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article number 209
article date 02-14-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Striking Oil … A 1924 History and Future Prophecy
by Guy Mitchell

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention.

CUT off the petroleum supply of the United States to-day and what would happen? Automobiles would stop running; airplanes would cease to fly; thousands of motor-boats would lie idle; many hundred thousand stationary engines on farms and in factories would stop; whole industries dependent on fuel-oil would collapse; almost half our homes would be in utter darkness; freight and passenger trains and great ocean steamers, all lubricated with oil, would turn neither wheel nor screw. No revolution could possibly prove so calamitous as the stoppage of the world’s petroleum supply, yet only a little over a generation ago there was no such thing in the world as an oil well.

In India, crude petroleum has been burnt for 2,000 years, smoky and foul-smelling. Even with a natural supply at hand, the natives preferred to burn fish oil in their lamps until they obtained refined petroleum from the United States. Both ancient Greece and Rome knew something of petroleum, but utilized it only in its solidified form, asphaltum, as a cement or mortar for bricks. Indeed, nearly all the ancient people had stumbled on petroleum. It was left for keen, inquiring Americans of the past generation to develop its possibilities.

Before the coming of petroleum the United States burnt candles or whale oil. Whaling ships, fitted out in New Bedford and other New England ports for voyages of one, two, or three years’ duration, killed thousands of whales and brought back many thousands of barrels of whale oil and fine sperm oil. Sperm oil was the best lamp oil, and sperm candles were found in every home. A time soon came when whales ceased to be plentiful. A substitute for whale oil was demanded, and scientists and inventors produced, among other compounds, a mixture of turpentine distilled from pine sap and alcohol and called camphine.



With such a scarcity of whale oil it was but natural that in 1847 James Young, of Glasgow, Scotland, began his successful experiments in utilizing distilled oil from coal. But oil was not enough. Where was the lamp that would burn the oil? In the United States Doctor Abram Gessner, a skilled chemist, had manufactured oil from coal even a year before Young. In 1854 he patented an improved illuminating oil, which he styled “kerosene,” a name for which he secured trade-mark rights. “Coal oil” was the name by which illuminating oil was long sold, but later Gessner’s name, “kerosene,” was applied to refined petroleum used for lighting. Gessner’s kerosene was a fine product for its time. It could not be sold nowadays; for it smelled to heaven.


Who discovered petroleum in the United States? Tradition has it that centuries ago a Seneca Indian squaw dipped her blanket in the Pennsylvanian stream now known by the suggestive name of Oil Creek, in the vain endeavor to transfer to it the brilliant, iridescent hues of the floating petroleum. Although the blanket did not assume the desired color, it did absorb the oil from the surface of the water, and this the red woman squeezed out and found useful for other purposes.

Pits were dug by the Indians and timbered with rough-hewn beams and posts. In these pits the oil was stored—the first practical storage of petroleum in America. Some of these old Indian pits are still in existence. Nor was it long before the palefaces copied the Indians, dug pits and soaked up the oil by the same crude blanket method. Two men working together, gathering the oil and wringing it out of a blanket, would harvest perhaps a barrel of oil a day.

For many years this product, duly bottled and labeled “Seneca Oil,” “Indian Oil,” or “Snake Oil,” was sold by druggists for both internal and external use as a cure for all ailments. The real value of the oil was curiously overlooked. Perhaps George Washington had a clearer vision of petroleum’s possibilities than his contemporaries. The “oil spring” which he found in western Virginia was commended by his last will to the special consideration of his trustees.

As early as 1790 great numbers of salt wells were sunk in the United States, especially along the western slopes of the Allegheny Mountains. The brine was pumped up and then evaporated into salt. Many of these wells had to be abandoned because they produced not only salt water but petroleum, then considered a mere nuisance. To-day the exact opposite is true; many oil wells are invaded by brine and ruined. At Little Renox Creek, near Burkesville, Kentucky, in 1829, the attempt to sink a well and secure what was expected to be an inexhaustible supply of brine resulted in the striking of a genuine oil gusher. Consternation and disappointment reigned among the owners of the well. They saw vast quantities of oil pouring into the Cumberland River. This was America’s first “gusher,” but not the slightest practical use was made of its oil.

Salt well.


The eyes of America were opened to the possibilities of petroleum by Colonel A. C. Ferris, a man of some wealth and of enormous energy. He did as much as any pioneer to introduce and popularize petroleum, to perfect a process of refining it, to rid it partially of its vile odor, and to perfect lamps in which it could be burned.

When Ferris was a fourteen-year-old apprentice in a New York store, streets were lighted by whale-oil lamps. In the store in which he worked, camphine was burned. Colonel Ferris went to California when gold was discovered there in 1849, but 1850 found him back in the city of New York. One day in 1857, when he happened to be in Pittsburgh, he saw a tin lamp in the wholesale drugstore of Nevin and MacKeown; it burned petroleum obtained as a by-product from the salt wells at Tarentum on the Allegheny River.

The lamp was primitive; the stench that rose from it was well-nigh unendurable; but the oil immediately engaged Colonel Ferris’s attention. Then and there he decided that a way must be found of refining the oil, of ridding it of its foul odor. A fire which destroyed his first experimental plant also showed him the need of an oil which would not explode easily. He employed a competent chemist and carried on extensive experiments in his laboratory, finally producing an almost odorless as well as a “high-test” oil, which means an oil that will not ignite too easily.


His faith in the new illuminant was always unbounded. By 1858 he was devoting himself entirely to the work of perfecting the oil on a commercial scale and introducing it. But before accomplishing all this he had to overcome many obstacles. He first established himself at 184 Water Street, New York, but the smell of the oil caused such complaint that he was obliged to remove to 191 Pearl Street. He had his troubles in selling the new oil.

With a lamp in one hand and a can of oil in the other, his canvassers entered the shops of dealers and exhibited the light, counting themselves fortunate if they were allowed to send a few gallons of the oil and a half-dozen lamps, to be paid for when sold. There was much blundering in handling the new lamps, and often Colonel Ferris was called upon to pay for oil-stained furniture and carpets. Persistent canvassing and advertising spread his fame abroad. He was so beset with visitors that he had to employ an assistant to receive callers and answer questions. Constant improvement of both lamps and refining process finally won for the oil some popularity, so that before long the problem presented itself of obtaining enough crude oil to meet the demand.

Ferris bought his oil in regions where the blanket-wringing method was still employed. He heard of J. M. Williams, of Hamilton, Ontario, one of the first oil producers in America, a man who had dug oil wells with pick and shovel on the Eniskellan oil tract in the wilds of Canada as early as 1856. At once, Colonel Ferris posted off to Canada. He bought from Williams oil valued at $2,117 and had it shipped to New York by wagon and rail. Such was the Colonel’s faith in the future of petroleum that he returned to Canada later and made arrangements to purchase the whole tract for $26,500. A number of wealthy New York business men promised their financial aid in the transaction.

After Colonel Ferris had left, these faint-hearts concluded that he was a mere dreamer, and that it was impracticable to market the petroleum of far-off Canada, whereupon they left him in the lurch with the usual excuses. Instead of giving up hope, Ferris ordered oil from Europe, California, and even the East Indies, although the ships in which it was carried had to double Cape Horn and sail half-way around the world. He met with heartbreaking misfortunes time and time again. Only his conviction that the world would eventually buy and burn petroleum buoyed him up. He bought land at Tarentum, Pennsylvania, on which were oil-yielding salt wells. There a shaft twelve feet square was sunk at a cost of $20,000, but no oil was struck.


Undiscouraged he started to sink a well at the bottom of the shaft, hoping to reach oil-bearing rock. Instead of oil, he struck a huge vein of water. Work stopped then and there. Had Colonel Ferris happened to dig and drill at Oil Creek instead of Tarentum, he might have been known as the first great oil-well driver in history. As it was, Ferris did succeed in amassing a fortune in oil and died a rich man.

During this same period S. M. Kier sold great quantities of partially refined petroleum for medicinal purposes, bottling, advertising and disposing of it as a wonderful cure for most of the ills to which flesh is heir. His advertisements and his distributing wagons went everywhere. He soon found that the supply of oil was greater than the demand for it as a medicine, and he too reached the conclusion that it would make a good illuminant. Like Colonel Ferris he tried to find a suitable lamp, even offering to pay $1,000 for one which would burn the new oil acceptably.


While Ferris and Kier were doing their best to popularize oil, George A. Bissell and Jonathan G. Eveleth, New York lawyers, became interested in petroleum, and in 1854 formed a company to prospect for oil in Pennsylvania. They leased the property on which the famous oil spring of Oil Creek was located, and on which operations had been carried on in a crude way by digging trenches in which oil accumulated. In 1856 a new day dawned—a day which marked the birth of a great idea, the idea of obtaining petroleum by means of wells drilled just as water wells are drilled. It was an obvious idea, and yet it was an accident that made it flash in a man’s brain.

The man was Bissell. Driven under the awning of a Broadway drug store by the scorching heat of a summer day, in 1856, his eye fell upon a remarkable show-bill in the window lying beside a bottle of Kier’s “Medicinal Petroleum.” The bill appeared to be a $400 banknote, but when Bissell looked at it closely he saw that it was only an advertisement of the medicine. He stepped in and asked to see the bill. He studied the derricks pictured, and commented on the depth of the salt wells from which the oil was procured. Wells! That was the way to obtain petroleum. Drill wells! If wells could produce salt water with a little oil as a side issue, they could be drilled down into the oil rocks and produce mostly oil. The idea of drilling salt wells was an old one; that of drilling wells for oil was a brand new one, and as later events proved, there were but few people who had any faith in it.


Bissell talked to his partner Eveleth about his great idea, and that gentleman saw the light at once. On March 23, 1858, the partners formed the Seneca Oil Company. Its superintendent was Colonel E. L. Drake, who, too, believed that oil was to be found in great underground pools. He arrived in the little town of Titusville on Oil Creek, early in May, 1858, started up the abandoned works of the oil company, and cast about for someone to drill a well. His first step was to dig an open well as deep as he could before beginning to drill, as Colonel Ferris was doing about this time. This was the usual way— to dig an open well to bed rock, and then begin with the drill.

But, like Ferris, Drake struck not only oil but water—such a volume of it that his workers had to clamber out and save themselves. What was to be done? Must the well be abandoned? It was here that Drake’s genius asserted itself. He determined to try the scheme of driving an iron pipe through the water and the quicksands and the clay down to rock, and it worked!

AN OLD-TIME OIL RIG OF THE TYPE THAT DID SERVICE BEFORE THE DAYS OF COLONEL DRAKE. EDITORS NOTE: Judging from the hats men are wearing and the pipe on the ground, this photo appears to be from a later period.

This was a real invention—one that might have been patented and that might have made Drake rich. Drake now built a drill-house, ordered an engine, and engaged a driller, expecting to begin boring in September. But the engine was not ready on time, money failed to arrive, and the work had to be postponed for the winter. He encountered other difficulties, among them the lack of transportation facilities, of workmen who knew how to drill wells, and of proper tools.

In February, 1859, Colonel Drake went to Tarentum and tried to engage drillers. One after another failed him. They had no faith in a man who wanted to get oil out of a well like water. Kier recommended Uncle Billy Smith, who had drilled deep salt wells for him, a man who had been sinking wells since 1828, and who had never broken his word. With his two sons, Uncle Billy began work on May 20, 1859. They drove forty-nine feet of pipe down to bed-rock, cleaned this out, and then drilled down to a depth of sixty-nine and one-half feet on August 28. As Uncle Billy and his boys were about to leave for the night he noticed oil rising in the drive-pipe.

“Look at this,” he said to Colonel Drake.
“What does it mean?“ asked Colonel Drake.
“That’s your fortune coming,” replied Uncle Billy.
Then he plugged one end of a rain-spout, attached it to a thin strip of lumber, lowered it into the well and drew it up filled with petroleum.

The news quickly reached the little village of Titusville. When Colonel Drake appeared the next morning, bright and early, he found the old man and his boys proudly guarding several barrels of petroleum which they had drawn up with their improvised dipper. Colonel Drake at once installed a pump—the first petroleum pump—and Uncle Billy and his boys pumped eight barrels of oil that day. To store the petroleum they used an old fish-oil can, which held five or six barrels, and all the barrels and receptacles on which they could lay their hands.

THE ORIGINAL DRAKE WELL. It was the first artesian well drilled in the Pennsylvania oil region. It was located upon the Watson Flats, below Titusville, and was sixty-nine feet six inches in depth—struck August 28, 1859—and produced twelve barrels of oil per day.

No preparations had been made to handle the oil. Even Colonel Drake hardly expected that the well would yield more than a barrel or two a day. Indeed he was more astonished than any one at striking oil so quickly. He and Bissell had fully expected to have to drill down 1,000 feet. He now ordered a carpenter to build a twenty-five barrel wooden tank, and later larger tanks. In the meantime the oil was hauled away and shipped as rapidly as possible. The pump was worked harder, and by October it was yielding twenty barrels a day. But good luck was mixed with bad. On October 7, the tanks and derrick burned to the ground.

“The fire caught from a lamp in my hand,” said Uncle Billy Smith. “We were so bothered with people coming to look at the well that we had to put up a big tank-house, and that night I thought the tank was not filling fast enough, and went in to see. I raised the lamp near the tank, and in an instant the whole thing was ablaze. Everything burned up.”

But Colonel Drake was not discouraged. “The oil is still there in the well,” he said. He immediately built a new derrick, and started pumping again, this time at the rate of thirty barrels a day, a rate maintained for several years.


The news of the “strike” spread like wildfire. Titusville was aflame with excitement, and the country people for miles around flocked in to see the wonderful Drake well. Jonathan Watson, one of the stockholders in Drake’s company, jumped on a horse and dashed off to secure a lease on the McClintock farm farther down Oil Creek. Bissell leased farm after farm along Oil Creek and the Allegheny River. Drake took the view that he had tapped the mother oil pool, and complacently kept on pumping oil while others secured leases. Most of the first leases were secured without payment of any money, the lessees agreeing to give the owners of the farms one-eighth or one-fourth of the oil produced. Drake, who was looked upon as the biggest man in the community, could have leased farms on the same easy terms. When several other wells had struck oil his eyes were opened, but too late.

Drake’s first well “broke” the oil market—a little stream of oil which would hardly supply a country village to-day. Colonel Ferris now had plenty of crude oil, and he redoubled his efforts to find a market for the refined product. He and others managed to keep pace with the increased production. The old price of $2.00 a gallon could not be maintained, but for some time oil did bring about $1.00 a gallon, or $40.00 a barrel. Two more wells were drilled on the Drake tract, one of which was started on the very day that the Drake well struck oil. Other wells were soon drilled on near-by tracts. The excitement was intense. There was a great scarcity of barrels. Old whiskey barrels, vinegar barrels, barrels of any kind which would hold oil were used. Big pits were dug in the ground and lined with planks to store the oil. One was four acres in extent.


Two years later the first flowing well was struck. It was named the “Fountain Well,” and, to the astonishment of all the oil men in the neighborhood, flowed steadily at the rate of 300 barrels a day. Before the wonder of this had subsided the Phillips well on Oil Creek burst forth with a stream of 3,000 barrels a day—a flood of petroleum for that time.

Having amassed about $20,000, Drake left the oil-fields in 1863, went to New York and became a partner of a Wall Street broker in oil stocks, an unfortunate venture that ruined him. His health broke down and he was reduced to abject poverty. When they heard of his plight, the oil men raised $5,000 and gave it to Mrs. Drake. In 1873 the State of Pennsylvania, responding to a popular demand, passed a pension act which gave Colonel Drake or his widow a life income of $1,500 a year.


As the valleys of Oil Creek and other tributaries of the Allegheny River produced more and more oil, a region which had once been a wilderness was transformed into a scene of extraordinary activity. Thousands of teamsters were employed to haul tens of thousands of barrels of oil to the nearest railroad shipping points, and other thousands of barrels were shipped by water in every conceivable sort of craft.

The inventive ability of the pioneer American asserted itself on every hand. Old lumber pilots, long retired for lack of something to do, were routed out to guide rafts of oil on the river. Even abandoned lumber dams found a new use. Oil Creek carried little water, and was navigable only in a flood. The old lumber dams were pressed into a service of which no one had ever dreamed. By their means the water was collected and retained to produce artificial floods once or twice a week.

At the appointed time, the dams were opened, one after another, until the little stream had increased to a river. At each landing the stream received its tribute of oil-laden boats, until, after a journey of fifteen miles, the fleet often numbered 500 or 600 boats carrying 20,000 to 25,000, and possibly 40,000 barrels of oil. There was much maneuvering and many a collision as this oil flotilla swept out into the Allegheny from Oil Creek. Later, railroads were built into the oil regions, but for years it was a question whether the oil wells would not dry up and leave the railroads with nothing to transport. At first oil was shipped in barrels, but later tank-cars came into use, and then pipe lines.

Wooden oil tank train car.

There are to-day, some 138,000 oil tank-cars, enough to store all the oil which was produced in the United States in 1880. The first tank-car was crude enough. About five years after Drake’s well had struck oil, Charles P. Hatch proceeded to Oil Creek in order to secure oil for his employers, the Empire Transportation Company. Oil was then shipped over the railroads in barrels. Hatch either conceived the idea of a tank-car, or else saw some kind of a tank-car in use. At his request, the company sent him a box-car within which had been built three wooden tanks, according to his plans. He was instructed to use the car with care; for the company was skeptical, and expected to use the car again for ordinary freight.

The tanks leaked frightfully. In order to caulk and make them oil-tight, Hatch had to tear off the sides of the car. “Return the car to the merchandise trade indeed!“ he exclaimed, as the car was finally filled with oil and sent forward on its trip East. The car looked as if it had been subjected to a cannonading. It was ruined except for use as an oil car. And an oil car it remained, as many of its brothers and fellows have since. Within a few years long lines of tank-cars had taken the place of the barrels formerly seen along the railroad sidings. Indeed, there is now no such thing as an oil barrel, a “barrel” being now simply a measure of oil. The wooden tank-car was subjected to such strain and leaked so badly that within a few years iron tubular tank-cars, not greatly different from the present-day steel car, took its place.


Up to 1876 oil was prospected for chiefly in what is known as the Appalachian field, embracing the States of Pennsylvania, New York; Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In that year California became an oil State, with a production of 12,000 barrels, and progressed so rapidly that in 1914 she led all the other States with a production of 99,775,000 barrels of oil. In 1923 her output was 262,876,000 barrels. All told, California has produced nearly two billion barrels.

In 1886 Indiana struck oil in quantity, and by 1896 she had reached her maximum annual production of 25,000,000 barrels. In 1887 the Rocky Mountain field, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana, was opened with a yield of 75,000 barrels. The field has not been a very great producer, the figures for 1920 being 17,000,000 barrels. In 1889 a few hundred barrels of oil were produced in Illinois, but not until 1905 was oil really “struck,” when 180,000 barrels were produced, followed by a rush that resulted in an output of 24,000,000 barrels in 1907.


The great mid-continent field; embracing Oklahoma, Kansas, and parts of Texas and Louisiana caused perhaps the most intense excitement of all. In 1889 a well or two was drilled, and a year later the field produced 1,200 barrels. For twelve or thirteen years the output was small, but in 1905 new discoveries brought forth 12,000,000 barrels. Oil men flocked to the region. By 1916 the production was 136,000,000 barrels. In 1922 it was 249,000,000 barrels, Oklahoma alone producing over 100,000,000 barrels.

The Gulf field, comprising coastal Texas and lower Louisiana, was another late discovery. In 1899 the output was only 530 barrels, but in 1900 nothing. In 1901 it amounted to 3,500,000 barrels, and 1902 to 18,000,000.

Since the Drake well was drilled, the United States has pumped up more than seven billion barrels of oil.

Hardly had one field been partially developed when sturdy oil pioneers pushed their “wildcat” ventures into new territory and discovered new pools. A “wildcat” is the first trial well in unknown territory—a gamble with nature, for there is no certain means of discovering oil except by drilling. Drake was a “wildcatter.” Nearly all the great oil-fields have been discovered by wildcatters like him—tenacious gamblers, all.

When the “wildcat” drillers strike oil there follows a rush of investors and speculators, eager to buy up oil leases on a percentage of the oil produced, the leases sometimes changing hands over night at profits of 100, perhaps 500 per cent. If the strike is genuine, many producing wells are drilled; railroad feeder lines are built; pipe lines are constructed; towns spring up where a few months before not a house was to be seen; banks are established, and corner lots, once worth $30 or $40 an acre, bring $5,000 or $10,000. The oil gushes out or is pumped up and money rolls in. Everybody is rich, and the thrifty habits of a lifetime are swept away.

Speculation prompted by a mad desire to make a fortune in a day sways even the miserly. Individual fortunes are made and also lost. The farmer who leases his land to the driller is often enriched without turning a hand. Farm land, front yards in city blocks, orchards or orange groves, nothing is spared in the mad scramble to drill down to the hidden pools. In a thickly populated part of Los Angeles, oil derricks to-day rise out of many front and back yards.


The fierce energy of the wildcatters, their boundless optimism, their unquenchable courage, have never been equaled, not even in the gold rushes. Gold miners may succeed with little or no capital, but the drilling of a single well involves the expenditure of money, $10,000, $20,000, perhaps $50,000, and when the well is drilled it may be a “dry hole.” There is as much truth as humor in this description of an oil well by George Fitch:

“An oil well is a hole in the ground about a quarter of a mile deep, into which a man may put a small fortune or out of which he may take a big one. And he never knows until the hole is finished. It takes a number of thousand dollars, several months, and a couple of non-committal men in mud-plastered overalls to dig an oil well. They begin by going up about 100 feet. When they have finished their derrick, they hang a drill on it weighing half a ton. Then the men hitch the drill to an engine and punch a 42-centimeter hole in the earth’s crust. Sometimes, after they have been punching away for several weeks, the hole blows the derrick into the sky utterly ruining it. Then the owner shrieks with glee and employs 500 men to catch the spouting oil in barrels. But sometimes the derrick is as good as new when the hole is finished. Then the owner curses and takes the derrick away to some other place which smells oily.”

LAKE OF OIL, SUNSET FIELD, CALIFORNIA. Most of this oil came from the gusher shown in activity.
DRILLING IN MOUNTAIN RAVINE. No matter what the character of the territory may be the oil-driller shrinks from nothing. Here we see some of his derrick-building exploits in Los Angeles County, California.
LAKEVIEW GUSHER ON MARCH 18, 1910. A few days later the derrick was completely swept away. This well produced 55,000 barrels a day for a long period. Its total production is estimated at 6,000,000 barrels.


The derrick is the visible mark of most oil wells—a tall wooden framework from 64 to 120 feet high. There are dozens, sometimes hundreds, and even thousands of these lofty derricks, each the counterpart of its neighbor in a huge oil-field, each working with clocklike regularity.

Drilling is the principal part of oil production. A heavy string of tools is suspended at the end of a cable, which is given a churning motion by a walking-beam rocked by a small engine. The tools are dropped to the bottom of the hole and then hauled up for another blow. As they fall under their own weight, they pulverize the solid rock and actually punch their way down. To prevent the caving in of the hole and especially to avoid the inflow of water from any water-bearing formations through which the drill bores, the well is lined or “cased” with sections of iron pipe, screwed together and forced down into the hole as the drilling proceeds.

Dozens of derricks in a field may be pumping, pumping, with scarcely a human being in sight. Yet the derrick is not an invention of the oil industry. It was well known before Drake drilled his first well, for by its means, salt wells, 400 or 500 feet deep, had been drilled years before, as we have seen.

Except for shallow wells, the rate of progress varies from sixty to ten feet a day. As greater depths are reached the drilling is slower. The deepest well in the world is the Lake well, in West Virginia, which goes down 7,579 feet, according to the United States Geological Survey—almost a mile and a half. The second deepest well is the near-by Goff well, with a depth of 7,386 feet. Neither well struck oil.

SUMMERLAND OIL-FIELD, CALIFORNIA. If the oil-driller thought he would strike oil out in the bottom of the ocean he might at least dream of drilling a well. As this picture shows, water has no terrors for him.
THE DEEPEST WELL IN THE WORLD. This is the Lake well in West Virginia. It did not strike oil. A depth of 7,579 feet was reached —almost a mile and a half.

The deepest wells are not necessarily the heaviest producers. The Great Lake View gusher, in California, struck oil at a depth of 2,230 feet, and spouted for some days over 50,000 barrels a day.

On July 4, 1908, what was at that time the greatest oil well of the world, struck it rich near Tampico, Mexico, at a depth of 1,824 feet. So rapidly did the oil leap up that before the fire in the boiler of the drilling engine could be extinguished, the flowing oil reached it, and burst into a blaze which for two months burned 60,000 to 75,000 barrels of oil a day. A flame from 800 to 1,400 feet in height, and 40 to 75 feet in width could be seen at night by ships one hundred miles at sea, and a newspaper could be read seventeen miles away. After $3,000,000 worth of oil was thus lost, the fire was extinguished by the salt water that followed the oil from the hole.

Then came the Cerro Azul well, in Mexico, the greatest of all wells, which for a time yielded the incredible amount of 260,000 barrels of oil a day, although the depth was but 1,752 feet. The capping and control of this huge flow of oil was a notable engineering feat.

Such stupendous gushers are the exception and not the rule. Wells usually flow with less violence, and many, for lack of sufficient gas pressure, yield only to pumping. All wells soon reach a point of maximum production, after which they pass into a period of decline, and eventually cease to produce at all.


Soon after Drake drilled his famous well, Colonel E. A. L. Roberts conceived the idea of exploding torpedoes of nitroglycerine in wells to increase their flow. In 1862 he patented the “Robert’s Torpedo,” which has since increased the flow of oil by millions of barrels. For several years he encountered only opposition; the oil men feared their wells would be destroyed utterly. In 1865 he was allowed to experiment upon the Lady well, on Oil Creek, with the result that his torpedo considerably increased the flow. Shortly afterward he used a torpedo in a “dry hole,” a well that had never produced any oil, and obtained twenty barrels a day, which was increased to eighty barrels a day by the explosion of a second torpedo. Later he converted another dry hole into a big producer by a heavy torpedo explosion.

Roberts suddenly sprang into fame. He could not make torpedoes fast enough. Since his first experiment thousands of wells have been torpedoed, but the charge of nitroglycerine has been increased from four or six quarts to sixty, eighty, one hundred, and more. Tall tin cans of “soup,” four or five inches in diameter, fitted with exploding caps, are carefully lowered into the wells, one on top of the other. To explode the charge, a “go-devil” iron was at first dropped into the well; later the dangerous “go-devil” gave place to electric ignition, controlled from a distance. This “shooting” a well, as the oil men call it, not only cracks and loosens the rock at the bottom of the well and then allows the oil to flow in, but also “blows out” or cleans the well. With a big charge, oil, water, and accumulated sand may be blown 100 to 150 feet into the air.

Colonel Roberts was not the first to conceive the idea of torpedoing. In the very early days of oil wells, Frederick Crocker drilled a well on Oil Creek and struck oil. Because he had no tanks he plugged the well in the hope of saving the oil. Later, when he removed the plug the oil had vanished; it had found another outlet. Hoping to start up the flow again, he lowered a heavy charge of gunpowder into the well and fired it. This was probably the first “shooting” experiment ever made. Crocker brought no oil to his well, but he did succeed, unwittingly, in increasing the flow of a neighboring well. Although the attempt was a failure, so far as Crocker’s own well was concerned, the conception was correct.

Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company.

An equally brilliant failure was that of Lewis H. Smith, who came to Oil Creek in the early days. After sinking his money in a well that yielded barely a trickle, he too conceived the idea of tearing up the bottom of the well by an explosion. He had never heard of Colonel Roberts, and had never seen a torpedo, yet he planned one in his mind. The result was a galvanized iron tube, or can, four inches in diameter, and five feet long. The firing head, substantially the same as that patented later by Roberts, consisted of four gun tubes, or nipples, which were struck by a falling weight. Smith charged his tube with rifle powder and twenty-five pounds of giant powder.

To transport the machine to his oil well, more than 200 miles distant, was his next problem. The only possible way was to carry it in his arms. The feat required courage, but Smith had it in abundance. With his torpedo under his arm, disguised as a bundle of maps, he set out jauntily. The performance was all the more startling because Smith weighed not more than 130 pounds, and his infernal machine one-quarter as much. After imperiling his life and the lives of hundreds in cars and stage coaches, he arrived safely on Oil Creek. Mechanically, his torpedo was a great success; it ripped out the bottom of the well with the thoroughness expected of it; but it did not increase the production because the well was past all help.


It has recently been discovered that although a well may cease to yield, the sands are far from exhausted; from fifty to ninety per cent of the oil remains in the ground. When the drill “strikes oil” it taps not a lake or pool of oil, but “oil sand,” which is not sand at all, but hard sandstone, or other rock saturated with oil. A pail-full of coarse sandstone will absorb a quarter of a pail-full of oil.

The oil and gas in some of the oil sands are confined under such enormous pressure that, when the overlying cap is pierced, oil and gas are driven out with such force that the wonderful spectacle of a gusher spouting oil at the rate of 100,000 barrels a day is presented. Just as the gas in a siphon of seltzer forces the water out when the spring-valve is pushed open, so the confined, natural gas forces the oil out of the “sand” even after the flow has ceased, and it is necessary to pump the oil.

When the gas has all escaped, the oil ceases to flow even with the aid of pumps. The well is abandoned because it is said to be exhausted; in reality it is not the oil but the gas which has been exhausted. The old Bradford oil-field in Pennsylvania, now considered “exhausted,” has yielded about 230,000,000 barrels from 85,000 acres, an average of but 2,900 barrels per acre, hardly enough oil to saturate three feet of sand. Since the oil sand has an average thickness of forty-five feet, this “exhausted” field must still contain about 3,000,000,000 barrels of oil.


How is this oil to be raised and made to flow in the channels of industry? The solution came to T. L. Dunn when he was operating in the Macksburg pool of Ohio, in 1903. Why not pump the oil sands full of gas again? He forced in natural gas, and the well started to flow again.

There is no virtue in gas as such. The pressure of the gas drives out the oil. Air is a gas. Why not try it? With the aid of Harvey E. Smith, Dunn tried air successfully on the Wood farm of the Cumberland Oil Company, near Chesterhill, Ohio, in August, 1911. Within a week the production of the surrounding wells had greatly increased, after which the use of compressed air was extended to other parts of the property. In the nearest adjoining well the production was only 9,500 barrels a year. The new process almost immediately increased the flow to 16,000 barrels.

In good oil territory there may be a hundred or more wells to a square mile. When the yield of such a property begins to run low, the whole field is now rejuvenated by connecting compressed-air pumps with every fourth or fifth well, and thus “recharging” the entire underlying oil sand. In many cases the flow of wells has been doubled, quadrupled, and in some cases increased as much as nine fold. It has been possible, however, to apply this striking economy in comparatively few oil-fields.

STORED OIL SOMETIMES CATCHES FIRE. A pillar of smoke ascends that can be seen for miles. Such tank fires are now extinguished with a special foam.


To transport oil through a pipe-line in bad as well as good weather, regardless of mud, frost, or labor shortage was so obvious an expedient that it occurred to many energetic oil men. As far back as 1860 S. D. Karns proposed the laying of a six-inch pipe from Burning Spring, West Virginia, through which oil would flow down hill to the Ohio River, a distance of thirty-five miles. This line was not constructed. Two years later L. Hutchinson laid three miles of small pipe from the famous Sherman well to the railroad, but the line was a failure because of excessive leakage.

The first practical pipe-line was built by Samuel Van Syckle of Titusville, the sections of which were carefully screwed together. It was only a little pipe and less than four miles long, but it carried about eighty barrels a day. So hard was it to get oil to market in the sixties that we find in an old copy of the Titusville Herald, the news item that: “Hundreds of oil boats are lying high and dry on the banks of the Allegheny River waiting for a rise in the river to carry them and their cargoes of oil to the Pittsburgh market,” and that there were “about 250,000 barrels of oil in barges and tanks awaiting shipment.” Other news items mention enormous destructive fires caused by locomotive sparks, lightning, and open flames. Clearly there would be little danger and loss if oil could be carried in pipes.


At this time Charles P. Hatch, the energetic, resourceful manager of the Empire Transportation Company, who had demonstrated the value of tank-cars, induced his company to purchase two of the lines that had been laid soon after Van Syckle had demonstrated the practicability of piping oil. When the lines were completed, he became their manager. In 1866 he operated the first regular pipe-line in the United States from the Pithold oil district to Titusville.

The Empire line was ten and one-half miles long, and was built with three pumping stations. Hatch believed that one pump could force the oil the entire distance. No one else thought so. The oil teamsters and the old oil boatmen shook with laughter over this notion of pumping oil for miles in a pipe over rough, up-and-down country. Stationing himself at the Titusville end of the pipe-line, Hatch telegraphed his engineer at Pithole to begin pumping slowly and steadily. The pipe was two inches in diameter, and it took about 180 barrels of oil to fill it.

Hatch waited and waited. Not a sign of oil. Had the pipe sprung a big leak or burst? Hoping against hope, at last a faint hissing of air from the end of the pipe was heard. The hissing grew louder and louder. “There she comes; there she comes!“ shouted Hatch. Then with a great gurgling, after four hours of watchful waiting the oil flowed forth. The problem of long-distance pumping of oil through pipes was solved. The line could pump 2,000 barrels a day. It played havoc with the business of the teamsters, who vented their wrath by cutting and plugging it.

Soon other pipe-lines were laid; the lines grew in length; short lines multiplied; pipe-line after pipe-line from the producing fields to the refineries and the railroads crossed and paralleled one another in every direction. Competing companies waged war upon one another. The only logical outcome was consolidation of pipe-lines, and this soon followed.


J. J. Vandergrift, a prominent figure in early oil history, and George W. Foreman, completed the first trunk line in 1874 from the Pennsylvania oil region to Pittsburgh—a line of four-inch pipe sixty miles long, a giant for the period, both in size and length, which carried 7,500 barrels a day. Trunk lines were then laid from the various oil-fields to Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. By 1900, the major portion of the country’s oil was transported through the pipe-lines of the big companies. To reduce the power necessary to force the oil through the pipes, J. D. Isaacs and Buckner Speed conceived the idea of rifling the pipe like a gun barrel. This was a great improvement, especially for transporting the thicker kinds of petroleum.

We have now 40,000 miles of oil pipes in main lines, and another 40,000 miles of tributary or gathering pipes, in all over 80,000 miles, more than enough to girdle the world three times at the equator. Sometimes these oil pipes lie on the surface; usually they are buried several feet beneath the ground. Because the oil must be forced along its way up hill and down dale, thousands of pumping stations are necessary, many of them handsome little villa-like structures in the midst of fine hedges and lawns.

Most of the trunk pipe-lines of to-day are eight inches in diameter, and a pumping station is to be found, on an average, every fifteen miles. On some lines stations are forty or fifty miles apart; on others only three or four miles. Through an average pumping station with an eight-inch pipe, 30,000 barrels of oil are pumped every twenty-four hours. In that time the oil will travel ninety miles.

The longest continuous pipeline reaches from gathering points in Texas to the refineries in Bayonne, New Jersey. It takes the oil sixteen or seventeen days to reach its destination. There are also ten-inch pipelines, and some even twelve inches in diameter. The capacity is 47,000 barrels a day for the ten-inch pipes, and 67,500 barrels a day for the twelve-inch pipes. Simply to fill the pipe system of the United States would take more than 14,000,000 barrels or about seven days’ production from all the wells of the United States or, about three and one half million barrels of oil. The estimated cost of this great network of pipe is $750,000,000.


In the process of removing an old mill from a small stream at Fredonia, New York, in 1826, a great bubbling was noticed. The cause was an inflammable gas, which was promptly piped into the houses of Fredonia, at a charge of $1.50 a year for each one hundred lights. In 1872 Titusville, Pennsylvania, followed suit. Since that time the natural-gas industry has grown rapidly and continuously. No other region of the earth has produced so much natural gas as the United States and Canada. Many of the natural gas areas in the United States are associated with the Petroleum producing areas, but natural gas is also obtained in regions where there is not a trace of oil.

At first, natural gas was regarded as an unavoidable nuisance by the oil-driller. He wasted it in ways now considered appalling. “Wild” wells were permitted to burn for years. Their flames, visible at night for miles, were considered a unique advertisement for the region. Nowadays the well is capped and the gas confined for future use. In the oil regions it is piped and used as fuel for the oil-well pumps. The amount produced and consumed in the United States in a year is about 675,000,000,000 cubic feet.

DISTRIBUTION OF OIL, GAS, AND WATER UNDER GROUND. It is the pressure of the gas that forces up the oil and later the water.

For nearly two generations it was not suspected that large quantities of the highest grade gasoline could be extracted from odorless, colorless, invisible natural gas. Last year about 500,000,000 gallons of commercial gasoline were literally squeezed and sucked out of natural gas by special machines, and all this gasoline is a direct and distinct saving, worth to the American motorist at least $100,000,000 a year. Much of it is called “casing-head” gasoline, because it is associated with the gas that escapes from an oil well.

Early oil wells were drilled into the rock without a casing for the hole. In 1865 Benjamin S. Tinker invented the casing to prevent the walls from collapsing. The next obvious need was a head or cap for the casing above the ground, a kind of drum. As the oil is brought to the surface it is piped off through this casing-head to tanks or pipe-lines. With the oil there also comes up much gas “wet” with gasoline.

In 1904 the first “casing-head” gasoline was squeezed out of such gas by A. Fasenmeyer, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. His crude plant was within sight of the old Drake well. That year he recovered 4,000 gallons of gasoline, and received ten cents a gallon for it. Tompsett Brothers, in the same region, claimed they had extracted gasoline from gas even earlier. Both ventures proved so successful that other operators proceeded to install gasoline plants. Various improvements were made and patents granted to different inventors. By 1913 there were nearly 300 plants with a total output of about 24,000,000 gallons of casing-head gasoline.

Casing-head gas is a “rich” or “wet” gas. If 1,000 cubic feet of gas, natural or casing-head, contains as much as one gallon of gasoline, it can be profitably compressed to squeeze out the gasoline, just as we squeeze water out of a sponge. Even so-called “dry” natural gas contains some gasoline. When gasoline became an automobile necessity it occurred to G. N. Saybolt of Hastings, West Virginia, that it might be sucked out, when it did not pay to squeeze it out. He devised his absorption process, which leaves the gas dry as a bone. Saybolt’s process pays even though there may be as little as one pint of gasoline in 1,000 cubic feet of gas.

Certain oils easily absorb gasoline from natural gas. Saybolt sprays such an oil down through long pipes or towers, and at the same time forces gas upward. When the gas emerges at the top of the pipe its gasoline has been absorbed by the descending oil. The gasoline is then distilled from the oil, and the same oil does duty over again. A large absorption plant will extract from 80,000,000 cubic feet of gas at least 8,000 gallons of gasoline a day. Such gasoline absorption plants are now to be found in nearly all the natural-gas regions.


Petroleum is extraordinarily complex, and out of its complexity a thousand and one valuable compounds are obtained. Heat breaks petroleum down into liquids and solids, which are in themselves complex. Different compounds are boiled off at different heats. They are not allowed to float off into the air, but are collected. The process is therefore one of distillation. At the lower temperatures the light compounds evaporate and pass over into the collecting vessel. As the temperature increases, heavier compounds are distilled off. The temperature is gradually raised until finally 625 degrees Fahrenheit is reached. Thus, benzine, gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, heavy lubricating oils, paraffin and asphaltum are successively obtained.


Just what is kerosene and what is gasoline is more a matter of terminology than of chemistry. “Sugar” is a chemical term; “gasoline” is not. What passes for “gasoline” this year was not “gasoline” ten years ago. The earliest refiners wanted as much kerosene as possible; gasoline was a nuisance. Hence their kerosene was almost as explosive as our gasoline; laws had to be passed to prevent them from selling kerosene that was too light. Then the automobile came.

Now with millions of motor-cars we find it hard to obtain gasoline enough. Each year the refiner is compelled to sell as gasoline, distillates which are more like kerosene than ever. Indeed the gasoline situation is alarming. Motor-cars are consuming gasoline faster than wells are producing the petroleum from which the gasoline is distilled. It seems unlikely that new oil-fields of sufficient extent will be discovered, so thoroughly have the geologists and the “wildcatters” done their prospecting of the entire world.

Heat acts upon petroleum as a hammer acts on stone. It breaks up the petroleum. We call the pieces benzine, gasoline, kerosene, lubricating oil, or paraffin. They are still very large, complex pieces, chemically speaking. What if they could be broken up still further by more heat? Now there is a limit to which heat can be applied under ordinary conditions. Water, for example, boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit in the open air at sea-level. But clamp a lid down tight on the vessel, and the boiling-point can be raised to 300, or 400 degrees, so that more heat can be applied. The boiling-point of any liquid is determined by the pressure on the liquid. Increase the pressure— and this is exactly what happens when the lid is clamped down tight on a water-vessel——and the boiling-point is raised.

Here, then, is a way of applying more heat to petroleum, of knocking it, chemically, into smaller pieces. Increase the pressure and more heat can be applied. With what results? Chemists tried to find the answer as far back as 1860, as a matter of scientific interest. Williams (1860), Young (1865), and Peckham (1869), were the earliest experimenters. Kray, in 1887, devised a real pressure-distillation process, but he was concerned chiefly with obtaining lighting oil from tar and the residue left in petroleum stills after the last drop of valuable vapor had passed over and been condensed.

This process of breaking up apparently valueless petroleum residue was called “cracking.” The substances were really cracked up into simpler chemical compounds. Dewar and Redwood patented an improved cracking process in 1890, but it was not until the automobile demand created a crisis in the petroleum industry that any serious industrial effort was made to crack up kerosene and similar heavy oils into lighter gasoline.

Among others, William M. Burton, a noted chemist of the Standard Oil Company, worked for years on this cracking idea to obtain more gasoline. In 1913 he secured a patent for a “cracking” process which is extensively used at the present time by the Standard Oil Company. His cracking process marks one of the milestones in the history of petroleum refining. There are half a dozen other “cracking” processes, all more or less the same in principle, and all serving the same purpose of knocking six or seven gallons more gasoline out of every barrel of crude oil than was possible twenty years ago.

William Burton.
William Burton’s cracking patent drawing.


If there is little waste in modern petroleum refining, it is because the reserve supply of petroleum in the United States, and in fact the world’s reserve, is nearing exhaustion. The late Franklin K. Lane, when Secretary of the Interior, once described petroleum as “a priceless resource, for it can never be replaced. Trees can be grown again upon the soil from which they have been taken.

But how can petroleum be produced? It has taken ages for nature to distill it in her subterranean laboratory. We do not even know her process. We may find a substitute for it, but we have not done so as yet. It is practically the one lubricant of the world to-day. Not a wheel turns without being smoothed by it. We can make light and heat by hydroelectric power, but the great turbines move on bearings that are smothered in petroleum. From it we get the quick-exploding gas which is to the motor and the airship what air is to the human body. To industry, agriculture, commerce, and the pleasures of life, petroleum is now essential.”

WHERE OIL IS FOUND IN THE UNITED STATES. From the oil-fields of the United States, indicated by black spots on this group, 6,000,000, 000 barrels of oil have thus far been extracted.

While we have contributed two-thirds of the oil that the world has used in the last sixty years, we have already reached the point where we consume more than we produce. In 1923 we consumed the enormous amount of 714,000,000 barrels of oil. We have thus far produced in the United States about 6,000,000,000 barrels of oil, and our untouched reserves, according to the United States Geological Survey, are about 9,000,000,000 barrels—not enough to last fifteen years at our present rapidly increasing rate of consumption. What shall we do for oil a few years hence?

It has been discovered that in Colorado and Utah we possess mountain ranges of oil shale which may yield many billion barrels. Some day we will have to tear the mountains down and distil out the oil in their shale. The United States Geological Survey during the past few years has made extensive studies of these shales, and has found that there are millions, indeed, tens of billions of tons of them that contain from thirty to fifty gallons or more of high-grade oil to the ton—a far greater oil reserve than we ever possessed in liquid petroleum. Even now we are beginning to distil oil from these shales. Not many years hence our oil will be mined with steam-shovels and rock crushers instead of pumps.

Oil field near Titusville, Pennsylvania.
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