Densmore Brothers invent First Oil Tank Car

Two Pennsylvanians advanced new petroleum industry’s infrastructure — and later created “QWERTY” keyboard.

 

As Northwestern Pennsylvania oil production skyrocketed following the Civil War, railroad tank cars designed and fabricated by two inventive brothers improved shipment volumes from oilfields to kerosene refineries. Their tank car design would not last long, but more creativity followed when one came up with the “QWERTY” keyboard arrangement for typewriters.

Flatbed railroad cars with two oil tank cars became the latest oilfield infrastructure innovation after James and Amos Densmore received a U.S. patent on April 10, 1866. The brothers from Meadville, Pennsylvania, received a patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania. The first American oil well had been drilled just seven years earlier at Titusville.

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

Railroad tank cars were virtually non-existent prior to the start of the oil industry in Pennsylvania, where Amos and James Densmore designed their twin tanks on a flatbed car in 1865. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

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

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

Development of railroad tank cars came when traditional designs, including the flatcar, hopper, and boxcar, proved inadequate for large amounts of oil. New designs were born out of necessity, “as the fledgling oil industry demanded a better car for the movement of its product,” notes American-Rails.com.

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

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

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

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

Densmore Twin Tank Design

The brothers further described the use of special bolts at the top and bottom of their tanks to act as braces and “to prevent any shock or jar to the tank from the swaying of the car while in motion.” A 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. A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Tanks to Typewriters

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

Densmore typewriter company advertisement.

Amos Densmore helped invent one of the first practical typewriters.

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

“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.”

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Recommended Reading:  The American Railroad Freight Car (1995); Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Industry in Pennsylvania (2000); Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (1923); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Densmore Oil Tank Cars.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/densmore-oil-tank-car. Last Updated: April 4, 2021. Original Published Date: April 7, 2013.

 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

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

 

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

Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

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

In the early spring of 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled more than 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 shortly after midnight, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” explained the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s initial report. “At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system,” noted the report.

Complacency about giant oil tankers ended on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef.

oil spill map of Alaska coast in 1989.

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

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

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, according to 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,” the report explained.

Containing Oil Spills

At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate,” according to the Oil Spill Commission’s report. “The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill — but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium.” 

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

 

illustration of oil tanks inside super tanker Exxon Valdez

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

 

Oil Spill Cleanup Lessons

Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist. “Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” reported the authors of “Scuba Techniques Used to Assess the Effects of the Exxon Valdez.”  The 2001 report added:

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.

Within a year of the spill, a study conducted by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission resulted in the 1990 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.

According to ExxonMobil, the company spent $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, “including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.” Field and laboratory studies continue to examine affects of the oil spill, which resulted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Two decades before the Exxon Valdez grounding, an oil spill from a Union Oil offshore platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, led to the modern environmental movement and the 1970 establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Learn more in Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill.

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Recommended Reading:  The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (2018). 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 supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/exxon-valdez-oil-spill. Last Updated: March 21, 2021. Original Published Date: March 24, 2009.

 

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

One gas station photo from the Library of Congress tells many early automobile tales.

 

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 in 1921.

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. (more…)

History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel

Skilled 19th century coopers made wooden barrels of all capacities, including hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, and tuns.

 

Soon after America’s first commercial oil well of 1859, a small group met in northwestern Pennsylvania and decided a 42-gallon barrel was best for transporting their oil.

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 four gallons of jet fuel (and rocket fuel) and other products like liquefied petroleum gases and asphalt.

42 gallon oil barrel stock certificate vignette of barrels, tanks, and steam train.

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 oil company stock certificate.

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 soared for kerosene lamp fuel. (more…)

Iowa 80 Trucking Museum

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.

The museum’s collection was started in 1979 by Iowa 80 truck stop 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. 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.

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 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. (more…)

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