August 24, 1892 –  Future “Prophet of Spindletop” founds Oil Company

Patillo Higgins, who would become known as the “Prophet of Spindletop,” founded the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company. With three partners, he leased 2,700 acres near Beaumont, Texas. Higgins believed oil-bearing sands could be found four miles south of town. Most earth science experts said he was wrong.

A self-taught geologist, Higgins had noticed oil and natural gas seeps at Spindletop Hill while taking his Sunday school classes on picnics. He later supervised the planning of Gladys City, which he named for his favorite Sunday school student.

Circa 1900 Gladys Oil and Gas Manufacturing Co.  stock certificate

Patillo Higgins was no longer with the company he had founded when it discovered oil at Spindletop Hill in January 1901.

Although Higgins left the Gladys City venture in 1895, Capt. Anthony Lucas drilled the “Lucas Gusher” for the company in January 1901 and forever changed the petroleum industry (the oilfield would produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s fields combined). Texaco, Gulf, Mobile and Sun Oil companies got started thanks to Patillo Higgins’ confidence in the “Big Hill.” Learn more in Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry.

August 24, 1923 – University of Texas receives Royalty Check

Santa Rita No. 1 well equipment on display at the University of Texas.

Drilling and production equipment from the Santa Rita No. 1 well is preserved at the the University of Texas. Photo by Bruce Wells.

The University of Texas received the first oil royalty payment ($516.53) three months after the Santa Rita No. 1 well discovered an oilfield on university-owned land in the Permian Basin. After 21 months of difficult drilling, the Texon Oil and Land Company’s well had revealed the 4.5-square-mile Big Lake field. Within three years of the discovery, petroleum royalties endowed the university with $4 million. In 1958, the university moved the Santa Rita well’s walking beam and other equipment to the Austin campus. A student newspaper described the historic well as “one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”

August 24, 1937 – Music Mountain Oil Discovery 

The Penn-Brad oil museum in Bradford, PA

Penn-Brad Museum and Historical Oil Well Park at Custer City, outside Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 2007. Photo by Bruce Wells.

No one had expected it, not even the Niagara Oil Company that drilled it, notes the Bradford Landmark Society about a 1937 gusher near Bradford, Pennsylvania, in McKean County. For the first time since oil strikes in the early days of the great Bradford field 70 years earlier, an exploratory well on Music Mountain erupted and revealed a new oilfield. The discovery was made at a depth of 1,630 feet, deeper than earlier wells.

The producing formation was beneath the older, highly prolific Bradford sands first discovered in the 1860s. The region’s high-paraffin oil is still considered among the highest grade natural lubricants in the world. One Bradford refinery (today’s American Refining Group) has been refining McKean County oil since 1881. Learn more details about the historic Bradford oilfield in Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory.

August 26, 2009 – Early Oil Refinery designated Historic Landmark

The American Chemical Society designated the development of the first U.S. still for refining crude oil as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The society noted that in the 1850s, Samuel Kier constructed a one-barrel, cast-iron still on Seventh Avenue. He began selling distilled petroleum, which he called “carbon oil,” for a $1.50 a gallon.

“Kier’s refining process touched off the search for more dependable sources of crude oil, which led to the drilling of the nation’s first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania,” notes a plaque commemorating the achievement. “These two technologies – refining and drilling – made western Pennsylvania the undisputed center of the early oil industry.”

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In 2019, the United States had a total of 135 petroleum refineries, according to the Energy Information Administration.

August 27, 1859 – U.S. Petroleum Industry begins in Pennsylvania

A portrait of Edwin Drake and a replica of his wooden derrick

The Drake Well Museum and Park includes a replica of the oil well that forever changed the world.

America’s petroleum industry began with a well drilled 69.5 feet deep in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Hired by the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well. The Venango County well produced 25 barrels of oil a day.

Although earlier “spring pole” and cable-tool drillers of brine wells had found small amounts of oil – an unwanted byproduct – Drake specifically drilled for it. His investors wanted to refine the oil into a highly demanded new product for lamps, kerosene. Drake also pioneered several new drilling technologies, including a method of driving an iron pipe down to protect the bore’s integrity from nearby Oil Creek. But after five months of financial setbacks and drilling problems, the locals called the well “Drake’s Folly.” To improve his reputation, Connecticut investors addressed their letters to “Colonel” Edwin Drake.

Ceiling paintings of early petroleum industry inside the Titusville Trust Building.

Ceiling paintings capture the industry’s earliest scenes inside the Titusville Trust Building, which opened in 1919. A seated Edwin Drake is flanked by men holding cable tools – symbols of early oilfield technology. Photos by Bruce Wells.

Late in the afternoon on August 27, 1859, Drake’s driller, blacksmith “Uncle Billy” Smith, noticed oil floating at the top of the pipe. The bit had reached what would become known as the First Venango Sand. To begin pumping the oil, Drake borrowed a local kitchen water pump.

August 27, 1959 – Stamp celebrates Oil Centennial

petroleum history august 25

The U.S. Postal Service issued 120 million centennial oil stamps. Efforts for a 2009 anniversary stamp were unsuccessful.

“No official act could give me greater pleasure than to dedicate this stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry,” declared U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who addressed a crowd gathered for the “Oil Centennial Day” in Titusville, Pennsylvania. “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry,” he added. “It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.”

The U.S. Postal Service Stamp Advisory Committee in 2009 rejected requests for a stamp recognizing the 150th anniversary of the U.S. petroleum industry. The committee earlier had granted 10 commemorative stamps for Kermit the Frog and each of his nine fellow Muppets. Learn more in the Centennial Oil Stamp Issue.

August 30, 1919 – Pennsylvania Natural Gas Boom (and Bust)

About 300 petroleum companies converged on a natural gas field near Pittsburgh within months of the “Snake Hollow Gusher” of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Drilled near the Monongahela River, the discovery well produced more than 60 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. It prompted an exploration frenzy that witnessed $35 million invested in a nine-square-mile area. “Many residents signed leases for drilling on their land,” the local newspaper later reported. “They bought and sold gas company stock on street corners and in barbershops transformed into brokerage houses.”

But excitement in the natural gas field ended in just seven months. At the beginning of 1921, natural gas production had declined in 180 wells; more than 440 exploratory wells were dry holes. Of the millions invested during the boom, only about $3 million came out. The field was soon described as “the scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.” Learn more in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and the McKeesport Gas Company.

August 30, 2002 – Conoco and Phillips Petroleum become ConocoPhillips

An 1880s Continental Oil Company horse-drawn tank wagon oil museum exhibit.

An 1880s Continental Oil Company horse-drawn tank wagon welcomes visitors to the Conoco Museum in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The Phillips Petroleum Company Museum is 70 miles east in Bartlesville. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Almost 100 years after Frank and L.E. Phillips completed their first oil well and 128 years after Continental Oil delivered its first can of kerosene in a horse-drawn wagon, Phillips Petroleum Company and Conoco Inc. combined to form an energy industry giant. The two historic companies created ConocoPhillips. The business ventures that played roles leading to today’s ConocoPhillips (and two oil museums) included Transcontinental Oil & Transportation, 101 Ranch Oil, Marland Oil, and Continental Oil and Refining. When ConocoPhillips separated its refining and marketing businesses, Phillips 66 became an independent downstream energy company in 2012.

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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. Copyright © 2003 – 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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