Horace Horton’s Spheres

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company erected a spherical pressure vessel in 1923.

 

Seen from the highway, they look like giant eggs or perhaps fanciful Disney architectural projects. A Chicago bridge builder invented these storage globes, once constructed by riveting together wrought iron plates. Today’s highly pressured spherical vessels are key to storing and transporting liquified natural gas (LNG).

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I) officially named their “Hortonspheres” (also called Horton spheres) after Horace Ebenezer Horton (1843-1912), the company founder and designer of water towers and rounded storage vessels. His son George would patent designs standing among the great innovations to come to the oil patch.

A row of giant, white Hortonspheres for storing LNG.

Hortonspheres, the trademarked name of massive containers for storing and transporting liquified natural gas (LNG), were invented by a bridge building company.

Horace Horton, grew up in Chicago, where he became skilled in mechanical engineering. He was 46 years old when he formed CB&I in 1889. His company prospered, building seven bridges across the Mississippi River. 

Horton then expanded the company’s Washington Heights, Illinois, fabrication plant to begin manufacturing water tanks. It was a decision that would bring water towers to hundreds of towns. 

Patent drawing of a Hortonsphere and its support pylons.

Horace Ebenezer Horton (1843-1912) founded the company that would build the world’s first “field-erected spherical pressure vessel.”

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

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.

Improved Oilfield Structures

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).

Horace E. Horton designed spherical storage vessels called Hortonspheres

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

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.

Chicago Bridge and Iron Company 1912 sales book with Hotonspheres.

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

Newly discovered oilfields in Ranger, Texas, in 1917 and Seminole, Oklahoma, in the 1920s were straining the nation’s petroleum storage capacity. A lack of pipelines and storage facilities in booming West Texas was a big problem.

In the Permian Basin, an exploration company’s executives were desperate to store soaring oil production. They hired engineers to design an experimental tank capable of holding up to five million barrels of oil at Monahans, Texas. Construction in early 1928 took three months working 24 hours a day.

Roxana Petroleum Company’s massive storage structure used concrete-coated earthen walls 30 feet tall. The oil reservoir was covered with a cedar roof to slow evaporation. But when no solution could be found for leaking seams, the oil storage attempt was abandoned.

The concrete oval, which briefly became a water park in 1958, later became home to Monahans’ Million Barrel Museum.

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.

Liquefied Natural Gas

Soon, spherical vessels of all sizes were being used for storage of compressed gases such propane and butane. Hortonspheres also hold liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced by cooling natural gas at atmospheric pressure to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it liquefies. 

In an iconic engineering example of form following function, a sphere is the ideal shape for a vessel that resists internal pressure.2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

In the 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 in 1930. The company also built a giant, all-welded 80,000 barrel oil storage tank in New Jersey.

Since its first sphere in 1923, Chicago Bridge & Iron by 2013 had fabricated more than 3,500 Hortonspheres for worldwide markets in capacities reaching more than three million gallons. The company has reported being the top spherical storage container builder worldwide.

Poughkeepsie Hortonsphere

Fascinated by geodesic domes and similar 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.

A Hortonsphere viewed in 2012 in Poughkeepsie, New York.

A Hortonsphere viewed in 2012 from the “Walkway over the Hudson” in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was dismantled in 2013. Photo courtesy Jeff Buster.

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 geodesic 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.

Liquified Natural Gas at Sea

Sphere technology became seaborn as well. On February 20, 1959, after a three-week voyage from Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Methane Pioneer — the world’s first LNG tanker — arrived at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England.

Illustration of  liquified natural gas tanks inside an LNG taker.

Ships began transporting liquified natural gas as early as 1959. Modern LNG tankers are many times larger and protected with double hulls.

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 1959 successful voyage across the Atlantic 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. The ships 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.

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Recommended Reading: The Extraction State, A History of Natural Gas in America (2021). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Horace Horton’s Spheres.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/hortonspheres/. Last Updated: September 21, 2022. Original Published Date: December 14, 2016.

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First Gas Pump and Service Station

Service stations gasoline pumps began with an 1880s device for dispensing kerosene at an Indiana grocery store.

 

Presaging the first gas pump, 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 designed a simple device for reliably measuring and dispensing kerosene — a product in high demand as lamp fuel for half a century. His invention soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

Gasoline pump and hose deisgns illustration, 1915 to 1935.

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.

Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps had marble valves with wooden plungers and upright faucets.

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 S.F. Bowser volatile liquid dispenser patent 1887

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

As consumer demand for kerosene (and soon, gasoline) grew, Bowser’s innovative device and those that followed faced competition from other manufacturers of self-measuring pumps. In Wayne, Indiana, the Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company designed and built 50 of a new model in 1892, the company’s first year of business (learn more in Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump).

first gas pump "calm shell" early pump image from road map

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

Despite the competition, in the early 1900s – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful. His grocery store pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroked lever action.

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Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. The S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” became known to motorists as a “filling station” as more design innovations followed.

The popular Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its “clamshell” cover offered security when the pump was left unattended (see the 1920 Diamond Filling Station in Washington, D.C.).

 

An early gas station attendant fills a n auto gas tank.

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.

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 enterprising manufacturing companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.

Oil tank truck for Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product.

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.

Gulf Refining Company had been established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1901 by the Andrew Mellon and other investors as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year to exploit the Spindletop oilfield discovery in Texas. The company’s motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh 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.

Gulf Refining Company's first U.S. auto service station in Pittsburgh, circa 1910.

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

“This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere,” noted 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. A photo of the station, designed by architect J.H. Giesey, may or may not have been taken on opening day, according to the Gulf Oil Historical Society.

“At this site in Dec. 1913, Gulf Refining Co. opened the first drive-in facility designed and built to provide gasoline, oils, and lubricants to the motoring public,” noted a Pennsylvania historical marker dedicated on July 11, 2000.

Early gas pumps seen curbside at parts store.

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.

The drive-in station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon on its first day, according to 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 noted at ExplorePAhistory.com.

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

first gas pump earliest road maps of 1920s Gulf Oil

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.

“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,” noted 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,” said Harold Cramer in his “Early Gulf Road Maps of Pennsylvania.”

first gas pump Smithsonian museum Bowser pump exhibit

This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank and “clock face” dial. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.

“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 explained. That would change.

Founded in 1996, the Road Map Collectors Association (RMCA) preserves the history of road maps to educate the public about America’s automobile age, also documented and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution (see America on the Move).

While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh could be considered the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.

first gas pump collection of pumps in oil museum

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

“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,” noted 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 explained in his article “The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.”

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One-hundred years after the Gulf Refining Company station opened, America’s 152,995 operating gas stations included 123,289 convenience stores, according to Ernst. On average, each location sold 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 true for architecture, pump technologies, advertising methods, and more). The American Oil * Gas Historical Society’s Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park offers insights revealed in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a station in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

The Library of Congress maintains a large collection of service station images, as do other libraries and organizations listed with it in AOGHS photo resources.

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Recommended Reading: Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1993); Fill’er Up!: The Great American Gas Station (2013); The American Highway: The History and Culture of Roads in the United States (2000). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First Gas Pump and Service Station.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/first-gas-pump-and-service-stations. Last Updated: September 1, 2022. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.

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Flight of the Woolaroc

Phillips Petroleum makes aviation history in 1927 air race across Pacific.

 

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.  (more…)

First Car, First Road Trip

Bertha Benz’s 65-mile drive in 1888 made headlines for her husband’s fledgling auto company.

 

German mechanical engineer Karl Friedrich Benz invented and built a three-wheel “motorwagen,” today recognized as the world’s first car. His wife helped steer the company’s first marketing campaign.

Other inventors had experimented with electric and steam-powered vehicles. A gasoline powered engine had been placed placed on a pushcart in 1870, but it 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.

Born in 1844 in Baden Muehlburg, Benz founded an “Iron Foundry and Machine Shop” in 1871. He received his first engine patent in 1879.

 Illustration of Karl Benz Patent No. 37435 filed on January 29, 1886.

Detail from “Vehicle with Gas Engine Operation,” patent No. 37435, submitted by Karl Benz on January 29, 1884, at the Reich Patent Office in Berlin.

On January 29, 1886, Benz applied for an Imperial patent for his three-wheeled carriage powered by a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine. Reich Patent No. 37435 has been referred to as the birth certificate of the automobile. 

Benz’s design is recognized as the world’s first for a practical internal combustion engine powered automobile.

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Although there had already been “auto-mobiles,” Benz’s first car 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.”

Because he would quickly build several identical three-wheeled vehicles, Benz also has been credited with the first “production car” in history.

Three-wheel first car with Bertha Benz driving it.

Bertha Benz in August 1888 became the first person to drive her husband’s “motorwagen” over a long distance; her publicity stunt brought wide attention…and sales.

Benz’s original 1886 engine – with a displacement of 0.954 of a liter – anticipated design elements still found in modern internal combustion engines, including a crankshaft with balance weights, electric ignition, and water cooling (generating 0.55 kW and a top speed of 16 km/h, virtually corresponding to the power of one 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.

Bertha’s Publicity Stunt

Thirty-nine-year-old Bertha Benz made history on August 12, 1888, when she became the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile. She followed wagon tracks on a trip that popularized Karl Benz’s latest invention and reportedly saved him from financial ruin.

Bertha drove away with the “Model III Patent Motorwagen” without her husband’s permission, although she left a note saying she was taking their 13 and 15-year-old sons to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Her route from their home in Mannheim was about 65 miles, one-way.

The soon widely publicized 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.

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“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.”

Map of 1888 drive by Bertha Benz

Karl Benz’s wife Bertha was the first person to drive his gas-powered motorwagen over a long distance — bringing worldwide attention. Map courtesy Bertha Benz Memorial Route.

According to Mary Bellis in her 1903 “Biography of Karl Benz,” Benz retired from Benz & Company after his engine 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,” noted 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. Bertha Benz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016 as the first female automotive pioneer.

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. 

The first U.S. auto show took place in November 1900 in New York City, where public workers annually removed 450,000 tons of horse manure from streets.  America’s highways and travel history are on exhibit at the National Museum of American History’s America on the Move.

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Recommended Reading:  Bertha Takes a Drive: How the Benz Automobile Changed the World (2017). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join today as an AOGHS annual supporting member. Help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Car, First Road Trip.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/benz-patents-first-car. Last Updated: August 5, 2022. Original Published Date: September 15, 2015.

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America on the Move

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

 

A popular Smithsonian Institution exhibition includes a variety of themes aimed at educating visitors about transportation in American history. Opened in 2003, the Transportation Hall of the National Museum of American History includes classic and early autos, a locomotive, and a Route 66 exhibit with a oilfield service truck from Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Route 66 exhibit in Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

An exhibit about the history of Route 66 — commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s — is part of the Transportation Hall at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Opened after a $22 million renovation, the Washington, D.C., museum’s Transportation Hall encompasses 26,000 square feet — with more than 340 historic objects on display. The hall features 19 settings in chronological order that reflect the nation’s historic relationship with great and small roadways.

America on the Move

The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“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.” (more…)

Trans-Alaska Pipeline History

North Slope oil began moving through the 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. The first barrel of oil from the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield would arrive at the Port of Valdez on July 28, 1977, after a 38-day, 800-mile journey.

A tie-breaking, 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.

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. 

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.

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 eight 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.

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 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 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.

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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.

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.”

Trans-Alaska Pipeline

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.

Oil Production Rise and Fall

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).

Alaska oil production peaked in 1988 at 738 million barrels of oil, about 25 percent of U.S. oil production, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In 2020, oil production reached 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.”

The decline in the state’s oil production has decreased deliveries in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, EIA added. “Lower oil volumes cause oil to move more slowly in the pipeline, and the travel time for oil from the North Shore to Valdez has increased from 4.5 days in 1988 to 18 days in 2020.”

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

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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.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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. © 2022 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 10, 2022. Original Published Date: June 20, 2015.

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