December 21, 1842 – Birth of an Oil Town “Bird’s-Eye View” Artist

Panoramic map artist Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler was born  in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1842. Following the fortunes of America’s early petroleum industry, he would produce hundreds of unique maps of the earliest oilfield towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.

 petroleum history december

More than 400 Thaddeus Fowler panoramas have been identified by the Library of Congress, including this detail of the booming oil town of Sistersville, West Virginia, published in 1896.

Fowler was one of the most prolific of the bird’s-eye view artists who crisscrossed the country during the latter three decades of the 19th century and early 20th century, according to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. Seemingly drawn from great heights, the views were made with skillful cartographic techniques (and not a balloon).

T.M. Fowler's "bird's eye view" of Oil City, Pennsylvania.

Oil City, Pennsylvania, prospered soon after America’s first commercial oil discovery in 1859 at nearby Titusville.

Fowler featured many of Pennsylvania’s earliest oilfield towns, including Titusville and Oil City – along with the booming community of Sistersville in the new state of West Virginia. He traveled through Oklahoma and Texas in 1890 and 1891 similarly documenting such cities as Bartlesville, Tulsa and Wichita Falls. Learn more in Oil Town “Aero Views.”

December 22, 1875 – Grant seeks Asphalt for Pennsylvania Avenue

President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875 convinced Congress to repave Pennsylvania Avenue’s badly deteriorated plank boards with asphalt. Grant delivered to Congress a “Report of the Commissioners Created by the Act Authorizing the Repavement of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Pennsylvania Avenue being paved with asphalt in 1907.

President Grant first directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad bitumen in 1876. In 1907, asphalt distilled from petroleum repaved the pathway to the Capitol, above.

The project would cover 54,000 square yards. “Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor-intensive process.” With work completed in the spring of 1877, the asphalt – obtained from a naturally occurring bitumen lake found on the island of Trinidad – would last more than 10 years.

In 1907, the road to the Capitol was repaved again with new and far superior asphalt made from U.S. petroleum. By 2005, the Federal Highway Administration reported that more than 2.6 million miles of America’s roads are paved. Learn more in Asphalt Paves the Way.

December 22, 1903 – Carl Baker patents Cable-Tool Bit

Reuben Carlton “Carl” Baker of Coalinga, California, patented an innovative cable-tool drill bit in 1903 after founding the Coalinga Oil Company. “While drilling around Coalinga, Baker encountered hard rock layers that made it difficult to get casing down a freshly drilled hole,” noted a Baker-Hughes historian in 2007. “To solve the problem, he developed an offset bit for cable-tool drilling that enabled him to drill a hole larger than the casing.”

december petroleum history

Baker Tools founder Carl Baker in 1919.

Coalinga was “every inch a boom town and Mr. Baker would become a major player in the town’s growth,” explained a historian at the small community where Baker helped establish several oil companies, a bank, and the local power company. After drilling wells in the Kern River oilfield, Baker added another technological innovation in 1907 when he patented the Baker Casing Shoe, a device ensuring uninterrupted flow of oil through the well.

 

By 1913 Baker organized the Baker Casing Shoe Company (renamed Baker Tools two years later). He opened his first manufacturing plant in Coalinga in a building that today houses the R.C. Baker Museum. Baker never advanced beyond the third grade, but “he possessed an incredible understanding of mechanical and hydraulic systems.”

Learn more in Carl Baker and Howard Hughes.

December 22, 1975 – Strategic Petroleum Reserve established

President Gerald R. Ford established the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve by signing the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. With a capacity of 713.5 million barrels of oil in 2018, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency oil in the world. SPR storage sites include five salt domes on the Gulf Coast. In addition to SPR, the Energy Department maintains a northeast home heating oil reserve of one million barrels for homes and businesses and a one million barrel supply of gasoline.

December 23, 1943 – Oilfield found in Mississippi

Gulf Oil Company discovered a new Mississippi oilfield at Heidelberg in Jasper County. Company surveyors had recognized the geological potential of the area southeast of Jackson as early as 1929. For the next decade Gulf Oil used newly developed seismographic and core drilling technologies to look for a potential oil-bearing formations. After selecting a drilling site in October 1943, the discovery well revealed one of the state’s largest oilfields since the first Mississippi oil well was completed in 1939.

December 24, 2007 – Top Holiday Film includes Novelty Oil Product

The 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story” began airing on a now annual 24-hour marathon on the TNT network. In addition to its famous plastic leg-lamp, the popular holiday movie has featured another petroleum product — a novelty candy. Paraffin, a byproduct of petroleum distillation used in candles and waxes, makes its brief appearance when Ralphie Parker and his fourth-grade classmates smuggle Wax Fangs into class, only to dejectedly hand them over to their teacher.

Ralphie's fangs are a petroleum product in A Christmas Story.

The 1984 holiday classic “A Christmas Story” featured Ralphie, his 4th-grade classmates – and an unusual petroleum product. Photos courtesy MGM Home Entertainment.

An older generation may recall the peculiar disintegrating flavor of Wax Fangs, Wax Lips, Wax Moustaches, and Wax Bottles (officially Nik-L-Nips) from bygone Halloweens and birthday parties. Few realize the candy cultural icons started in oilfields. Learn more in the Oleaginous History of Wax Lips and explore these articles about other petroleum products.

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December 26, 1905 – Nellie Bly’s Ironclad Patent of the 55-Gallon Metal Barrel

Henry Wehrhahn of Brooklyn, New York, received two 1905 patents that would lead to the modern 55-gallon steel drum. He assigned them to his employer, the world-famous journalist Nellie Bly, who was then president of the Ironclad Manufacturing Company.

“My invention has for its object to provide a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation,” Wehrhahn noted in his patent for a flanged metal barrel with encircling hoops to control rolling. A second patent issued at the same time provided a means for detaching and securing a lid. As a superintendent at Ironclad Manufacturing, he assigned his inventions to Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (Nellie Bly), the recent widow of the company’s founder.

Nellie Bly metal barrel patent drawing and business card.

Nellie Bly was assigned a 1905 patent for the “Metal Barrel” by its inventor, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked at her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

In 1895, at age 30, Cochrane had married the 70-year-old industrialist Robert Seaman. Well known as a reporter for the New York World, Bly manufactured early versions of the “Metal Barrel.” It would become today’s 55-gallon steel drum. Wehrhahn later became superintendent of Pressed Steel Tank Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When Iron Clad Manufacturing succumbed to debt, Bly returned to newspaper reporting. She died at age 57 in 1922.

Learn more in the Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum. Also see History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel.

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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 © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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