Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/The Oil-Supply of the World I
|←Old Customs of Lawlessness||Popular Science Monthly Volume 26 November 1884 (1884)
The Oil-Supply of the World I
|Sketch of Professor James Hall→|
IT may be, that if the sages of prehistoric China, or the Magi of Chaldea and other ancient civilizations, could return to enlighten our ignorance, they might prove to have possessed far more scientific knowledge than we give them credit for, with some points of practical application which we marvel to think could ever have been forgotten.
Among many such subjects which from time to time call forth our wonder, one of deep interest at the present moment is that old, old subject of pouring oil on rough waves—a subject which (save by a very few practical seamen who happen to have tested the matter for their own preservation) has only within the last three or four years been recognized as a real thing, of most serious importance to all sea-faring folk. Hitherto it has been generally deemed merely a poetic metaphor, with no practical foundation. Isolated facts concerning its use were known, as were also allusions to its properties by such sages as Aristotle, Plutarch, Pliny, and, in later days, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Linnæus, or Benjamin Franklin.
When saintly men such as St. Cuthbert or Adamnanus soothed the angry waves by the outpouring of a little oil, this natural result was of course attributed to their own holiness, and the miraculous efficacy of consecrated oil. And even when in a. d. 1776 Lelyveld, a practical Dutchman, published at Amsterdam his "Essay upon the Means of diminishing the Dangers of the Sea by pouring out Tar-Oilor other Floating Matter," an essay followed in a. d. 1798 by a more elaborate statement of "Evidence on the Oil Question," published by Otto at Weimar, the interest temporarily awakened soon subsided, and generation after generation of seafaring men have continued wholly to neglect the use of this simple precaution; and lamentable indeed is it to peruse the appalling record of each winter's wrecks on our own shores, and to note in how many instances life might probably have been saved, had the strong, brave men, so ready to hazard their lives in order to succor others, bethought them of lightening their task by the use of a few gallons of oil. And yet, the time is fast approaching when the now rising generation will wonder at the folly of having ever neglected such a means of salvation; for the mass of evidence on this subject which has recently accumulated has now compelled attention from the most skeptical, and the experiments so successfully carried out on the stormy coast of Aberdeenshire, at the harbor of Peterhead, have borne fruit far and near.
Some of the fishers who had witnessed them remembered them to good purpose when trying to enter the harbor at Stonehaven, and warned of their danger by the white-crested waves raging on the bar. They had with them only a little colza-oil and a little paraffine for their lamps (vegetable and mineral oils)—so little that most men would have deemed it mere folly to cast such upon tempestuous waves. But these men had profited by their lesson. One man stood on either bow, and, just as the boat approached the raging surf, they slowly poured out their offering to the waves, which, as if by magic, ceased to break, and rolled on in harmless green billows, which carried the boat safe into port. I have also just heard from Cornwall that a party of Cornish fishers who chanced to be at Aberdeen at the time of the experiments, and there witnessed the stilling of the waves, returned to their own granite-bound coast with the conviction that they had seen something which hereafter it may be well for them to practice.
Now, thanks to the same large-hearted and energetic Scotchman who planned and brought into practical working the oil-breakwater at Peterhead, the men of Kent can tell with wonder of its application to their own harbor of Folkestone, and are eye-witnesses of how quickly, on a very stormy day, a few gallons of oil have calmed the breaking waves, and made the harbor smooth and safe. The London papers, in reporting on these experiments, have stated the general belief that, by this simple use of oil, entrance and egress to Folkestone Harbor may henceforth be made absolutely secure in the severest storms.
In this relation, therefore, apart from all interests of the non-seagoing population, the question of the world's oil-supply assumes a new and enlarged interest. Here it would appear that Nature herself desires to illustrate the question in a most practical manner, and as the field of her demonstration she selects the Gulf of Mexico. About ten miles to the south of the Sabine River, which forms the boundary between Texas and Louisiana, and about a mile from the shore, there exists a natural phenomenon known to sailors as "The Oil-Spot." In fine weather there is nothing remarkable to attract the attention of a stranger; but when an angry gale from the northeast sweeps the ocean, and great crested waves rise in battle array, this charmed natural harbor reveals itself. No visible boundary divides it from the tempestuous ocean around; but, within a space two miles in length, the waters remain perfectly calm, their only change being that they become turbid and red, as though the oil-bearing mud were stirred up from below. A broad belt of white foam and towering breakers marks where the mighty waves, rolling shoreward in their might, with all the force gathered in an unbroken sweep of seven hundred miles across the Gulf, are suddenly arrested, and sink down, conquered and powerless, so soon as they come within the mysterious influence of this gentlest of rulers.
Unfortunately, this peaceful haven is very shallow; its depth is variously stated at twelve and eighteen feet, so that only vessels of light burden can here take shelter. But to these, blessed, indeed, is the change of passing suddenly from the wild tossing of the outer ocean to the wonderful calm of this strange harbor, where the weary crew may rest as securely as though within an encompassing coral reef. Indeed, the stranger approaching this wall of breakers would naturally assume it to be caused by a dangerous reef, and would, as a matter of course, seek safety by steering away from it.
We believe that no scientific examination of this so-called Oil-Spot has yet been made. Sailors who have here found refuge state that the bottom is of a soft, soapy mud, into which they can easily push a pole to a considerable depth—a mud which, when applied to deck-scrubbing, is found to be exceedingly cleansing.
That the existence of this little haven is due to a submarine oil-spring there can, we think, be little or no doubt, though we have no positive information of discovery of oil-springs on the seaboard of Louisiana or Texas. We know, however, there are many points around the Gulf where petroleum, asphalt, or naphtha in some form, is found in immense quantities, chiefly in the three eastern States of Mexico—Tamaulipas, Vera Cruz, and Tabasco. In the first of these, inexhaustible beds of asphaltum lie on both banks of the river Thames. It oozes in an almost pure state through the sedgy borders of the river, and is collected in boats of light draught, which convey it sixty miles down the stream to the port of Tampico.
In the State of Vera Cruz, asphaltum, naphtha, petroleum, stone-coal, and kindred bituminous substances, are found abundantly along the whole coast-range. Six counties are specified, one being especially rich in these deposits, which are sometimes found pure, sometimes mixed with rock-salt and saltpeter. Dr. Hechler, a scientific German traveler, has described the great asphalt-beds near the village of Moloacan. "The salt-mine," as it is there called, is an isolated conical mountain about twelve hundred feet in height, cracked by earthquakes. On its slopes are a number of pits, some of which are cold and still, others seething and bubbling with much noise and a stifling odor. Some of these seething pits eject masses of liquid asphaltum, which the Indians call chapopote. The whole adjacent surface consists of asphalt, partly liquid and partly solid, mingled with rock-salt. External heat and subterranean noises tell of the fires still smoldering within the mountain. Dr. Hechler hazards a suggestion that possibly some day the mountain-crust will subside, and its site be occupied by a bituminous lake, like the Dead Sea of Palestine.
Masses of this chapopote are found floating on the rivers and lagoons, or cast up by the waves all along the Gulf coast, when it is collected for sale, and is of excellent quality—clean, hard, and brilliant. Great beds of this substance are found along the upper waters of the Grijalva River, in the State of Tabasco. The deposits of petroleum are specially noted at El Chapopotito, in the county of Ozuluama, in Vera Cruz.
Though no trace of mineral oil has yet been detected in the rocky regions of Central America, its presence has been abundantly proved on the north of the Southern Continent, where, among the most important of recent discoveries, rank the oil-springs on the shore of Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela, which, together with the great undeveloped coal-mines and other sources of mineral wealth, promise so rich a future to that now waste and desert country.
The chief features of the country between the Cordilleras and the Rio Zulia are the numerous asphalt-mines and petroleum-fountains which abound all around the base of a chain of low hills which lie between the Rio Zulia and Rio Tara. Two other rivers water this country, the Rio Catatumbo and the Rio Sardinarte, which probably accounts for the luxuriance of the cool, dark forest, that contrives to flourish in a region known to the people of Maracaibo as El Infierno, by reason of the multitude of fountains and deposits of petroleum and asphalt.
At one point a raised sand-bank is honeycombed with circular holes, from which gush impetuous streams of boiling water and petroleum. Columns of white steam are also ejected with deafening roar. A careful observer estimated that the flow from one of these streams equaled 5,760 gallons per diem. At present all this good petroleum is soon lost again in the earth, and an immense quantity of inflammable gas also escapes and ignites, playing in weird flashes among the dark treetops. This earth-born lightning is seen by vessels lying off the bar, and is known as El farol de Maracaibo. This group of springs lies near the confluence of the Tara and Sardinarte Rivers, which are navigable for small craft of under fifty tons. But petroleum-fountains, deposits of bitumen, asphalt, and other resinous minerals, lie scattered in all directions ; and there is abundant proof of the existence of rich coal-seams, which ere long must certainly create a revolution in Venezuelan commerce.
Near San Timoleo the accumulation of asphalt and petroleum is so extensive as to form a large lake, somewhat resembling the celebrated Pitch Lake on the Isle of Trinidad, where a strange, thick, flexible crust of black bituminous matter is said to float on the surface of a fresh-water lake. But, as no one has yet arrived at even estimating the depth of the crust, it is difficult to see how the existence of the said lake can be proved. All that meets the eye is a level plain of pitch about three miles in circumference, dotted over with patches of vegetation and bushes, and pools of rain-water, wherein women wash and bleach their linen, while men with pickaxes dig out large fragments of hard, resinous pitch, which are carried off in carts, all on the surface of the so-called lake. Though only about a hundred acres of pitch are thus exposed to view, the deposit crops up at several points five or six miles to the north and to the south, and appears to be only covered by a thin layer of soil or sand. The lake lies about eighty feet above the sea. As the place of the Pitch Lake, in these notes on the world's oil-supply, may not be self-evident, I may venture to remind my readers that the definition of petroleum (petri oleum, "rock-oil") is "a native liquid bitumen," which is essentially asphalt dissolved in naphtha. So perhaps we shall some day see the people of Trinidad start their own oil-factories. (The neighboring Isle of Barbadoes also contributes its quota to the world's supply of bituminous asphalt.)
There are numerous petroleum-wells actually within the town of Columbia, and, though the oil is of inferior quality and not abundant, the poor collect it in cloths, which absorb the oil, and are then wrung out into jars, and thus they obtain sufficient to light their houses. So long ago as 1824, samples of this "oil of Columbia" were sent to England, France, and the United States, as a remarkable new discovery; but the secret of distillation had not then been discovered, and kerosene and benzine were unknown products, so this South American oil failed to attract attention. In like manner we learn that in remote ages the citizens of Genoa obtained their oil-supply from the wells on the banks of the Taro. And, in the days of Pliny, Sicilian lamps were fed from the oil-springs of Agrigentum; and long before the Christian era the old Romans knew how to turn to account the oil-wells of Zante. Yet no systematic working of any of these wells seems to have been attempted.
Petroleum in some of its varied forms has long been known to exist in many different parts of Europe. In Galicia, Moldavia, and Roumania, it is found in a semi-solidified form, which led to its being named mineral fat or tallow—as in the so-called "tallow-wells," The ozokerite or earth-wax of Galicia is found in great abundance, and of so pure a quality as quite to take the place of beeswax in the manufacture of candles, etc. A considerable number of the population are employed in mining for it, and also in working the industry in all its branches.
So far back as 1873, the annual return of burning-oil and paraffine was valued at a sum equal to £500,000. This was chiefly obtained from the Boryslaw district.
In 1879 an American oil-refiner from Ohio determined to commence work in Galicia on more scientific principles than any hitherto attempted. He imported first-class machinery and skilled workmen; but the Poles combined against the interloper, and refused to supply his refinery with crude oil, so for a while he actually was driven to import crude petroleum from America. The people finding that be could not be crushed, desisted from their opposition, and the American refiner now works in peace. He estimates the annual production of Galicia at a hundred thousand barrels, but its quality is generally very inferior to that of Pennsylvania; the sinking of the wells is attended with far greater difficulty, owing to the loose character of the soil, and the singular manner in which the rock strata are found tossed about at every conceivable angle. It is also necessary to bore to a far greater depth than in America. But the chief disadvantage of Galician oil is its liability to explosion, owing to the extreme difficulty of separating the benzine and other explosive elements from the illuminating oil. Altogether Galician oil does not sound very desirable.
In Roumania, in the districts of Bacan, Serata, Buzen, and Dambovitza, petroleum has recently been discovered in such large quantities that there is every prospect of its developing into a very important industry. Prussian Saxony has already established extensive bituminous shale-works, for the supply of shale-oil, in the neighborhood of Weissenfels. Wallachia, Sweden, and Switzerland, also possess deposits of bituminous asphalt, which when systematically worked will, doubtless, be turned to good account.
For a moment let us glance at the principal sources of animal and vegetable oil-supply, ere the fountains of mineral oil were revealed for the use and comfort of the human family.
First and foremost, of course, ranked the fish-oils—the well-known train (or drain) oil which drained from the blubber of the great Greenland whale (a large whale sometimes yielding fully thirty tons of blubber —each ton representing nearly two hundred gallons of oil. Though the cachalot, or sperm-whale, could never rival the Greenland whale in the quantity of its contribution, it had at least the advantage of quality and variety, since, besides ordinary blubber, it yields a large amount of sperm-oil, and also of spermaceti. Of the latter valuable product, the head alone often yields ten barrels.
Next among oil-yielding fish come the grampus, or dolphin, the porpoise, the shark, the seal, the cod, the herring, and others.
Of animal fats are butter, tallow, lard, goose-grease, neat's-foot oil (prepared from the feet of oxen, and used by curriers in dressing leather), and mare's grease (imported from Buenos Ayres and Montevideo, where a multitude of horses are annually slaughtered for the sake of their hides, tallow, and bones!). In Russia, especially at Moscow, yolk-of-egg oil is in great repute for making soap and pomatum.
Vegetable oils form a very important item in our supplies, inasmuch as oil-seeds to the value of £5,500,000 are annually imported into Britain for crushing purposes, and our exports of oil are roughly valued at £1,600,000. The export of seed-oil from London, Hull, and Liverpool, in 1880, was 14,508,000 gallons.
Under the head of seed-oils rank linseed, cotton-seed, and castor oil. Colza-oil, also, is made from mustard, hemp, radish, rape, turnip, and other seeds. Then we have olive-oil and almond-oil. From India comes poppy-seed oil; from the Black Sea, oil of sunflower-seeds. From Ceylon and the Pacific isles comes cocoanut-oil. From Western Africa the palm-nut oil of the oil-palm, and oil of ground-nuts, for use in fine machinery. From Singapore and China we receive kokum-oil and vegetable tallow. About fourteen thousand tons of croton-oil are annually imported for the use of the wool-dressers of Britain.
Besides these, so familiar to ourselves, almost every country has some specialty in oils. Thus, in Southern Russia, tobacco-oil is largely used; in Italy, oil of grape-stones; in China, oil of tea-seed; in India, oil of nutmegs, of seeds of the gamboge-tree, of custard-appleseed, of cashew-nut, of cardamom, of neam, of margoza, and many others. Brazil, too, has a large number of oils, both animal and vegetable, peculiar to itself.
In this connection, and bearing in mind Lelyveld's essay on smoothing the waves with tar-oil, we note that Great Britain annually imports five million gallons of wood-tar, and that about an equal quantity is made in the country from coal, at the charcoal-works, the gas-works, and the bone-factories.
To M. du Buisson, a Frenchman, is due the credit of first attempting to distill oil fit for burning from the bituminous shales hitherto deemed worthless. He succeeded in his experiment, but the shales of France were not found to yield oil in paying quantities. An effort was then made to apply the same process to the bituminous shales of Dorsetshire, and "Kimmeridge coal" was found to yield a much larger proportion of oily matter. It was, however, found impossible to overcome the noxious smell of the various products; so that this enterprise did not command large success.
About the year 1847 Sir Lyon Play fair discovered a petroleum spring at Riddings, in Derbyshire, to which he called the attention of Mr. James Young, a Manchester chemist, who proceeded to distill it, thereby obtaining a clear, thin burning-oil, and also a thick lubricating oil. Certain solid crystals floating in the petroleum suggested the presence of paraffine, and the possibility of obtaining a candle-making substance. This resulted in the manufacture of the first two paraffine candles, and these were lighted by Dr. Playfair, to illustrate the novel subject at a lecture to the Royal Institution, when he foretold that ere long they would become the common light of the country—a prophecy which was very quickly realized, but not from the Derbyshire springs, as these were soon exhausted.
Mr. Young's attention was next attracted by seeing oil dripping from the roof of a coal-mine, which led to further experiments, with the result that cannel-coal was found to be essentially oleiferous. The discovery near Bathgate, in Linlithgowshire, of a very rich gas-coal, like the celebrated Boghead coal, led to the establishment of a distillery in its neighborhood, the coal being broken up into fragments like road-metal, and heated to a red-heat in cast-iron retorts. A ton of this coal was found to yield about one hundred and twenty gallons of crude oil. This, being subjected to a second distillation, resolved itself into certain proportions of light oil for burning, thick oil for machinery, a small quantity of naphtha, and a large residuum of paraffine, which, when purified with animal charcoal, is transformed into a substance like beautifully white wax.
Great was the-interest excited by this discovery; but difficulties were thrown in the way of Dr. Young's obtaining a patent for his invention, as it was proved that many years previously Reichenbach had tried a similar experiment, and, by distilling one hundred pounds of coal, had obtained two ounces of an oil resembling naphtha. Young, however, carried the day, and his now celebrated patent was granted in 1850.
It was not till six years later that any fresh attempt was made thus to utilize the great beds of bituminous shale which are so extensively found in carboniferous districts, but which had hitherto been totally neglected. These have been found to yield from thirty to fifty gallons of crude oil per ton; and great works for the manufacture of mineral oil have been established at many places in England, Wales, and Scotland.
"Greater Britain" was not slow to adopt the new industry started in the mother-country. In 1865 New South Wales discovered among its hid treasures a shale similar to the Boghead coal of Scotland, but considerably richer in oil, and less sulphurous. A sample was brought to Sydney for distillation, and one ton yielded one hundred and sixty gallons of oil. Thereupon the New South Wales Shale and Oil Company was established, and seems to have developed into a very important industry.
America had taken up the subject earlier. In 1854 the Kerosene Oil Company and several other companies were started to distill oil from coal, and by 1860 upward of fifty factories for this work had been established in various parts of the States.
Then came the discovery of real mineral-oil wells, which so quickly revolutionized the oil-traffic of the world. Here, as in most other cases, we have evidence of the "nothing-new" theory; for, since King Petroleum has asserted his power, men marvel to find traces of ancient workings, proving that by-gone generations had discovered the native oil—so long ago, that very old trees of several centuries' growth have been found growing in the excavated ground. From some strange cause unknown, these oil-seekers had abandoned their work, and (although mineral oils were known to exist in Asia) their presence in America had been altogether forgotten, when, in 1826, salt-workers who were engaged in boring brine-shafts in Ohio were amazed to find that they had struck oil as well as brine.
Certainly it was known to the Seneca Indians of Pennsylvania that oil flowed from the rocks at various points in the Alleghany Mountains; and a French traveler has recorded a curious incident which he witnessed in 1750, when the tribe assembled for a religious ceremony, at the junction of a small stream with the Alleghany River. The stream was covered with a thick, oily scum, to which, after a solemn oration, the chief applied a lighted torch. Immediately the flames spread over the surface of the water, amid shouts of the red warriors.
In the same district, at the spot now known as Titusville, was a well on the surface of which oil habitually floated; and the Indians, who had long known its healing properties (now so fully recognized in its refined form as vaseline), were in the habit of collecting it by laying their blankets on the glassy surface of both well and stream, thus absorbing the oil, which they then wrung out and stored for the use of the tribe. So early as 1833 an account was published in "The American Journal of Science," describing how certain persons made a living by skimming this dirty-looking and most unfragrant grease with their boards, and then purified it by heating and straining it through flannel, when it was sold under the name of Seneca-oil, as an excellent specific for healing sores of man and beast, and curing sprains and rheumatism.
In 1853 it occurred to Dr. Brewer that this natural oil might be turned to account for lamps, and the Pennsylvania Rock-Oil Company was formed to develop the idea, with very small result, however, till, in the year 1859, Colonel Drake's attention was attracted by the oil which oozed from fissures of the rock all along the stream now known as Oil Creek. He bethought him that since the rock was apparently saturated with this oil, there must surely be a reservoir which, if it could be found and tapped, would yield a far larger supply than that which was so carefully collected by the company. Little, however, did he dream when he first communicated to them his idea, and was by them empowered to work it on their account, what amazing results would attend his experiment.
He commenced sinking a shaft on the artesian-well principle, and had bored to a depth of six hundred feet, when, to his unspeakable delight, he found that he had indeed reached the main supply, and oil was henceforth pumped up at the rate of from four hundred to one thousand gallons daily. Very soon he was able to rejoice his employers with about two thousand barrels of crude petroleum. New shafts were quickly sunk in every direction, and in the following year five hundred thousand barrels rewarded the lucky borers. This strike proved magical in another sense, for at once the price of crude petroleum fell from twenty-three cents per gallon to twelve cents, and that of refined oil fell from forty-five to thirty-two cents. Very soon this was further reduced to nine cents for crude oil and nineteen for refined ! Already this precious "earth-oil" asserted its privilege of being a special boon to the poor.
Of course, this news spread like wild-fire, and from far and near men came crowding to the wonderful oil-yielding region, and the land was riddled with borings varying from six hundred to sixteen hundred feet in depth, of which it was estimated that not more than one in six yielded profitable returns. Nevertheless, two years after Colonel Drake had sunk his first shaft, the oil-yield had increased to upward of two million barrels, and in the following year it reached three million! As the yield of some wells decreased, new ones were struck in other isolated spots.
Of course, fire is the danger most to be dreaded by all oil-communities. Nowhere, unless in a powder-magazine, does the chance spark carry with it such probability of doing mischief as in this gas-laden atmosphere, where everything seems to be inflammable. Sometimes through grievous negligence, but more often by the action of lightning, a tank containing perhaps three or four thousand barrels of oil is struck, and then all efforts to extinguish the flames are known to be futile—the owners can only stand afar off and watch this magnificent bonfire, which must blaze on till it has utterly consumed all that feeds it. Sometimes the gas escaping from a flowing well ignites while the oil-jet is in full play, and then grand indeed, but most awful, is the spectacle of that genuine "fire-fountain"—a column of living fire tossed far above the dark tree-tops, and falling in a beautiful but scathing rain, with a roar more deafening even than that of its ordinary condition.
Nor do the dread possibilities of fire as connected with the petroleum-trade end here. In all the pages of marine disaster, none are more terrible than those which record how on several occasions (sometimes when in harbor in the midst of crowded shipping) vessels laden with petroleum have taken fire, and their cargo has overspread the sea in a film of inextinguishable floating fire, carrying death and destruction wheresoever it penetrated. This, I think, brings us to the climax of possible horrors in connection with this subject.
The "earth-oil" is found in various parts of North America; but Pennsylvania is said to yield about seven times as much as all the others collectively. Canada has springs of her own to the north of Lake Ontario; but the great petroleum-region of the States lies partly in New York, but chiefly in Pennsylvania near the shores of Lake Erie. The oil-bearing sandstone underlies a tract of heavily timbered hill-country watered by the Alleghany River. Here the principal oil-springs have been struck in isolated patches, dotting a belt of territory which is roughly estimated at about one hundred and fifty miles in length by about thirty in maximum breadth, covering an area of less than 200,000 acres. Ohio and West Virginia also contribute something to the general oil-supply.
To whatever cause the formation of petroleum is due (and it is generally attributed to the decomposition under enormous pressure of vast deposits of animal and vegetable matter), it is now ascertained that it exists in rocks of nearly all geological ages. Upper and Lower Devonian, Silurian, and Tertiary, have all been proved to be oleiferous. One thing worthy of note is, that the springs are generally found near the base of great hills. We have already seen that those of Venezuela lie among the spurs of the Cordilleras. Those of Pennsylvania lie chiefly near the Alleghanies, and the great oil-region of the Caspian is overshadowed by the Caucasus.
In the year 1876 (seventeen years after Colonel Drake had bored his first well) it was estimated that 20,000 wells had been sunk in Pennsylvania and West Virginia at a cost of $190,000,000, the oil produced being valued at $300,000,000 at the wells—cost of carriage to the seaboard adding one fourth to the value of an oil-cargo. In 1879 the production of oil in the United States was estimated at about 15,000,000 barrels, equal to 600,000,000 gallons. In 1880 upward of 400,000,000 gallons, valued at $46,000,000, were exported from the States, irrespective of the enormous home consumption.
Very remarkable is the organization whereby an elaborate system of iron pipes connects all the wells in the most remote districts of Petrolea with enormous tanks, wherein the oil from many wells is stored and is thence conveyed by main pipes to the nearest railway-station, where it runs into another series of great reservoirs, thence to be transferred to the locomotive tanks or oil-wagons. These are cylinders resembling great steamboat funnels laid lengthwise on the wagon. From the center of each cylinder rises a large iron cupola, constructed to allow for the expansion of the oil should it become heated. Such wagon-trains are about as dirty and greasy looking concerns as can well be imagined.
In many cases their services are dispensed with, and the main pipes —which have a diameter of from four to six inches—are carried direct to the great refineries. One of these at Cleveland is one hundred and seven miles distant from the wells which feed it; another at Buffalo is distant seventy-eight miles; and that at Pittsburg is thirty-eight miles from its source of supply. Two great main pumps are led three hundred miles to Bayonne on the seaboard of New York Bay, and there deliver their cargo ready for shipping. Pumping-engines working at intervals of twenty-five miles give an impetus to the flow of these oil-streams.
This pipe business is all in the hands of two great companies; and some idea may be formed of the vast scale on which they work, from the fact that the principal company—distinguished as "The United Pipe Lines Company"—owns three thousand miles of pipes, and provides in its five hundred great iron tanks storage for upward of 30,000,000 barrels! The company receive all the oil yielded by the wells of certain districts, and account to the owners of each for the amount received.
The oil thus obtained is not all alike in quality. There are a few wells at Mecca in Ohio, some in Illinois, and others near Franklin in Pennsylvania, where it is of extraordinary thickness, and can be used as grease without further preparation. It fetches about five times the price of ordinary crude petroleum, and at the present moment sells at £4 per barrel. At Mecca this lubricating oil is found in an area fifteen miles in length by five in width. It is estimated that 500,000 barrels have already been taken out, by pumping wells at an average of forty feet in depth.
Passing north across Lake Erie to the "Dominion," we find four distinct oil-bearing areas. They lie in Tilsonburg, Enniskillen, Mosa, and Oxford townships. As in the States, so in Canada, the oil-region has been suggestively named Petrolea—a name, however, which applies especially to this principal city.
It is just about twenty years since Mr. Murray, geological surveyor, in riding through the dense untrodden forests of oak and hickory, observed here and there beds of bituminous matter, and on closer examination he became convinced that these were deposits where oil-springs had overflowed and evaporated. At a place now known as Thamesville (the counterpart of the Titusville of Pennsylvania) he perceived oil floating on a stream, and found that there, too, the people were in the habit of gathering up this scum in flannel, and using it as ointment for wounds on horses.
He called official attention to the subject, and soon the silence of the forests was a thing of the past, and the district was overrun by crowds of busy men.
Now oil cities "spring up" with mushroom speed, wherever productive springs are struck in new districts. With oil, as with all else in the States and the Dominion, there is a constant movement toward the northwest; and every one, who finds his oil-supply failing, as a matter of course moves to the northwest, taking with him his pump and derrick, and all the casing of the well, and sets up his drilling apparatus wherever the ground appears most promising.
The yield of oil is not to be compared with that of the Pennsylvania springs, and two years ago it was estimated that the sixteen hundred wells then in active operation did not collectively yield on an average more than 2,400 barrels per diem. The richest well at present is "The Lawyer," near Marthaville, which has an average flow of eighty barrels a day; but, on the other hand, many only yield one barrel. The oil here is generally a greenish-black fluid of the consistency of sirup, and is mixed with much water and some gas.
[To be continued.]
- Abridged from "Blackwood's Magazine."