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Oil: A Hole In The Ground

Titusville, PA

IT WAS NOT just a good oil well; it was a great one. From its first days of production, the well flowed at a rate of more than 300 barrels per day of Pennsylvania-grade crude petroleum. Each of those barrels of amber-colored liquid sold for about $10, equal to half an ounce of gold back in those pre-Civil War days in the year 1860.

Ten dollars was the equivalent of a week's wages for an average working man laboring in a factory -- that is, if he worked all seven days of the week. And $10 per barrel times 300 barrels per day was...$3,000 per day from selling oil. Wow. It is good money even today, but it was more than 20 times as good back then.

It was less than a year after Edwin Drake had brought in the world's first commercial oil well south of Titusville. People were making grand returns on their effort, particularly considering that it all came from a hole in the ground. Yes, for the favored souls upon whom fortune smiled, there was plenty of oil and plenty of money to go around. Or so it seemed.

The owners of the farm on which this most prolific well was producing, members of a family named McElhenny, were pleased. They stood up in church one fine Sunday and told the congregation that they were thankful to God. They were thankful for his bounty and thankful that they had chosen wisely when the prospective drillers, a father and son who operated a local sawmill, had offered to lease the oil drilling rights.

At the dawn of the petroleum era, and before anyone could really claim to know what they were doing, the men who leased the McElhenny farm actually knew what they were doing. Then as now, one cannot always say such a complimentary thing about those with whom one places trust, let alone money.

The McElhennys' drillers, whether or not inspired by the Good Lord, had far exceeded the well depth of the good Colonel Drake. These hardy fellows had kicked their well down to 260 feet below the deck of their primitive rig but had encountered no shows of oil. The conventional advice was to give up the effort and abandon the well.

Give it up? There was a lot of sweat and good money invested in that empty hole. These drillers were not ones to give up easily. They had a hunch, and they decided to play it.

With no small effort, these tough and stubborn prospectors, and their equally tough crew, kicked the cable tool down another 200 feet, into the third sand. At a depth of 460 feet, the oil began to flow from what would be named, eventually, the Venango Formation. The flow of oil was strong, consistent, and of great quantity. The bucket brigades assembled at the well site to receive the bubbling liquid, and soon, the wagon-driving teamsters showed up to cart it to market.

The Earth Taketh Away

Three hundred barrels of oil per day. So much for a hunch, and a lot of hard work, and some good luck, if not the favor of God. Thus did the Earth yield its bounty, and yield it generously. But then, after a period of time, the Earth took it all away.

Towards the end of the sixth month of production, the McElhenny well suddenly stopped producing oil. The operators lowered thin tools down the hole in an attempt to discover what had happened. The tools came back up dripping with paraffin, which was coating and clogging the down-hole well casing.

Paraffin? That was just a fancy, scientific-sounding name for wax, and no self-respecting oilman would let himself be defeated by wax. So the operators obtained iron bars and screwed them together, end to end, while lowering the bars down the hole. When the bars met resistance such that they could be lowered no further, a group of men topside began to pound the exposed end of the connected bars with sledgehammers. The bars did not move. The paraffin was winning.

The operators tried a variety of other techniques, including the use of a narrow augur and pouring boiling water down the hole. Nothing worked to unclog the pipe.

After a great deal of additional effort, the operators had to admit to themselves that the McElhenny well was ruined. The well tubing was blocked for hundreds of feet of its length by the hard, waxy substance that had, it seemed, come from nowhere. Eventually, however, people who worked in the oil fields began to understand that paraffin was part of the very oil that they were finding and lifting from the depths of the Earth, out of the Devonian-age rocks.

Paraffin is a general name for a type of alkane hydrocarbon, a substance of high molecular weight because it is composed of more than 20 carbon atoms connected together. Paraffins melt at temperatures above 117 F (47 C) and are soluble in warm crude oil. But paraffin condenses out of oil and into solid form below that temperature, and it condenses even more rapidly when exposed to cold water.

Dreadful Paraffin

Early oil operators learned to dread the presence of paraffin that condensed on the surface of the barrels of oil they produced from depth. It meant that the substance was present in the oil and that at any moment, the well might simply cease to flow, plugged from bottom to top with a thick and impenetrable goo. As long as the oil stayed warm on its way from the underground oil-bearing formation to the surface, the paraffin was held in solution.

But if cool groundwater entered the well, or even if the cold of winter froze the soil in the vicinity of a well bore, the menace of paraffin could bring a well's productive life to an abrupt halt. People were figuring out that a decline in production over time was part of operating an oil well, but an abrupt halt to the flow? This was just too much; it was intolerable. As is the case with many things that can influence the human soul, once a person gets used to having oil -- and of course, the cash stream from its sale -- it is hard to break the habit.

By 1861, with the McElhennys' lost oil well in mind, operators around Titusville were beginning to experiment with ways to counter the buildup of paraffin in the well shafts. Some operators periodically shut down production and lowered iron bars and scrapers down the well shaft to clean out any paraffin that might be building up. Others resorted to pumping various patent solutions, usually some form of distilled petroleum that held high fractions of benzene, down the hole to wash the walls of their wells and to penetrate into the rock formations. The benzene worked very well to dissolve the paraffin fractions and on occasion caused a curious, but welcome, increase in oil flow after the cleaning evolution. Other operators resorted to injecting steam into the wells to keep the well shaft at an elevated temperature and prevent the paraffin from condensing.

All of these Civil War-era methods are still in use in modern oil production, although in ways and manners that are highly evolved. Mechanical cleansing and chemical washing, which is coupled with reservoir chemical treatments, still constitute a routine part of oil-field maintenance. In fact, the basic concepts would be familiar to any roustabout from the heydays of Titusville.

Steam injection also remains a common technique to enhance oil production and is today a critical component in what is called "enhanced oil recovery" operations. Taking the process a step farther, steam injection is essential to the extraction process for bitumen and tar or heavy oil from tar sands in places like Athabasca, Canada, and the Orinoco Basin of Venezuela.

A Rapid Way to Clear Away Paraffin

Still, the foregoing methods, which the well operators concocted originally to defeat or control paraffin buildup, tended to be very expensive and time-consuming. These methods all involved shutting in the flow of oil from a well. After that, it took significant labor and materials to force a set of iron bars and mechanical scrapers down the hole or to inject cleansing solutions or steam into a well. So by about 1862, operators began to experiment with another, more rapid, technique of cleaning paraffin: They lowered explosives into their wells and lit them off.

The pedigree of lowering explosives into a well came from the workbook of water-well drillers, who had for decades been using underground explosions to blast aquifers and increase water flow. The first such oil-well experiments with explosives used wads of guncotton or gunpowder lowered to the bottom of a well in a thin-walled container and detonated. Often, the explosive material in the container would be ruined by immersion in the oil or water inside the well. In that case, there would be no explosion.

But on those occasions when the primitive explosive material did detonate, the results could be remarkable. Oil, water, paraffin, rock, dirt, pieces of oil-well casing, dead varmints and who knows what else would spout in a gigantic burst from the hole in the ground. And sometimes, the entire operation even caused the flow of oil to increase. Sometimes, but not always.

On other occasions, detonating explosives down the hole simply did not work. One particular well in which the process failed, and failed with immense consequences, was called the Wilhelmina No. 1, located in Venango County, a few miles from Drake's first well.

As was characteristic of the times, a partnership of investors had joined together and pooled their resources to acquire a lease and drill a well. The partners were not really oilmen, or even knowledgeable locals from the Titusville region.

The Dramatic Oil Company

They were, truth be told, a group of stage actors who thought that they could make more money in the oil business, about which they knew little, than by acting in stage shows, about which they knew much. It was, then as now, a common misconception about investing outside of one's field of knowledge or expertise. These ambitious troubadours named their venture the "Dramatic Oil Co." In some respects, it was not a bad name for a hit-or-miss proposition like drilling a hole in the ground for oil.

The Dramatic Oil Co. drove the Wilhelmina well into the Earth in late 1863 and early 1864. Fortuitously, the well hit oil-bearing sand and produced at a consistent, though somewhat undramatic, rate of about 25 barrels of oil per day. The partners, however, who had expected more return from their investment, thought that this level of production could be increased. Hence in mid-1864, they hired a man, called a "shooter," to detonate an explosive shot down the hole. Unfortunately for the partners, their shooter promised more than he could deliver. (In addition, the shooter was in all likelihood using guncotton as his explosive instead of the then-novel approach of using a "nitroglycerin torpedo." We will discuss this in another future article in Whiskey & Gunpowder.)

After several failed attempts to "shoot" the Wilhelmina, there was finally a powerful shock wave that shook the earth beneath the feet of an assembled crowd. Everyone waited for something else to occur -- perhaps a great gusher of oil -- but nothing further happened.

After cleaning out the down-hole debris from the Wilhelmina No. 1, the well still did not produce any oil. Adding insult to injury, the well had stopped yielding even the original 25 barrels per day. By detonating an explosive charge in the hole, the partners had irreparably damaged their well. The Dramatic Oil Co. -- and its partners -- was financially ruined.

From Titusville to Ford's Theater

By September 1864, broke and bitter -- and having lost what funds he had invested in the Pennsylvania oil fields -- one of the Dramatic Oil Co. partners climbed aboard a wagon and headed west to the railroad junction at Meadville. From that small town, he rode northeast by rail to Montreal, of all places. There, he would meet other partners and pursue other ventures.

This man from the failed partnership, who had invested his savings and lost his fortune in a hole in the ground, was named John Wilkes Booth. And you probably know that this stage actor, who had met financial misfortune in the oil fields of Titusville, found his destiny elsewhere when, on April 14, 1865, he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

It is tempting to speculate upon the outcome for John Wilkes Booth, and for the United States of America, if he and his partners in the Dramatic Oil Co. had employed a different method of cleaning out their oil well, whether a chemical solution or a nitroglycerin torpedo. But as an old Chinese proverb states, "There is no armor against the arrows of fate."

We will discuss "the arrows of fate" in another article in Whiskey & Gunpowder. And you never know...we might even talk about what happens to people and to nations when they throw their money down a hole in the ground -- and when their oil wells dry up.

Until we meet again...

Byron W. King

P.S. If you visit the Titusville area, there are many hiking and biking trails through this historic locale, including a trail that will take you past the ill-fated oil well of John Wilkes Booth and his partners.

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