Mineral Guide > Petroleum


PetroleumThousands of years before man appeared on the earth riches were being stored for his use. In the early ages of the earth, plants and animals grew in great abundance. Their death left remains which have been transformed by water, internal heat, and pressure of accumulating strata into material for man's use. Among other things thus produced and stored in great quantities was petroleum or " rock-oil," from which our kerosene, gasoline, benzine, and many other substances are obtained.

The origin of petroleum has been a very interesting subject for many years. Some hold that it is of vegetable origin, principally a result of the distillation of sea-weeds; others believe that it is due to distillation of animal remains; while others think it is better explained as a combination of both. It will be impracticable in this article to outline the various arguments.

I am prompted to give a short account of the ancient history of petroleum, for it has a history dating back into the dim past of man's career on the earth. Asphaltum and bitumen are condensed forms of petroleum, and various ancient writers make mention of petroleum in some of its forms.

In ancient days it was more commonly found in the form of asphaltum than in any other, and its first use of which we can find any record was as mortar or cement for masonry. Mention is made of its use in the building of the ancient city of Babylon. Herodotus, the celebrated historian, says in this connection: " Digging the fosse or ditch, the earth which was cast up was formed into bricks, and desiring large ones, they burned them in furnaces, using for lime or mortar, hot alphastus or bitumen." He further relates that the bitumen was brought from the river Is, a tributary of the Euphrates.

Cartwright, a traveler of the last century, speaks of this same river Is, as follows: " From the ruins of old Babylon, we came to a town called Ait (the modern Heet), near unto which town is a valley of pitch, very marvelous to behold, and things almost incredible, wherein are many springs, throwing out abundantly a kind of black substance, like unto tar or pitch, which serveth all the countries thereabouts, to make staunch their bricks and boats, every one of which springs makes a noise like a smith's forge, which never ceases night or day, and the noise is heard a mile off, swallowing up all weighty things that come upon it."

A later traveler, Mr. Rich, says: " The principal bitumen pit at Heet has two sources, and is divided by a wall in the center, on one side of which bitumen bubbles up, and on the other the oil of naphtha."

Other writers speak of bitumen as forming a constituent of the mighty walls, lofty towers, and hanging gardens of BabyIon, that were the wonder of the world.

Layard, in his " Nineveh and Babylon," gives the following account of a bitumen pit on fire, which will compare in general respects with many of the scenes witnessed on Oil Creek, Pa. He says: "Tongues of flame and jets of gas, driven from the burning pit, shot through the murky canopy. As the fire heightened, a thousand fantastic forms of light played amid the smoke. In an hour the bitumen was exhausted for the time, the dense smoke gradually died away, and the pale light of the moon shone over the black slime pit."

Kerr Porter, a more modern traveler in Assyria, states that in many places bitumen and naphtha wells exist, and that in the remains of the famous tower of Ackerouf, near the ruins of Bagdad, in ancient Chaldea, contemporary with the tower of Babel, the reeds mixed with this material are still preserved, although the brick and sandstone have fallen into dust.

After the lapse of thirty-five centuries, with all that time could accomplish in destroying the work of man, the remains of these petroleum cemented walls and towers exist, and are looked on by moderns. Fragments of brick, with the asphaltum still clinging to them, are still exhumed from the ruins of ancient cities.

Says a late writer: "The substance was used by Egyptians, as early as history can furnish the facts of the times. From the accounts at the close of the Book of Genesis, of the embalming of Jacob and Joseph, it is plain to infer that embalming was a common process then, seventeen hundred years before Christ." Dr. Pettigrew, in his history of " Egyptian Mummies," states, that many of the mummies exhumed had the cavities of the bodies filled with asphaltum. A French writer on the same subject, quoted by Pettigrew, says these were often immersed in liquefied pitch, a composition formed of common pitch and asphaltum. Modern research and observation would seem to confirm this assertion of the extensive use of petroleum in the process of embalming. The color, the odor, the inflammable nature of the mummy, all indicate its presence. The wrappings, and often the body itself, are used by the wandering Arab as fuel, and modern travelers in those regions have used them for the same purpose. It was also used in the manufacture of the ancient papyrus (paper), to prevent the attacks of insects, and the corroding effects of time.

As has been before stated (see pages 20 and 21) man made no attempt to bore oil wells until 1859. It was about the middle of June of that year that "Uncle Billy Smith" and his two sons arrived in Titusville, on Oil Creek, Pa., the scene of operations.

" The pipe was successfully driven to the rock, thirty-six feet, and about the middle of August the drill was started. The drillers averaged about three feet a day, making slight 'indications' all the way down. Saturday afternoon, August 28th, 1859, as Mr. Smith and his boys were about to quit for the day, the drill dropped into one of those crevices, common alike in oil and salt borings, a distance of about six inches, making a total depth of the whole well sixty-nine and one-half feet. They withdrew the tools, and all went home till Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, however, 'Uncle Billy' went down to the well to reconnoiter, and peering in he could see a fluid within eight or ten feet of the surface. He plugged one end of a bit of rain-water spout and let it down with a string, and drew it up filled with petroleum.

" That night the news reached the village, and Drake, when he came down next morning bright and early, found the old man and his boys proudly guarding the spot, with several barrels of petroleum standing about. The pump was at once adjusted, and the well commenced producing at the rate of about twenty-five barrels a day. The news spread like a prairie fire, and the village was wild with excitement. The country people round about came pouring in to see the wonderful well. Mr. Watson jumped on a horse and hurried straightway to secure a lease of the spring on the McClintock farm; near the mouth of the creek. Mr. Geo. Bissell, the head of the company, who had made arrangements to be informed of the result by telegraph, bought up all the Pennsylvania oil stock it was possible to get hold of, and four days afterwards was at the well."
No place in all the oil region of Pennsylvania was more favorable for finding oil near the surface than the one first bored.

This memorable strike ushered in the petroleum era. It now only remained to develop this "bonanza." The condition of things on Oil Creek in 1865 is given as follows : "The surface of the whole country was saturated with oil from the leaking barrels, the overflow and enormous wastage from the wells before they could be got under control, and from the leakage and bursting of tanks. The peculiar odor of petroleum pervaded everything; the air for miles was fairly saturated with it; nothing else was thought of; nothing else was talked about. Land was sold at thousands of dollars per acre. Fortunes were made and lost in a day. Oil companies with high-sounding names were organized almost without number, absorbing millions of money; many companies were formed without the shadow of a basis for operations, and many persons who were as covetous as they were ignorant were drawn into the maelstrom of speculative excitement and hopelessly ruined. No parallel in the history of speculation in this country can be found, excepting, perhaps, that which occurred during the 'California gold fever' of 1849."

As before stated (see pages 20 and 21), the Pennsylvania and Russian oil regions are the greatest in the world. The following interesting state of affairs at Baku, Russia, in 1872 is given by Major Marsh:
" The afternoon was devoted to the great natural wonders of Baku, petroleum and the everlasting fires. At Surakhani, the whole country is saturated with petroleum; on making a hole in the ground the gas escapes, on lighting which it burns for a very long while, one of the few spots on earth where this phenomenon can be seen. When there is no wind the flame is dull and small, but in a gale it roars and leaps up eight or ten feet. There are two naphtha refining establishments at Surakhani, the furnaces of which are entirely heated by the natural gas, which is collected as it rises out of the ground in an iron tank and led off by pipes. At night the whole place is lighted in the same manner, by ordinary gas burners attached to the walls. On returning home in the evening we saw the silent waste, lit up by various fires, each surrounded by a group of wild Tartars cooking their food by its heat.

"We shall have occasion further on to furnish more particular information respecting the enormous yield of the wells around Baku, and therefore in this connection only incidentally allude to the statement of the geographer, who notices the 'seven hundred oil wells' which have all been drilled, none of which show any signs of exhaustion; and says that 'immense loss is caused by the ignorance of those engaged in the trade. Thus a well at Balakhani, yielding thirty-six thousand five hundred and seventy-one barrels of naphtha daily, ran waste for four weeks before reservoirs could be prepared to receive the oil."

A celebrated Russian scientist, after a visit to Baku, in 1882, said: " Comparing results achieved in the two countries on one side and the average depth and total number of wells on the other, it may justly be stated that the natural petroleum wells of Baku, as far as our knowledge goes, have no parallel in the world."

The statement concerning the enormous yield from some of the wells of this district may well challenge our credulity. The following graphic description of the bursting forth of the great Droojba fountain is from an eye-witness, and is given in the words of Mr. Charles Marvin :" In America there are over twenty-five thousand petroleum wells; Baku possesses four hundred, but a single one of these four hundred wells has thrown up as much oil in a day as nearly the whole of the twenty-five thousand in America put together. This is very wonderful; but a more striking fact is that the copiousness of the well should have ruined its owners, and broken the heart of the engineer who bored it, after having yielded enough oil in four months to have realized in America at least one million sterling. In Pennsylvania that fountain would have made its owner's fortune; there are fifty thousand dollars' worth of oil flowing out of the well every day; here it has made the owner a bankrupt [on account of the damage done by the oil to surrounding property]. These words were addressed to me by an American petroleum engineer, as I stood alongside of the well that had burst the previous morning, and out of which the oil was flowing twice as high as the Great Geyser in Iceland, with a roar that could be heard several miles round.

The fountain was a splendid spectacle and it was the largest ever known at Baku. When the first outburst took place the oil had knocked off the roof and part of the sides of the derrick, but there was a beam left at the top, against which the oil broke with a roar in its upward course, and which served in a measure to check its velocity. The derrick itself was seventy feet high and the oil and the sand after bursting through the roof and sides flowed three times higher, forming a grayish-black : fountain, the column clearly defined on the southern side, but merging into a cloud of spray thirty yards broad on the other. The strong southerly wind enabled us to approach within a few yards of the crater on the former side, and to look down into the sandy basin from around about the bottom of the derrick, where the oil was bubbling and seething round the stalk of the oil-shoot like a geyser. The diameter (of the tube up which the oil was rushing was ten inches. On issuing from this the fountain formed a clearly defined stem about eighteen inches thick, and shot up to the top of the derrick, where, in striking against the beam, which was already half-worn through by friction, it got broadened out a little.

Thus continuing its course more than two hundred feet high, it curled over and fell in a dense cloud to the ground on the northern side, on a sand bank, over which the olive-colored oil ran in innumerable channels towards the lakes of petroleum that had been formed on the surface of the estate. 'Now and again the sand flowing up with the oil would obstruct the pipe, or a stone would clog the course ; then the column would sink for a few seconds lower than two hundred feet, but rise directly afterwards with a burst and a roar to three hundred feet. . . . Some idea of the mass of matter thrown up from the well could be formed by a glance at the damage done on the south side in twenty-four hours; a vast shoal of sand was formed, which buried to the roof some magazines and shops, and blocked to the height of six or seven feet all the neighboring derricks within a distance of fifty yards. . . . Standing on the top of the sand shoal we could see where the oil, after flowing through a score of channels from the ooze, formed in the distance or lower ground a whole series of oil lakes, some broad enough and deep enough in which to row a boat. Beyond this the oil could be seen flowing away in a broad channel toward the sea. This celebrated well, from the best estimates that could be made, gushed forth its oil treasure at the rate of two million gallons a day from a depth of five hundred and seventy-four feet."

Oil Wells