop” in 1871, He received his first engine patent in 1879. His remarkable 1886 engine – with a displacement of 0.954 of a liter – “anticipated elements still found in every internal combustion engine to this day: a crankshaft with balance weights, electric ignition and water cooling: enough to generate 0.55 kW and a top speed of 16 km/h, virtually corresponding to the power of a whole horse.”

It would not be long before his wife – from a wealthy German family who had earlier used her dowry to help Benz – made headlines driving his new automobile.

First Road Trip

Thirty-nine-year-old Bertha Benz made history on August 12, 1888 (History.com says August 5), “when she became the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile,” proclaims. “The trip helped popularize Karl Benz’s latest invention—and likely saved him from professional and financial ruin.”

Bertha reportedly drove away with the “Model III Patent Motorwagen” without her husband’s permission, although she left a note saying she was taking their two young sons to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Her route from their home in Mannheim was about 60 miles. The drive, which included stops at apothecary shops to buy a petroleum solvent needed keep the car running, took about 15 hours. She returned home three days later.

“The value of the journey to the fledgling car company that would in time become Mercedes-Benz is hard to quantify properly, but she surely helped to ensure that by the end of the century it was the largest car company in the world,” concluded a 2013 article in The Telegraph.

“Bertha’s journey proved many things, not least that a woman was every bit as capable of handling one of these newfangled contraptions as a man,” the article also noted. “Today you can go to Mannheim and retrace her steps by following the signs of the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.”

Bertha Benz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016 as the first female automotive pioneer.

According to Mary Bellis at About.com, five years later, in 1903, Benz retired from Benz & Company after his designs became outdated by inventions by Gottlieb Daimler.

Daimler (together with his design partner Wilhelm Maybach) in 1885 had taken the internal combustion engine “a step further and patented what is generally recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine,” notes Bellis.

Karl Benz would serve as a member of the supervisory board of Daimler-Benz AG from 1926, when the company was formed, until his death in 1929.

In America, Charles Duryea claimed the first U.S. patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. By the turn of the century, about 8,000 vehicles shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons. In New York City public workers removed 450,000 tons of horse manure every year. Read about a November 1900 event in Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First Car, First Road Trip.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/benz-patents-first-car. Last Updated: August 12, 2019.

Phillips Petroleum makes aviation history in 1927 Pacific air race.

Thanks to Frank Phillips, high-octane gas refined by Phillips Petroleum Company powered the “Woolaroc” monoplane to victory in a record-setting but deadly 1927 air race from California to Hawaii. 



Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

It was a foggy Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, as eight airplanes prepared for takeoff before a crowd of more than 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California. Read the rest of this entry »

Smithsonian’s Transportation Hall includes an oilfield service truck among petroleum-related exhibits.

America on the Move

The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system.

America on the Move

The role of “Route 66” from Chicago to Los Angeles is an exhibit feature.

A Smithsonian exhibition includes themes aimed at educating visitors about transportation in American history. The Route 66 exhibit includes a 1930s red truck from Shawnee, Oklahoma, carrying a small tri-cone drilling bit.

Opened in 2003 after a $22 million renovation, the Transportation Hall of National Museum of American History is 26,000 square feet – with 340 objects. The Washington, D.C., attraction features 19 historic settings in chronological order.

“America on the Move” features the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive transportation collection using the latest multimedia technology – and a massive locomotive.

The exhibition “brings back to life the history of ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles. It also reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.” Read the rest of this entry »

Their design did not last long, but it led to Amos Desmore’s invention of the “QWERTY” keyboard typewriter.

As Pennsylvania petroleum production skyrocketed following the Civil War, Densmore oil tank cars – designed and fabricated by two inventive brothers – first successfully transported oil by rail from booming oilfields to refineries.

densmore oil tank car

Amos and James Densmore designed their first twin tanked railroad cars in 1865. They improved bulk transportation of oil. Photo courtesy the Drake Well Museum.

densmore oil tank car

Although prone to leaks and top heavy, Densmore tank cars provided a vital service – but only briefly. A better railroad car replaced them.

Railroad oil tank cars became the latest of a growing number of oilfield innovations when two brothers received a U.S. patent on April 10, 1866.

James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, were granted the patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” which they developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured two tanks in order to ship oil in bulk. Patent no. 53,794 describes and illustrates 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.

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

An historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville memorializes the Densmore brothers’ contribution to petroleum transportation technology.

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.

densmore oil tank car

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

densmore oil tank car

Amos Densmore helped invent one of the first practical typewriters.

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.

According to an ExplorePAhistory.com article, the benefit of such cars to the oil industry was immense – it cost $170 less to ship eighty barrels of oil from Titusville to New York in a tank car than in 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.

The same basic design for transporting petroleum is still used today as railroads have put  dozens of other products – from corn syrup to chemicals – in the versatile tank car.

From Oil to Typewiters

Although the Densmore brothers left the oil region by 1867 – their inventiveness was far from over.

In 1875, Amos Densmore assisted Christopher L. 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.

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.

The ExplorePAhistory.com article concludes:

“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.”



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Densmore Oil Tank Cars.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/densmore-oil-tank-car. Last Updated: July 8, 2019.

Powered by a a single eight-cylinder diesel engine, a “streamliner” in 1934 cut average steam locomotive time by half.


Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Diesel-electric engines pioneered by General Motors and Winton Engine Company (established in 1896 as a bicycle company) saved America’s railroad passenger industry. Two-stroke diesel engines provided a four-fold power to weight gain. Photo courtesy Model Railroader magazine, January 1999.


Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

“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

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Diesel engines had been used since about 1925. The engines were heavy, producing only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight.

In the early 1930s America’s passenger railroad business was in trouble. In addition to the Great Depression, the once dominant industry faced growing competition from automobiles.

It had been just 60 years since coal-burning steam locomotives and the transcontinental railroad had linked America’s east and west coasts. Now, more than 30 million cars, trucks, and buses were on U.S. roads. What would power heavy transportation?

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

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

The powerful diesel-electric Zephyr arrived in 1934 – a result of the Navy’s search for a new engine for its submarines.

The railroads’ distillate-burning internal combustion engines of the day were heavy and troublesome. Primitive diesels had been used in switch engines from about 1925, but they were slow, explains Richard Cleghorn Overton in Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines.

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. These common four-stroke engines fouled easily and required multiple spark plugs per cylinder.

Even Bing Crosby lamented the fate of railroads in his popular song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Improved Iron Horse

Help was on the way for America’s failing passenger railroads. It would come from the U.S. Navy in the form of a diesel-electric engine…wrapped in a stainless steel Art Deco locomotive.

“Wings to the Iron Horse,” proclaimed a company advertisement in the 1930s. “Burlington pioneers again – the first diesel streamline train.”

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

With the threat of war on the horizon, the U.S. Navy needed a lighter weight, more powerful diesel engine for its submarine fleet. General Motors joined the nationwide competition to develop a new diesel engine.

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.

The Winton Engine Company evolved into a developer of engines for marine applications, power companies, pipeline operators – and railroads.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

America’s first diesel-electric train made railroad history.

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.

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.

At Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933, GM evaluated two 201 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.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Powered by a single 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.

One visitor happened to be Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (known as the Burlington Line). Budd immediately 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 being pioneered by the Edward G. Budd (no relation) Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

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.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

Art Deco and the Silver Streak

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

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.

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.

Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

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.

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.”

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.

More than a Railroad Technology

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.

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.

A Zephyr competitor — the Union Pacific M-10000 built by the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company — also appeared 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) is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information: Article Title: “Adding Wings to the Iron Horse.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/adding-wings-to-the-iron-horse. Last Updated: July 1, 2019.

Library of Congress photograph tells many early automotive stories.

Among the thousands of images in the Library of Congress’ online digital collection, many offer insights for understanding the early U.S. petroleum industry. Details found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a Washington, D.C., suburb captured an interesting scene of petroleum products’ infrastructure.


Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

Despite “blemishes resulting from a natural deterioration in the original coatings,” this 1921 image of a Takoma Park, Maryland, gas station from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division helps preserve U.S. petroleum history.

Originally printed from an eight-inch by six-inch glass negative, the library’s digital image (reproduction number: LC-DIG-npcc-30003) features Takoma Park and its railroad station on the northeastern border of the District of Columbia and Maryland.

Today a quiet residential community, Takoma Park was established in 1883 by New York venture capitalist B.F. Gilbert and was among the first railroad-accessible suburbs to downtown D.C. “Takoma ‘s development followed a prototypical pattern for similar real estate ventures throughout the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” notes local historian Lisa Bently.

“The little community was promoted as offering healthy living (it occupies land several hundred feet higher than the lowlands of downtown Washington), fresh air, and uncrowded living conditions,” she adds.

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

A Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) station at Takoma Park created a thriving commercial district.

But unlike other Victorian-era commuter rail suburbs, Takoma Park’s location on a major rail line (the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) created a thriving commercial district, Bently explains in Historic Significance of Takoma Park.

By 1893, the B&O station at Takoma Park offered commuter service to downtown D.C. for twenty cents. The station, which was destroyed by fire in 1961, can be seen in the background of the 1921 Library of Congress photo. On this side of the tracks, a Dome Gas Company filling station once serviced customers with “Better Quality – Same Price” gasoline selling for 23 cents a gallon.

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

Garford Motor Truck Company manufactured fuel oil trucks in addition to earning a reputation for reliability by providing trucks for the United States Postal Service.

According to Arcadia Publishing’s Takoma Park, published in 2011, the Dome Oil Company was established by Ernest C. Ruebsam and Harry Stevens. It was among the first in D.C. to offer residents fuel oil as an alternative to coal as well as gasoline, which was then at 40 octane to 60 octane. The higher the octane number, the higher compression the fuel can withstand before detonating.

The pictured Dome Gas station’s gasoline pump featured a glass reservoir, introduced by the Tokheim Company in 1906 and instantly popular with consumers (learn more in First Gas Pump and Service Station). The pump appears to be a model manufactured by Fleckenstein Visible Gasometer Company, founded in 1916 by Jackson Fleckenstein, who was just 19 years old when he started his Grand Rapids, Michigan, pump company.

In the absence of underground storage tanks at the time, railroad tank cars like that of Hercules Petroleum Company pictured were often used as temporary storage. Hercules Petroleum of West Dallas, Texas, had a controversial association with Ajax Oil Company, including Hercules Petroleum stock sales being manipulated by sales agents of Farson, Son & Company. John Farson was indicted in 1924 and Hercules Petroleum went bankrupt not long afterward.

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

A model railroad enthusiast’s scale model of the Library of Congress photo of the Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park.

The photograph’s small sign on the railway trestle preserves the memory of a now forgotten lubricant once available in five pound cans. “Ebonite” was a grease that boasted “no animal fat nor any other harmful ingredients.” It also was sold in 25 pound cans for customers’ convenience.

According to the company, Ebonite’s exclusive refining process formed minute strings unlike any other transmission lubricants. It was produced by the Bayerson Oil Works of Erie, Pennsylvania. Advertisements proclaimed “Strings Cling Better Than Globules.”

The LOC photo’s early fuel oil truck was manufactured by the Garford Motor Truck Company, whose reputation for reliability had been proven when the United States Postal Service contracted for 31 Garford vehicles in 1912. The company later became Superior Body Company, associated with Studebaker Company, and was known for its school buses before closing down in 1980.

Takoma Park would earn a reputation as “Azalea City” because one of its early residents was Benjamin Morrison, a pioneer in horticulture who served as the first director of the U.S. National Arboretum. Morrison developed hybrid azaleas that can be found across the community today.

Dome Oil Company co-founder Ernest Ruebsam, who had left Takoma Park by 1931, was arrested in Louisiana after an automobile accident where it was discovered he was transporting 18 gallons of alcohol, a violation of the National Prohibition Act.

The LOC digital image of the gas station at Takoma Park is from the photographic files of the National Photo Company, which covered current news events in Washington, D.C., as a daily service to its subscribers during the administrations of Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (1919-1932). Acquired by the library in 1947 from proprietor Herbert E. French, only a small selection of an estimated 80,000 photographic prints are available online.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells. Citation Information: Article Title: “Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/oil-companies-gas-stations-maryland. Last Updated: June 25, 2019.

Petroleum Producers Association officially set size standard in 1872.

Soon after America’s first commercial oil discovery in 1859 in northwestern Pennsylvania, oil producers began using the 42-gallon “tierce,” which weighed about 300 pounds when full. The oilmen later met in Oil City and made it the new industry’s standard for storing and transporting petroleum.

42 gallon oil barrel

By the 1860s, barges floated barrels of oil down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh to be refined into a highly demanded product – kerosene for lamps. Image from an early stock certificate.


42 gallon oil barrel

The 42-gallon standard was adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872.

When filled with oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon “tierce” weighed 300 pounds. The 42-gallon oil barrel was officially adopted in 1866. Today, a barrel’s refined products include about 20 gallons of gasoline, 12 gallons of diesel and 4 gallons of jet fuel and other products like liquefied petroleum gases and asphalt.

In August 1866 a handful of America’s earliest independent oil producers met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a barrel of oil. Pennsylvania led the world in oil production as demand for kerosene soared. Read the rest of this entry »

First oil moved through the 800-mile pipeline system on June 20, 1977.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, completed in 1977 to carry North Slope oil to the port of Valdez, has been recognized as a landmark of engineering.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

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.

A deciding vote in the U.S. Senate by Vice President Spiro Agnew had passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act on July 17, 1973.

Years of debate about the project’s environmental impact escalated. Concerns were raised about earthquakes and elk migrations.

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 was completed on May 31, 1977.

On June 20, 1977, oil from the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay field began flowing to the port of Valdez at four miles an hour through the 48-inch-wide pipe. It arrived at the port 38 days later.

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.

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 cross 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

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

More than 28,000 people worked directly on the pipeline at the peak of its construction in the fall of 1975.

Thirty-one construction camps, built on gravel to insulate and help prevent pollution to the underlying permafrost, are built along the route.

Above-ground sections of the pipeline (420 miles) are built in a zigzag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe because of temperature changes.

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

The first tanker carrying North Slope oil from the new pipeline sails out of the Valdez Marine Terminal on August 1, 1977. By 2010, the pipeline will have carried about 16 billion barrels of oil.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Alaska’s oil production peaked in 1988 at 738 million barrels, about 25 percent of U.S. oil production. In 2013, it was nearly 188 million barrels, or about seven percent of total U.S. production.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

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

The Prudhoe Bay field was discovered in March 1968 by Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and Exxon 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. For U.S. petroleum pipeline history during World War Two, see Big Inch Pipelines of WW II and PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WWII.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.


oil spill

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.

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” begins an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission. Then, on March, 24, 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground.

The grounding at Bligh Reef spilled about 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount,used by the State of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, too conservative.

When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef that night, “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,” explains the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s 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,” notes the report. This complacency was shattered when the Exxon Valdez ran hard aground shortly after midnight.

oil spill

“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.”

“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” notes the 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.”

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.”

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, adds  another 1990 report, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez by the National Transportation and Safety Board. “The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” it concludes.


At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate.”

“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,” declares the Oil Spill Commission’s report.

“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,” the commission adds.

oil spill

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.

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,” reports a Wikipedia article, adding:

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.

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.

Read the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Details about the Accident report.

Experts continue to review the effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef.  Most scientists today say the ecosystem in Prince William Sound, although still recovering, is healthy.

Since the supertanker’s accident, ExxonMobil has spent more than $5.7 billion in compensatory and cleanup payments, settlements and fines. Field and laboratory studies still examine the spill, which resulted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.


When the U.S. petroleum industry began in 1859, it launched many new industries for producing, refining and transporting the highly sought after resource. With demand growing worldwide, America for the first time exported oil (and kerosene) during the Civil War when a small Union brig sailed from Philadelphia to London.

Soon after Edwin L. Drake drilled the first American oil well along Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania, entrepreneurs swept in and wooden cable-tool derricks sprang up in Venango and Crawford counties.

america exports oil

Launched in 1847 by the shipbuilding firm of J. & C.C. Morton of Thomaston, Maine, the Elizabeth Watts was about 96 feet long with a draft of 11 feet. The 224-ton brig made petroleum history during the Civil War.

“Doubt and distrust that preceded Drake’s successful venture suddenly fled before the common conviction that an oil well was the ‘open sesame’ to wealth,” reported Harpers New Monthly Magazine. Soon after his historic discovery near Titusville, Drake bought up all the 40-gallon whiskey barrels he could find to transport his oil on barges down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh refineries. Read the rest of this entry »


nellie bly oil drum

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.

She became 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 (1867-1922), 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. Read the rest of this entry »


The Iowa 80 Trucking Museum in Walcott hosts an annual Jamboree attended by 30,000 people. The trucking museum has more than 100 antique trucks on display.

Trucking Museum

“If you are the least bit into cars you will find the museum interesting and well worth the stop,” notes a visitor from Legendary Collector Cars.”From what we could tell, it looks like this I-80 Exit at Walcott Iowa is about to become the over the road truckers Disneyland in a few years.”

The museum’s collection was started in 1979 by Iowa 80 Truckstop founder Bill Moon – who had an obvious and unmatched passion for trucks. He looked for a unique truck or artifact to add to his collection.

“World’s Largest Truckstop”

Every summer, this museum at exit 284 on I -80 outside Walcott, Iowa, hosts a variety of events for truckers and other travelers, teachers, students – and transportation history buffs.

The museum attracts all kinds of visitors, from those interested in antique trucks to those wanting to learn the history of modern, big rigs. Exhibit spaces, which expanded in March 2012, now offer a free app for iPhones and Androids with audio narratives. Read the rest of this entry »