March 23, 1858 – Rock Oil Company reorganizes as Seneca Oil

Investors from New Haven, Connecticut, organized the Seneca Oil Company with $300,000 in capital and former railroad conductor Edwin Drake a shareholder.

Rare photo of Seneca Oil Company stock certificate

Seneca Oil drilled the first U.S. well. Image courtesy William R. Brice/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Collection.

The investors had purchased the leases of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, founded in 1854 by George Bissell after investigating oil seeps south of Titusville.

Although Bissell had originated the idea of refining oil to produce kerosene, the New Haven investors excluded him from the new company.

“The New Haven men then put the final piece of their plan into place with the formation of a new company,” noted oil historian William Brice in a 2009 biography of Drake and the early oil industry.

Seneca Oil and Drake completed the First American Oil Well in 1859 – thanks to knowledge gained from George Bissell’s Oil Seeps. Both Drake and Bissell would later be called the father of the U.S. petroleum industry.

March 24, 1989 – Exxon Valdez runs Aground 

oil history march 24 Exxon Valdez with gash

Shown being towed away from Bligh Reef, the Exxon Valdez had been outside shipping lanes when it ran aground in March 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

The Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The accident, which came after nearly 12 years of routine oil tanker passages through Prince William Sound, resulted in a massive oil spill.

Eight of the supertanker’s 11 oil cargo tanks were punctured. An estimated 260,000 barrels of oil spilled, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. With the captain not present on the bridge, an error in navigation by the third mate had grounded the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload. Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely passed through Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times.

When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef that night, “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,” explains the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s 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.”

A lengthy, massive cleanup began for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (the infamous vessel was sold for scrap in 2012). As a result of the accident, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandated that all new tankers be built with double hulls, requiring the phasing out single-hull tankers in U.S. waters by 2015.

March 26, 1930 – Oklahoma City’s “Wild Mary Sudik” makes Headlines

petroleum history march 29 Oklahoma City “Wild Mary Sudik” oil gusher

Highly pressured natural gas from the Wilcox formation proved difficult to control in the prolific Oklahoma City oilfield. Within a week of a 1930 gusher, Hollywood newsreels of it appeared in theaters across America. Photo courtesy Oklahoma History Center.

march petroleum history map of Kklahoma City oilfield in 1940s

Circa 1940s map of the Oklahoma City oilfield.

What would become one of Oklahoma’s most famous wells struck a high-pressure formation about 6,500 feet beneath Oklahoma City and oil erupted skyward.

The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s Mary Sudik No. 1 well flowed for 11 days before being brought under control. It produced about 20,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas a day and became a worldwide sensation known as “Wild Mary Sudik.”

Efforts to control the well in Oklahoma City’s prolific oilfield (discovered in December 1928) were featured in movie newsreels and on radio broadcasts. It was later learned that after drilling more than a mile deep, dangerously high well pressure spiked.

“The exhausted crew failed to fill the hole with mud,” noted one historian. “They didn’t know the Wilcox Sand formation was permeated with natural gas under high pressure, and within minutes that sand under so much pressure found a release.”

Advancements in blowout preventing technology would help bring an to end gushers in the Oklahoma City oilfield.

March 27, 1855 – Canadian Chemist trademarks Kerosene

Canadian physician and chemist Abraham Gesner patented a process to distill coal into kerosene.

petroleum history march 21

A Canadian March 2000 stamp featured kerosene’s inventor.

“I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he proclaimed. Because his new illuminating fluid was extracted from coal, consumers called it “coal oil” as often as kerosene.

The U.S. petroleum exploration industry was launched when it was learned that the lamp fuel kerosene also could be distilled from crude oil. With new oilfields discovered in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, inexpensive kerosene became America’s main source of light until the electric light bulb arrived.

Gesner, considered the father of Canada’s petroleum industry, established the country’s first Museum of Natural History in 1842. The New Brunswick Museum today houses one of Canada’s oldest geological collections, according to the Petroleum History Society.

March 28, 1886 – Discovery launches Indiana Natural Gas Boom

A natural gas drilling boom began in Portland, Indiana, after the Eureka Gas and Oil Company found a natural gas field at a depth of only 700 feet. For a time, the state became the world’s leading natural gas producer.

march petroleum history image of Indiana oilfield and gas flame

Andrew Carnegie said natural gas replaced 10,000 tons of coal a day for making steel.

The discovery arrived just months after a spectacular natural gas well about 100 miles to the northeast – the “Great Karg Well” of Findlay, Ohio.

“Natural gas had previously been found in large quantities in western Pennsylvania and had revolutionized the iron, steel, and glass industries of Pittsburgh, as industrialists adapted their factories to use the natural gas in place of the more expensive coal,” notes historian James Glass of Ball State University.

The prolific Trenton limestone would be found in 17 Indiana counties across more than 5,100 square miles. The natural gas field became the largest in the world. Within three years, more than 200 companies were drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas. Learn more in Indiana Natural Gas Boom.

March 28, 1905 – Oilfield found in North Louisiana

The Offenhauser No. 1 discovery well for the giant Caddo-Pine Island oilfield in Louisiana was completed at a depth of 1,556 feet. Although the well yielded only five barrels a day and was soon abandoned, more wells followed, revealing a northern Louisiana oilfield. To prevent the loss of natural gas through flaring, Louisiana passed its first conservation law in 1906. Learn more in First Louisiana Oil Well (1901) and visit the Louisiana State Oil and Gas Museum in Oil City.

March 28, 1918 — Oil Research Center Opens in Oklahoma

In a sign the monopolistic era of Standard Oil was ending, the U.S. Bureau of Mines established the nation’s first oil and natural gas research center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Two years earlier, the chamber of commerce and a group of independent producers had pledged $50,000 to help build the Bartlesville Experiment Station. Discoveries in the Osage Indian Nation west of Bartlesville also “catapulted Oklahoma to the forefront of the burgeoning mid-continent oil industry,” notes the U.S. Office of Fossil Energy.

March 28, 1979 – Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident

The worst accident of the U.S. nuclear power industry began at 4 a.m. with a faulty pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island, near Middletown, Pennsylvania. “A combination of equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors led to TMI-2’s partial meltdown and very small off-site releases of radioactivity,” noted the final report of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Analysis of the accident led to sweeping regulatory changes.

Nuclear power plants provided about 20 percent of annual U.S. electricity generation in 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration. Of the 30 states with operating commercial plants, 12 generated more than 30 percent of their electricity from nuclear power, EIA reported.

March 29, 1819 – Birthday of Father of the Petroleum Industry

oil history march 28 birthday of Edwin Drake

Edwin Drake invented a method of driving a pipe down to protect the integrity of America’s first oil well. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880) was born in Greenville, New York. Forty years later, in the summer of 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania, he used a steam-powered cable-tool rig to drill America’s first commercial oil well.

Drake would overcome many financial and technical obstacles to make “Drake’s Folly” a milestone in energy history. He also pioneered new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well bore from nearby Oil Creek. Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a new product (kerosene) his shallow well created a new industry.

“In order to overcome the hurdles before him, he invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor,’ an invention he unfortunately did not patent,” reported a Pennsylvania State University historian. “Mr. Drake conceived the idea of driving a pipe down to the rock through which to start the drill.” Drake made his historic oil discovery on August 27, 1859, at a depth of 69.5 feet.

March 29, 1938 – Magnolia Oilfield Discovery in Arkansas

A major Arkansas oilfield discovery joined earlier fields found at El Dorado and Smackover.  One newspaper headline proclaimed the “Kerlyn Wildcat Strike In Southern Arkansas is Sensation of the Oil Country” as the Barnett No. 1 well opened the 100-million-barrel Magnolia oilfield. Drilling had been suspended by the Kerlyn Oil Company (predecessor to the Kerr-McGee company) because of a lack of investors, but company Vice President Dean McGee persevered. An experienced geologist, McGee was rewarded with a giant oil discovery at a depth of 7,650 feet. He would later lead efforts in early offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. 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. Contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

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