December 17, 1884 –  Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons – 

“Oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” proclaimed an article in The Tech, a student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A Thunder-Storm in the Oil Country” featured the reporter’s firsthand account of the problem of lightning strikes in America’s oilfields.

Cannon fires at burning oil tanks from the collection of the Kansas Oil Museum.

As the petroleum industry expanded westward, frequent lightening strikes in the Great Plains caused oil tank fires. Rare photograph courtesy Kansas Oil Museum. El Dorado, Kansas.

The MIT article not only reported on the fiery results of a lightning strike, but also the practice of using Civil War cannons to fight such conflagrations. Operators learned that shooting cannon balls into the base of burning tanks allowed oil to drain safely into a holding pit until the fire died out. “Small cannons throwing a three-inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose,” the article noted.

Learn more in Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.

December 17, 1903 – Natural Gas contributes to Aviation History

A handmade engine burning 50-octane gasoline for boat engines powered Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic 59-second flight into aviation history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers’ “mechanician,” Charlie Taylor, fabricated the 150-pound, 13-horsepower engine in their Dayton, Ohio, workshop.

Natural gas powered machinery in Wright brothers shop.

Powered by natural gas, a three-horsepower engine drove belts in the Wright workshop.

The workshop included a single cylinder, three-horsepower natural gas-powered engine that drove an overhead shaft and belts that turned a lathe, drill press — and an early, rudimentary wind tunnel. Natural gas was piped from a field in Mercer County, about 50 miles northwest. Learn about advances in high-octane aviation fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc.

December 18, 1929 – California Oil Boom in Venice

The Ohio Oil Company completed a wildcat well in Venice, California, east of the Grand Canal on the Marina Peninsula, two blocks from the ocean. The discovery well initially produced 3,000 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 6,200 feet. Ohio Oil (today’s Marathon Oil) had received a zoning variance permitting exploration within the city limits.

The Venice well launched another major California drilling boom just a few years after the world-famous discovery at Signal Hill.

oilfield artist JoAnn Cowans with an oilfield print.

American Oil & Gas Historical Society member JoAnn Cowens of Fullerton, California, has painted oilfields since the 1960s, preserving derricks long since removed.

In the 1960s, California artist JoAnn Cowans painted scenes of the historic steel derricks in Venice and Marina del Rey before they were removed. She published a book of her artwork in 2009, Black Gold, the Artwork of JoAnn Cowans.

December 18, 1934 – Hunt Oil Company founded in Texas

Hunt Oil Company, today one of the largest privately held U.S. petroleum companies, incorporated in Delaware and opened its first office in Tyler, Texas. Four years earlier, H.L. Hunt had acquired the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well from C. Marion “Dad” Joiner at Kilgore.

A young H L Hunt at an oil well circa 1911.

H.L. Hunt’s oil career began in Arkansas and East Texas and spanned much of the industry’s history, notes Hunt Oil Company. Photo circa 1911.

“H.L. Hunt bought the lease out ‘lock, stock and barrel,’ financing the deal with a first-of-its-kind agreement to make payments from future ‘down-the-hole’ production,” noted a company history. “The Bradford No. 3 turned out to be the discovery well of the great East Texas oilfield, which, at the time, was the greatest oilfield in the world.”

Hunt Oil moved its headquarters to Dallas in 1937, and developed the first oil well in Alabama in 1944. The company entered offshore exploration in 1958 with leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

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December 20, 1913 – “Prince of Petroleum” opens Tulsa Refinery

A refinery built by Joshua Cosden — soon to be known in Oklahoma as the “Prince of Petroleum” — went on stream in Tulsa. With a capacity of 30,000 barrels oil oil a day, the refinery was among the largest in the country in 1913. A successful independent producer, in March 1924 Cosden would pay $2 million for a single 160-acre lease at a famous Osage lease auction. He later earned $15 million in West Texas oilfields — but  lost almost everything during the Great Depression. He died at age 59 in 1940. His Tulsa refinery continues operating  today as a part of Dallas-based HollyFrontier Corporation.

December 20, 1951 – Oil discovered in Washington State

A short-lived oil discovery in Washington foretold the state’s production future. The Hawksworth Gas and Oil Development Company Tom Hawksworth-State No. 4 well was completed near Ocean City in Grays Harbor County. It produced just 35 barrels of oil a day.

The well, which also produced 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas from a depth of 3,700 feet, was abandoned as non-commercial. In 1967, Sunshine Mining Company deepened the Hawksworth well to 4,532 feet, but with only minor shows of oil and natural gas, the well was shut in again.

Map of Washington state's only oil well, drilled in 1951.

Washington’s 1951 lone oil well yielded a total of 12,500 barrels of oil.

Although 600 Washington wells would be drilled in 24 counties by 2010, only one produced commercial quantities of oil. It was completed by Sunshine Mining in 1959 about 600 yards north of the failed Hawksworth site. That Sunshine well, Washington’s only commercial producer, was closed in 1961. As a geologist at the Washington Department of Natural Resources explained in 1997, “The geology is too broken up and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.” (see California Oil Seeps.)


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

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