This Week in Petroleum History, April 12 to April 18

April 13, 1974 – Oklahoma Well sets World Depth Record – 

After drilling for 504 days and costing about $7 million, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 well reached a total depth of 31,441 feet (5.95 miles) before being stopped by liquid sulfur. Drilled in the heart of Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin, it was the deepest well in world for several years and the deepest U.S. well until exceeded in 2004.

Robert Hefner III’s GHK Company and partner Lone Star Producing Company believed natural gas reserves resided deep in the basin, which extends across West-Central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Their first attempt began in 1967 and took two years to reach what at the time was a record depth, 24,473 feet. (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, March 29 to April 4

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

Edwin Laurentine Drake was born in Greenville, New York. Forty years later, he used a steam-powered cable-tool rig to drill the first commercial U.S. oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania. The former railroad conductor overcame many financial and technical obstacles to make “Drake’s Folly” a milestone in energy history.

Drake pioneered new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well from nearby Oil Creek. “In order to overcome the hurdles before him, he invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor,’ an invention he unfortunately did not patent,” noted historian Urja Davé in 2008. “Mr. Drake conceived the idea of driving a pipe down to the rock through which to start the drill.” (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, March 22 to March 28

March 23, 1858 – Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company reorganizes to drill First Oil Well – 

Investors from New Haven, Connecticut, organized the Seneca Oil Company with $300,000 in capital after purchasing the Titusville leases of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, which had been founded in 1854 by George Bissell.

Rare photo of Seneca Oil Company stock certificate

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

Bissell, who had investigated oil seeps south of Titusville, originated the idea of producing and refining oil to make kerosene lamp fuel, 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, PhD, in a 2009 Edwin Drake biography.

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.

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This Week in Petroleum History, March 15 to March 21

March 16, 1911 – Pegasus Trademark takes flight – 

A Vacuum Oil Company subsidiary in Cape Town, South Africa, trademarked a flying horse logo inspired by Pegasus of Greek mythology. Based in Rochester, New York, Vacuum Oil had built a successful lubricants business long before gasoline was a branded product. When Vacuum Oil and Standard Oil of New York combined in 1931, the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company adopted the red-winged horse trademark and marketed Pegasus Spirits and Mobilegas products.

Original Mobil Pegasus logo trademark from 1911.

The original Mobil Pegasus logo was registered in 1911 by a South Africa subsidiary of New York-based Vacuum Oil Company. 

A stylized red gargoyle earlier had advertised the company, which produced petroleum-based lubricants for carriages and steam engines. Created by the Vacuum Oil Company of South Africa, the Pegasus trademark proved to be a far more enduring image. Learn more in Mobil’s High-Flying Trademark.

March 16, 1914 – “Main Street” Oil Well completed

A well completed in 1914 produced oil from about 1,770 feet beneath Barnsdall, Oklahoma. The popular TV program Ripley’s Believe It or Not would proclaim the well the “World’s Only Main Street Oil Well.”

March oil history image of oil pump in main street of Barndsall, OK

An oil well pump in the middle of Main Street in Barnsdall, Oklahoma, was visited by American Oil & Gas Historical Society volunteer Tim Wells in 2016. Photo by Bruce Wells.

The Osage County town, originally called Bigheart for Osage Chief James Bigheart, was renamed in 1922 for Theodore Barnsdall, owner of the Barnsdall Refining Company, which today is a wax refinery owned by Baker Hughes, a GE Company. The Main Street well site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

March 17, 1890 – Natural Gas Company founds Sun Oil

The Peoples Natural Gas Company, founded four years earlier by Joseph Pew and Edward Emerson to provide natural gas to Pittsburgh, expanded to become the Sun Oil Company of Ohio.

Illustration of Sun Oil logo evolution to SUNOCO.

Sun Oil Company brands from 1894 to 1920 (top) to SONOCO from 1920 to 1954.

At the turn of the century, the company had acquired promising leases near Findlay and entered the business of “producing petroleum, rock and carbon oil, transporting and storing same, refining, purifying, manufacturing such oil and its various products.” In the 1920s, the company marketed Sunoco Motor Oil and opened service stations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The company became an oilfield equipment supplier in 1929, forming Sperry-Sun. Also see Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh.

March 17, 1923 – Oklahoma Discovery leads to Giant Oilfields

The Betsy Foster No. 1 well, a 2,800-barrel-a-day oil gusher near Wewoka, county seat of Seminole County, Oklahoma, launched the Seminole area boom. The discovery south of Oklahoma City was followed by others in Cromwell and Bethel (1924), and Earlsboro and Seminole (1926). Thirty-nine separate oilfields were ultimately found around Seminole and parts of Pottawatomie, Okfuskee, Hughes, and Pontotoc counties. Once one of the poorest economic regions in Oklahoma, by 1935 the Seminole area became the largest supplier of oil in the world.

March 17, 1949 – First Commercial Application of Hydraulic Fracturing

A team from Halliburton and Stanolind companies converged on an oil well about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma, and performed the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing.

Derrick and truck at first hydraulic fracture of oil well in 1949.

The first commercial hydraulic fracturing job (above) took place in 1949 about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy Halliburton.

A 1947 experimental well had fractured a natural gas field in Hugoton, Kansas, and proven the possibility of increased productivity. The technique was developed and patented by Stanolind (later known as Pan American Oil Company) and an exclusive license was issued to Halliburton Company to perform the process. Four years later, the license was extended to all qualified oilfield service companies.

“Since that fateful day in 1949, hydraulic fracturing has done more to increase recoverable reserves than any other technique,” proclaimed a Halliburton company spokesman in 2009, adding that more than two million fracturing treatments have been pumped without polluting an aquifer. Erle Halliburton had patented an efficient well cementing technology in 1921 that improved oil production while protecting the environment. The earliest attempts to increase  petroleum production by fracturing geologic formations began in the 1860s. Learn more in Shooters – A ‘Fracking’ History

March 17, 1949 – Texas Wildcatter opens Houston’s Shamrock Hotel

Texas independent producer Diamond Glenn” McCarthy hosted the grand opening of his $21 million, 18-story, 1,100-room Shamrock Hotel on outskirts of Houston. McCarthy reportedly spent another $1 million for the hotel’s St. Patrick’s Day opening day gala, including arranging for a 16-car Santa Fe Super Chief train to bring friends from Hollywood.

Color postcard of Shamrock Hotel, Houston, Texas, circa 1950.

After paying $21 million to construct the Shamrock Hotel, Glenn McCarthy spent another $1 million for its grand opening on St. Patrick’ Day 1949. The 1,100-room Houston hotel was demolished in 1987.

The Texas wildcatter, who had discovered 11 oilfields by 1945, also introduced his own label of bourbon at Shamrock, the largest hotel in the United States at the time. Dubbed Houston’s biggest party, the Shamrock’s debut “made the city of Houston a star overnight,” one newspaper reported. Learn more in “Diamond Glenn” McCarthy.

March 18, 1937 – New London School Explosion Tragedy

With just minutes left in the school day, a natural gas explosion destroyed the New London High School in Rusk County, Texas. Odorless gas (a residual natural gas called casing-head gas) had leaked into the basement and ignited with an explosion heard four miles away. East Texas oilfield workers — many with children attending the school — rushed to the scene, as did a cub reporter from Dallas, Walter Cronkite.

Devastating March 1937 gas explosion at New London school in East Texas oilfield.

Roughnecks from the East Texas oilfield rushed to the devastated school and searched for survivors throughout the night. Photo courtesy New London Museum.

Despite desperate rescue efforts, 298 people were killed that day (dozens more later died of injuries). The explosion’s source was later found to be an electric wood-shop sander that sparked odorless gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school. As a result of this disaster, Texas and other states passed laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to give early warning of a gas leak. Learn more about the tragedy in New London School Explosion.

March 18, 1938 — First Offshore Well drilled in Gulf of Mexico’s Creole field

Oil production from a well drilled by Pure Oil Company and Superior Oil Company in the Gulf of Mexico marked the beginning of the modern offshore industry. Louisiana’s Creole oilfield in offshore Cameron Parish southwest of the town of Creole, was the first discovered in the “open waters” of the Gulf, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Many more offshore wells followed World War II, including a Kerr-McGee drilling platform, the Kermac Rig No. 16, which in 1947 became the first offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico that was out of sight of land. By the end of 1949, the offshore petroleum industry had discovered 11 oil and natural gas fields. The first mobile offshore drilling platform, “Mr. Charlie,” began drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in 1954 (see articles in Offshore Oil History).

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March 20, 1919 – American Petroleum Institute founded

Tracing its roots to World War I when the petroleum industry and Congress worked together to fuel the war effort, the American Petroleum Institute (API) was founded in New York City. By 1921, the organization had established a scale to measure a petroleum liquid’s density relative to water, called API gravity. Today based in Washington, D.C., the organization represents the interests of large oil and natural gas companies. API maintains standards and recommended practices while lobbying for the industry.

March 21, 1881 – Earth Scientist becomes USGS Director

President James Garfield appointed John Wesley Powell director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Powell was among the pioneers who laid the foundation for modern earth science research, according to the American Geological Institute (AGI). He led USGS for more than a decade.

John Wesley Powell, director of the United States Geological Survey, sits at his desk

John Wesley Powell at his desk in Washington, D.C., in 1896. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Born in 1834 at Mount Morris, New York, Powell was a Union officer during the Civil War, where he lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, he became a highly respected geologist and organized early surveys in the West before helping to establish USGS in 1879.

Powell championed national mapping standards and a geodetic system still in use today. “A Government cannot do any scientific work of more value to the people at large than by causing the construction of proper topographic maps of the country,” he told Congress in 1884.

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Recommended Reading:  A History of the Greater Seminole Oil Field (1981); The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy (2016); A Texas Tragedy: The New London School Explosion (2012); Oil Boom Architecture: Titusville, Pithole, and Petroleum Center, Images of America (2008); The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey (2017).

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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 © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

This Week in Petroleum History, March 8 to March 14

March 9, 1930 – Prototype Oil Tanker is Electrically Welded –

The world’s first electrically welded commercial vessel, the Texas Company (later Texaco) tanker M/S Carolinian, was completed in Charleston, South Carolina. The shipbuilding boom during World War I had encouraged American and British shipbuilders to develop new electric welding technologies. The 226-ton vessel was a prototype designed by naval architect Richard Smith.

oil history includes the welded tanker Carolinian

Construction of M/S Carolinian began in 1929. The M/S designation meant it used an internal combustion engine. Photo courtesy Z.P. Liollio.

The Texas Company’s oil products tanker was the first truly electrically welded ship, according to machine tool expert and welder Zachary Liollio. Electric welding eliminated the need for about 85,000 pounds of rivets, he noted in a 2017 article for the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). The success of the oil tanker prototype led to “the standard of welded hulls and internal combustion engines would become universal in construction of new vessels.”

March 9, 1959 – Barbie is a Petroleum Doll

Mattel revealed the Barbie Doll at the American Toy Fair in New York City. More than one billion “dolls in the Barbie family” have been sold since. Eleven inches tall, Barbie owes her existence to petroleum products and the science of polymerization, including several plastic acronyms: ABS, EVA, PBT, and PVC.

Rows of plastic Barbie heads made from petroleum products.

Petroleum-based polymers are part of Barbie’s DNA.

Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS) is known for strength and flexibility. This thermoplastic polymer is used in Barbie’s torso to provide impact and heat resistance. EVA (Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate), a copolymer made up of ethylene and vinyl acetate, protects Barbie’s smooth surface.

The Mattel doll also includes Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), a thermoplastic polymer often used as an electrical insulator. Barbie uses PBT with a mineral component to facilitate injection molding the proportions of her “full figure,” according to the company. Polyvinyl-Chloride (PVC ), unlike many synthetic polymers, is not solely based on the feedstock ethylene, which comes from “cracking” natural gas. Barbie’s hair — and many of her designer outfits — come from the world’s first synthetic fiber, nylon, invented by DuPont Corporation in 1935 (see Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer).

March 11, 1829 – Kentucky Salt Well Driller discovers Oil

Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty found oil 171 feet deep. Disappointed, he searched elsewhere. Because oil from his well would be bottled and sold, some historians consider Beatty’s discovery the earliest commercial oil well in North America.

Beatty, who had learned his trade in Pennsylvania, drilled brine wells to meet growing demand from Kentucky settlers needing dried salt to preserve food. He bored his wells by percussion drilling — raising and dropping a chisel from a sapling, an ancient technology for making hole.

Map of an 1829 salt well that found oil well in Kentucky.

Drilled in 1829 about 250 miles north of Nashville, the Kentucky “salt well” produced about 50,000 barrels of oil in three weeks.

According to historian Sheldon Baugh, prior to the Cumberland County oilfield discovery, Beatty first found oil in a McCreary County brine well in 1819. That well “provided very little of the useless stuff” and was soon forgotten. The historian described the scene of Beatty’s oil well of March 11, 1829:

“On that day, well-driller Beatty bragged to bystanders “Today I’ll drill her into salt or else to Hell.” When the gusher erupted he apparently thought he’d succeeded in hitting “hell”! As the story goes “he ran off into the hills and didn’t come back.”

A newspaper account later reported Beatty’s well was neglected for years, “until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities.” Oil from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well found its way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Samuel Kier bottled and sold it as medicine. Kier would be among the first to refine kerosene for lamps.

March 11, 1930 – Society of Exploration Geophysicists founded

The Society of Exploration Geophysicists was founded by 30 men and women in Houston as the Society of Economic Geophysicists. Based in Tulsa since the mid-1940s, SEG fosters “the expert and ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources.”

Society of Exploration Geophysicists logo

SEG began publishing the award-winning journal Geophysics in 1936 and in 1958 formed a trust to provide scholarships for students of geophysics. The society in 2019 reported more than 14,000 members in 114 countries.

March 12, 1912 – Tom Slick discovers First of Many Oilfields 

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” Thomas B. Slick discovered a giant oilfield midway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. His No. 1 Wheeler uncovered the Drumright-Cushing field, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels of oil a day at its peak. Knowing speculators would descend on the area when word got out, Slick secretly hired all the local drilling contractors.

Wildcatter Tom Slick honored at the Conoco Oil Pioneers plaza.

Tom Slick is among those honored at the Conoco Oil Pioneers plaza at the Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

After his success in Cushing, Slick began an 18-year streak of discovering some of America’s most prolific fields in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. His discoveries during the Greater Seminole Oil Boom of the 1920s made him the leading independent producer in the United States with a net worth up to $100 million.

By 1930 in the Oklahoma City field alone, Slick completed 30 wells with the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of oil a day. When he died suddenly the same year from a stroke at age 46, oil derricks in the Oklahoma City field stood silent for one hour in tribute to Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.

March 12, 1914 – Last Coal Powered U.S. Battleship Commissioned

The U.S.S. Texas, the last American battleship built with coal-fired boilers, was commissioned in 1914. Coal-burning boilers, which produced dense smoke and created tons of ash, required the Navy to maintain coaling stations worldwide. Coaling ship was a major undertaking and early battleships carried about 2,000 tons with a crew of “coal passers.”

Last coal powered battleship, the USS Texas is now a museum.

The USS Texas’ coal-powered boilers were converted to burn fuel oil in 1925. Photo courtesy Battleship Texas State Historic Site.

Dramatic improvement in efficiency came when the Navy began adopting fuel oil boilers. By 1916, the Navy had commissioned its first two capital ships with oil-fired boilers, the U.S.S. Nevada and the U.S.S. Oklahoma. To resupply them, “oilers” were designed to transfer fuel while at anchor, although underway replenishment was soon possible in fair seas.

The U.S.S. Texas was converted to burn fuel oil in 1925. The “Big T” – today the Battleship Texas State Historic Site docked on the Houston Ship Channel — was the first battleship declared to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Learn more in Petroleum and Sea Power.

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March 12, 1943 – Secret Mission sends Roughnecks to Sherwood Forest

A top-secret team of 42 American drillers, derrickmen, roustabouts, and motormen boarded the troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth. They were volunteers from two Oklahoma companies, Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling. Their mission was to drill wells in England’s Sherwood Forest and help relieve the crisis caused by German submarines sinking Allied oil tankers. Four rotary drilling rigs were shipped on separate transport ships. One of the ships was sunk by a U-Boat.

Volunteer roughnecks from two Oklahoma drilling companies who secretly drilled in for England during World War II.

Volunteer roughnecks from two Oklahoma drilling companies will embark for England in 1943. Derrickman Herman Douthit will not return.

With the future of Great Britain depending on petroleum supplies, the Americans used Yankee ingenuity to drill an average of one well per week. Their secret work added vital oil to fuel the British war effort. Read more in Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.

March 12, 1968 – Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay Oilfield Discovered

Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered by Richfield Oil (ARCO) and Humble Oil Company (Exxon). The Prudhoe Bay State No. 1 exploratory well arrived more than six decades after the first Alaska oil well. It followed Richfield Oil’s discovery of the Swanson River oilfield on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957.

Map  of Prudhoe oilfields from Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Map courtesy Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Photo from 1969 courtesy Atlantic Richfield Company.

At more than 213,000 acres, the Prudhoe Bay field was the largest oilfield in North America, surpassing the 140,000 acre East Texas oilfield discovery of 1930. Prudhoe Bay’s remote location prevented oil production beginning in earnest until 1977, after completion of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Prudhoe Bay field’s production exceeded an average rate of one million barrels of oil a day by March 1978, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It peaked in January 1987 at more than 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.

March 13, 1974 – OPEC ends Oil Embargo

A five-month oil embargo against the United States was lifted by Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel formed in 1960. The embargo, imposed in response to America supplying the Israeli military during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, created gasoline shortages, prompting President Richard M. Nixon to propose and Congress approve voluntary rationing and a ban of gas sales on Sundays. OPEC ended the embargo after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated an Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the Sinai.

March 14, 1910 – Lakeview No. 1 Well erupts in California 

The Union Oil Company Lakeview No. 1 well erupted a geyser of oil at dawn in Kern County, California (some sources give the date as March 15). With limited technologies for  managing the deep, highly pressured formation of the Midway-Sunset field, drillers had experienced several accidental oil spills, including the Shamrock gusher in 1896 and the 1909 Midway gusher.

Lakeview oil gusher monument near the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft, California,

A historical marker and remnants of a sand berm 1.5 miles north of Maricopa, California, mark the site of a 1910 Union Oil Company gusher that flowed uncontrolled for 18 months. Photo courtesy San Joaquin Valley Geology.

“But none of these wells came close to rivaling the Lakeview No. 1 which flowed, uncapped and untamed, at 18,000 barrels a day for 18 months,” noted a San Joaquin Valley geologist. Surrounded by berms and sandbags to contain the oil, the well collapsed and died on September 10, 1911, after producing 9.4 million barrels of oil (about half was contained and sold). It became the most famous American gusher almost a decade after Spindletop Hill in Texas.

Lakeview oil gusher of March 15,1910, in n California's Midway oilfield.

Oil erupted near Maricopa in California’s Midway-Sunset oilfield on March 15, 1910. Contained by sandbag embankments by October, the Lakeview No. 1 well produced 9.4 million barrels during the 544 days it flowed. Photo courtesy San Joaquin Valley Geology.

Although the Lakeview well remains the largest oil spill in U.S. history, its environmental and economic impact has been considered less destructive due to evaporation and levees of sandbags that prevented contamination of Buena Vista Lake to the east. A Kern County historic marker was erected in 1952 at the site, which is seven miles north of the West Kern Oil Museum.

The ram-type blowout preventer to seal well pressure was invented in 1922.

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Recommended Reading:  Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century Hardcover (1996); A Geophysicist’s Memoir: Searching for Oil on Six Continents (2017). “King of the Wildcatters:” The Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883-1930 (2004); Historic Battleship Texas: The Last Dreadnought (2007); The Secret of Sherwood Forest: Oil Production in England During World War II (1973); Discovery at Prudhoe Bay Oil (2008); San Joaquin Valley, California, Images of America (1999). 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. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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