Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

No stirring debates reverberate through the chambers of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall; white-hot molten steel no longer pours out of the fiery cauldrons in the sprawling mills of Pittsburgh and Bethlehem; and little coal ripped from the earth by giant steam shovels in Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Lackawanna Counties in the Keystone State’s anthracite region.

As surprising as it may seem, however, Pennsylvania-grade crude oil is still being refined on the banks of the Tunungwant Creek in the Allegheny Mountains as it has been for a century and a quarter. Brad­ford, in McKean County, with a population of only nine thousand residents, is home to the oldest continuously operating refinery in the world, now owned by the American Refining Group (ARG).

That point of Pennsylvania pride more than compensates for a bit of myth­-busting that accompanies this saga: It is not true that Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 gusher near Titusville, Venango County, was the world’s first oil well. Petroleum from natural seeps was well known in ancient times, and the Drake Well Museum – a popular attraction along the Pennsylvania Trail of History administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC} – cites hand-dug wells lined with log cribbing used by indigenous peoples in the early fifteenth century.

Early entrepreneurs and enterprises attempted to exploit “rock oil” as a business in Europe, Asia, and North America, particularly in western Pennsylvania and surrounding states. A well dug in Oil Springs, Ontario, Canada, in 1858 by James Miller Williams gave rise to a viable commercial processing industry. To this day, the area surrounding Sarnia, Ontario, remains a petroleum processing center.

The Drake Well is famous because the volume of oil spewing from it – and the related industries that sprang up around it – exceeded all oil ventures undertaken before 1859. The well is no longer in service, but McClintock Number 1, originally known as the Colby Well, sunk in 1861 on the Hamilton McCLintock farm near Rouseville, is still in production. The Quaker State Corporation, which operated a refinery in Bradford, acquired the well in 1952 gave it to the PHMC in 2000. Barbara Zolli, director of the Drake Well Museum, which operates McClintock Number 1 as a living history attraction, considers it the oldest continuously producing well in the world.

Quaker State offered it to the Commonwealth when the company moved its corporate headquarters from Oil City in Venango County to Houston, Texas,” says Zolli. “We sent our first truckload – a little more than thirty barrels – of Pennsylvania-grade crude oil to the American Refining Group’s plant in Bradford on March 14, 2003.” It was the first sale of oil since Quaker State turned the well over in 1995 to The Colonel, Inc., a volunteer, not-for-profit group which supports the museum’s public programs and educational activities. “In April 2003,” she continues, “oil prices climbed from $24.75 to $27.00 per barrel, so we didn’t exactly get rich!”

Another vestige of the nineteenth-­century oil boom, Cline Number 1, squatting inelegantly but defiantly near the center of Bradford, is also still producing. The well, sunk in the 1870s, is adjacent to an icon of the America it helped create: a drive-through fast food restaurant.

Local production has been a source of pride and commercial success for ARG since it purchased the refinery in Brad­ford from Sunoco in 1997. At the time percent only about 30 of its ten thousand barrels a day capacity was met by local sources. Today, local supply is 60 percent of the feedslate and is growing. (Feedslate is the breakdown of sources within the final production mix.) At an average current price of fifty dollars per barrel, ARG buys three hundred thou­sand dollars of crude from locaJ producers every single day. The industry pumps more than one hundred million dollars into the local economy each year.

The rising price of oil and the increased demand for local crude has prompted local producers to reopen closed wells. Area oilfield services companies report rekindled activity in exploration, drilling, and speculation. Exact dollar figures are elusive, but the fact remains that new oil wells are being sunk today in and around Bradford.

Pennsylvania-grade crude is a natural grade of oil also found in New York, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere. Conversely, oil that is not Pennsylvania-grade crude is found in the Commonwealth. Unlike the crude extracted earlier in Canada, and the larger reserves found later in Ohio and Indiana, Pennsylvania-grade crude contains no sulfur. The common, pale yellow element not only reeks, but it has to be extracted before much refining can be attempted. Sulfur dioxide is the ”rotten egg” stench often associated with oil. Unadulterated Pennsylvania-grade crude is a near-ideal feedstock for lubricating oils. It possesses a higher portion of the compounds used in lubricants, as opposed to those that make asphalt, gasoline, or kerosene, which are present in greater proportions in other types of crude. However, Pennsylvania-grade crude contains waxes and resins that are especially troublesome in lubrication because they form sticky varnishes on moving parts and congeal at low temperatures.

For generations, northwestern Pennsylvania’s citizenry considered the drilling and production of oil much more interesting than its refining. When Gordon Fiske was born in Bradford in the early 1920s, the road his father cut in front of their house was not yet paved; today it is Fiske Avenue. “Sure, the refinery had a big impact on the local economy, but we were not really aware of it,” he says. “I did not even know what the cracking towers were until I took chemistry in high school.” (The process known as cracking decomposes petroleum to extrude low-boiling fractions such as gasoline.) Fiske graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a degree in civil engineering in 1943, worked for Curtiss Wright, then Eastman Kodak, and now lives in Rochester, New York.

In contrast to ambivalence toward refining, drilling and producing oil was enormously exciting. “The wells were stimulated by a charge of nitroglycerine,” Fiske recalls. “1 remember the well-­polished, high-stepping teams of horses that would deliver the nitro to the field. Every now and then there would be an accident. Everyone would run out and look into the hole because that was all there was left. I also remember the pump jacks were driven by a central power plant with rod lines. Big electric motors were not available or too expensive.”

Water flooding, a stimulation technique less hazardous than blasting, was perfected by Bradford natives C. G. and Forest Drom. Their company, Forest Oil Company, no longer calls Bradford home, but the building that housed its offices on Main Street is one of the keystones in Bradford’s downtown historic district, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Today, the Forest Oil Corporation, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, owns or controls approximately three trillion cubic feet of oil reserves. Another important oilfield services name in Bradford’s history is that of Solomon R. Dresser (1842-1911), oil producer and inventor. He founded and served as president of S.R. Dresser Manufacturing Company, which became one of the most successful businesses in the sector, and served in Congress from 1903 to 1907. In 1944, Dresser Manufacturing Company was renamed Dresser Industries and is now part of the Halliburton Company, the world’s largest provider of services to the gas and oil industries, founded in 1919. Such services include locating new sources of oil, providing equipment for oil producers, and sometimes even undertaking the drilling itself. The handsome Dresser Building, built in 1904, and adjacent Old City Hall are currently being refurbished as part of an intensive multi­million-dollar downtown improvement project.

In art deco gravitas, new City Hall rises opposite Old City Hall. Just a few doors away, the Kennedy Street Cafe, a classic lunch counter, seems to have been
plucked from an American scene painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), an artist noted for his distinctive twentieth-century cityscapes. The restaurant offers a hearty meatloaf special – and a hefty side of local color. Rather than restoring old buildings, “what we really need downtown is more parking,” remarks Debbie Hayden, a perky employee. “The refinery is smelly,” she adds, “but it’s been around forever, and I guess it brings in jobs.”

Diane L. Sheely, executive director commerce, confirms the ripple effect of American Refining Group’s presence in the community. “Oilfield supply companies and drillers tell me they have seen increased activity, especially in the past year. But that is also partly due to the higher price of oil.” Sheeley once lived across the street from the refinery, and has come to appreciate it, both professionally and personally. She is aware, however, that not everyone in Bradford shares her sentiment – or her optimism. “We have been marketing Bradford businesses,” Sheeley continues, “but perhaps we need to market to our own residents. We need to have an awareness of what is still around in our community.” The community renamed a busy downtown street Marilyn Horne Way honoring the world-famous mezzo-soprano, born in Bradford in 1934, who made her operatic debut at the age of twenty with the Los Angeles Guild Opera.

While refining is capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, ARG has increased employment from about 150 to more than 230, most of those positions in Bradford proper. “The refinery con-tributes to the community because between a small town and industry, our needs are the same,” says Michele Corignani, mayor of Bradford.

“We would like to think they can experience continued growth. Their stabilization is stability for us. This is an older community with a lot of pride. We go out of our way to help them, and that is returned to us. It is more than just using a plot of land. There is mutual interest.”

There is also mutual aid. “We have a full-time paid fire department largely because we have a refinery in the middle of town,” says John W. Peterson, city clerk and former fire chief. “We do a lot of cross-training with the plant brigade, and ARG’s hazardous materials unit is always available to us. Several years ago there was a train derailment outside of town, and ARG provided foam for us for three days.”

Even the possible closing of the refinery several years ago yielded handsome benefits. The situation spurred local government and businesses to energize their economic development efforts and diversification. Their efforts paid dividends even though the refinery has remained in operation. One success story is that of Graham Packaging Company’s plant, adjacent to the refinery. At one time, the company only manufactured containers for Witco/Amalie, former owner of the refinery. In 1997, company officials decided to retool from exclusively producing oil packaging to food packaging, and the firm’s growth has been dramatic. From a low of a dozen employees in 1997, Graham Packaging Company – headquartered in York, York County – currently employs one hundred individuals.

Bradford is also home to Zippo Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of the world-famous metal lighters, which were invented by George G. Blaisdell in 1932. He acquired the rights for an Austrian windproof lighter with a removable top and redesigned it. Zippo is derivative of the word “zipper”; Blaisdell liked the soW1d of the word “zipper,” which had been patented in the nearby Crawford County seat of Meadville and so christened his lighter. The first Zippo to bear a corporate logo debuted in 1936, when the Kendall Refining Company ordered five hundred lighters. A subsidiary of the Zippo Manufacturing Company, W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company, moved from Little Valley, in upstate New York, to Bradford in 1905, where officers incorporated it. The cutlery company contracted with the Tuna Manufacturing Company to construct a factory building on Bank Street in Bradford for sixty-five hundred dollars. Today the Zippo and Case factories employ several hundred people and their histories are chronicled in exhibits at a museum housed in the Zippo/Case Visitors Center, opened in 1997.

Although many associate Bradford with the oil industry, the early settlement’s first commodity was lumber. Homesteaders had moved through the area, but none stayed until 1837, the year Colonel Levitt C. Little, an agent of the United States Land Company – which owned a quarter-million acres in the region – established one of several lumber camps along a tributary of the Allegheny River, the Tunungwant Creek, whose name is universally abbreviated to Tuna Creek. The creek derives its name from the Seneca Nation’s appellation Ichunuagwant, or “Big Cove with Large Mouth,” for the eddy at its mouth. Littleton was renamed Bradford in 1858, but it was not until the oil boom that the settlement prospered.

The oil boom, which roughly spanned from 1859 to 1901, literally put north­western Pennsylvania on the map, and Bradford became a Victorian-era phenomenon, with commodious residences, riotous saloons, opulent brothels, perilous gambling dens, and various and sundry “temples of amusement.” Its post office was the third busiest in the Commonwealth, the Oil Exchange conducted one million dollars in transactions each day, the telegraph office handled more than five hundred messages every day, and more than one hundred trains stopped daily. Founded in 1878, the Bradford Oil Exchange, declared Captain Joseph T. Jones, a board member and oil producer who owned five hundred wells, was “the foremost oil exchange in the world and in time would rule the market.” Oil production in the Bradford region peaked at nearly twenty-­six million barrels in 1881, the year William Willis, E. R. Loomis, and R. H. Childs formed a company to refine local crude. The partners built their Kendall Refining Company near where the Kendall Creek flows into the Tuna Creek, just northeast of Bradford. Lock, stock, and barrels of oil, the operation was worth about two thousand dollars – not enough, evidently, because two years later creditors foreclosed. B. G. Hinkley, a company employee, purchased the refinery. Theodore Newton Barnsdall (1851-1917), the largest independent oil producer of his time, purchased the company’s assets from Hinkley the following year.

Competitors established the rival Orient Lubricating Company in 1900, but the Kendall Refuting Company had begun to establish a franchise on its axle greases, sold as “The Horse’s Friend.” No sooner was Orient in business than it was bought out by another local competitor, Penn Lubricating Company. On September 1, 1902, Penn Lubricating acquired Kendall for sixteen thousand dollars. One year earlier – to the very day – the legendary Lucas Gusher blew in at Spindletop near Beaumont, Texas. Production had been falling in Pennsylvania’s oil region, and new fields had been opened in Ohio and Indiana. The Texas tea party – spilling out more than one hundred thousand barrels of oil a day – ­forever quashed the Keystone State’s domination of the world’s petroleum industry.

Even to this day, a common misconception contends that the gasoline-­powered automobile created the oil industry. However, in the late 1890s and the opening years of the twentieth century, horseless carriages powered by steam, electric motors, and internal combustion engines were all in use. If the evolution of railroads was any indicator, it would have been the steam and electric automobiles that would have succeeded, and gasoline-powered engines would have been phased out.

By the turn of the century, electric lighting-first made practical in 1880- had become immensely popular. Along with lubricants, kerosene and illuminating oils were the most important market for the large oil companies, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Gasoline, a lighter fraction of crude oil, was dangerously explosive, and usually discarded by being simply dumped on the ground or spilled into nearby waterways. When electricity doomed the illuminating oil market, however, Standard Oil cast around for a new market. It found the internal combustion engine and converted its refineries to produce gasoline, formerly a waste product, rather than kerosene.

During the transition between the horse and the automobile, Kendall saw strong demand for lubricants in both markets. After a fire destroyed most of the Bradford plant in 1906, Otto Koch, the new general manager, possessed both the cash and the confidence to rebuild on the same site. (Koch and Solomon R. Dresser served as secretary and president, respectively, of the luxurious New Bradford Theater – born of the oil region’s enormous prosperity – which had opened in 1903.) The new refinery had a capacity of one hundred and forty barrels a day, modest even by the standards of the period, but Koch, one of the founders of the Penn Lubricating Company, intended to develop new markets before adding capacity. The gasoline market took a leap in 1911 after Bradford inventor George Holley perfected the carburetor. (Holley and his brother Earl had moved their operations from Bradford to Detroit in 1907.)

In 1913, Penn Lubricating adopted the name of its most successful operation, and began aggressively promoting the Kendall brand. Two important developments out of Kendall’s laboratory soon gave the company formulations that boosted sales in a very competitive market: dewaxing and resin removal. As automobiles and trucks became common and travel distances grew, the performance demands on their engines increased ru,d Pennsylvania-grade crude’s unique qualities were recognized. In 1923, the company introduced Kenco Motor Oil, effective to O degree Fahrenheit.

With further improvements, Kendall introduced Penzbest. Average oil life in those days was 500 to 1,000 miles, but Penzbest was promoted as “The 2,000- mile motor oil,” with smiling drivers flashing two fingers, and a new logo was born. Research and marketing had done their jobs, and in 1931 the refinery was significantly expanded to 2,250 barrels per day. Incremental expansions would be made in the mid-1950s and early 1970s.

During World War II, the “2,000-mile” brand received an unexpected boost when Winston Churchill used the same sign as “V for Victory.” The boost was not undeserved; Kendall supplied fuels and lubricants to all branches of the armed forces. The logo still graces Kendall oil packaging.

Another benefit from the dewaxing and resin removal processes was a small but growing market in specialty chemicals. Those same compounds unwelcome in motor oil were made into everything from candles to pesticides. Growth continued until it became clear that to expand further, Kendall would have to combine with another firm. Buying another lubricants maker would have violated anti-trust laws, so in 1966 Kendall merged with specialty chemical maker Witco, based in New York. The refinery was combined with Witco’s small Amalie Oil Company. Into the 1970s Kendall/ Amalie acquired new producing lands and established a small network of service stations. With strong demand in all markets, the refinery enjoyed its last major expansion in 1986, roughly doubling capacity to ten thousand barrels a day.

In 1996, Witco sold the Kendall brand to Sunoco of Philadelphia. Sunoco decided to manufacture all of its lubricants at its refining complex in Marcus Hook, south of Philadelphia. “Sun made it very clear that we were not part of the deal,” says Harvey Golubock, president and chief operating officer of the American Refining Group, who had served at the Bradford plant as group vice president for lubricants at Witco. It looked as if the old refinery and its people had come to the end of the line until two Keystone State connections surfaced.

“A large portion of the former Witco staff is now in the Zippo management team,” says Mayor Corignani. ARG, based in West Conshohocken, Mont­gomery County, purchased the refinery from Witco. “The search for a buyer for the plant was the most important endeavor we’ve been involved in,” says Raymond McMahon, executive director of Bradford’s Office of Economic and Community Development. “Finding ARG to purd,ase was a defining moment in the history of the community.”

ARG already operated a plant in Indianola, Allegheny County, just east of Pittsburgh, which reprocessed mixed streams of petroleum products from pipelines. Company owner Harry R. Halloran Jr. knew of the Bradford refinery, and believed there was yet life for the lubricants and the specialty chemicals it prod­uced. He acquired the plant for seventeen million do!Jars-the value of inventory on hand. With the Kendall brand transferred to Sunoco, the inventory became a liability. Sunoco offered only a two-month supply agreement.

“At the end of the supply grace period, we had no market for thirty million gallons per year of base stock,” says Golubock “All we had was sixty days from ‘Sun set’ to figure out what to do.” Working far-flung contacts, they found some markets and created others. Today, the Bradford refinery turns out each year about sixty million dollars of finished lubricants, with more than eight hundred different formulations. “In seven years we created that market out of nothing,” says Golubock.

Stripped of the Kendall brand, the American Refining Group created Brad­Penn motor oil that enjoys regional retail distribution and a strong following among fleet owners who buy in bulk, an efficient market for ARG. Brad­Penn is also the brand name for industrial lubricants. ARG also manufactures and markets high-end motor oils under license for the Gulf and Security brands, owned by Cumberland Farms, a family owned retail and wholesale petroleum marketing company which operates nearly one thousand outlets in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Florida. The Bradford refinery also makes custom blends for many private labels, including oil for some of the most expensive automobiles in the world.

ARG also produces gasoline, some of which it wholesales to the United Refining Company of Warren, the third largest private sector employer in Warren County. The remainder is sold directly to independent retail outlets. United Refining operates its own 65,000-barrels per day refinery, and retails fuels through Kwik-Fill and Country Fair service stations. The company purchased some of the stations from Kendall in the 1970s.

As if there was not already enough living history at the Bradford refinery, ARG has purchased components of the old 12,800 per barrel/day Penzoil plant at Rouseville that is being dismantled. The equipment from the plant, which was only five years younger than Bradford, is being reconditioned at Bradford, and will be installed over time.

One negative element of the refinery’s history is on-site contamination; few heavy industrial sites in operation for more than a century years are pristine. “There is an active groundwater remediation project,” says Peterson, Bradford’s city clerk. “It is being paid for by Witco [since 1999 part of the Crompton Corporation, a global producer and marketer of specialty chemicals and polymer products], and is a cooperative venture with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the city. The contamination is mostly contained on site.”

Despite setbacks suffered over time, Bradford has been sustained by its refinery. American Refining Group is privately owned and does not disclose financial figures, but local sources indicate the refinery is now solidly profitable, perhaps for the first time since the acquisition. There are no plans for major acquisitions or for any public stock offering, but senior management has begun strategic planning and executive succession, a sure sign that the company expects to continue playing an important role in Bradford’s economic development for years to come.

“Back in 1997, a lot of people gave us about six months,” says Golubock, “but we have a very hard-working dedicated work force – some are second – and even third – generation at the refinery. With the major oil companies consolidating, we have been able to hire some good people and pick up some new accounts. We even have some people who went with Sunoco come back to us. And we have good technology. We make more cuts off our crude tower than anyone else. So here we are, eight years later, thinking about how to keep growing for the next generation.”

The company, much like the community, looks to its heritage to redefine and reposition itself to meet challenges today and in the future. Pennsylvania’s oil region has experienced years of tumult and turbulence, witnessed the comings and goings of generations of entrepreneurs and speculators, and seen the rise and fall (and, in some instances, the rise again) of tremendous fortunes and great dynasties. The history of the refinery and the former boom town are remarkably similar. The American Refining Group and Bradford are, in the patois of the petroleum industry, “retooling” to succeed in a rapidly changing world in which technological advancements are critical to even basic survival.

 

About Drake Well Museum and Park

Drake Well Museum and Park, Titusville, Venango County, chronicles the fascinating the story of oil in northwestern Pennsylvania, beginning with the native civilizations. Although no one knows for certain who the earliest oil producers might have been, evidence does show that Native Americans collected petroleum from seeps and pits in the Oil Creek Valley – which they used to preserve animal hides, make paint for decoration, protect and heal the human skin, and trade as “Senica oil” – centuries before Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880) arrived. The museum traces the early uses of petroleum, which became known as “Rock Oil,” among them remedying dry skin, treating achy joints, lubricating sawmill machinery, and produc­ing light in mill lamps. The real saga of the frenetic oil boom began soon after Drake successfully drilled for oil on August 27, 1859, which the museum recounts in great detail.

As news of Drake’s success spread, speculators, wildcatters, investors, laborers, and dreamers rushed to the region, intent on making their fortunes in the oil trade. Hurriedly organized companies sank wells as soon as they could lease or purchase land. Derricks towered above meadows, on hill­sides, even in communities. Fortunes were made – and Lost. Boom towns sprang up seemingly overnight, only to “bust” shortly afterwards (see “Marking Time” in the summer 2005 issue). During the oil boom years, northwest­ern Pennsylvania garnered a niche in the international world of high finance and its residents established oil exchanges, financial institutions, and private banks, and built opulent mansions extravagantly decorated with the very best furnishings money could buy (see “Lost & Found” in the summer 2005 issue).

The museum introduces visitors to the history and heritage of the oil region with expansive exhibits that feature objects, artifacts, documents, photographs, maps, models, vehicles, and videos. The Visitor Center also provides information about the machinery, buildings, and structures located on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum and Park. The museum also administers Pithole City, the oil industry’s most famous
boom-to-bust town.

For information about visiting the museum or Pithole City, write: Drake Well Museum and Park, 202 Museum Lane, Titusville, PA 16354; telephone (814) 827-2797; or visit www.drakewell.org on the Web.

 

For Further Reading

Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Giddens, Paul H. Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Industry in Pennsylvania. Titusville, Pa.: The Colonel, Inc., 2000.

Miller, Ernest C. This was Early Oil: Contemporary Accounts of the Growing Petroleum Industry, 1848-1885. Harris­burg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1968.

Payne, Darwin. Initiative in Energy: The Story of Dresser Industries. New York: Simon. and Schuster, 1979.

Sherman, Jan. Drake Well Museum and Park: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg: Stackpole Books and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002.

Williamson, Harold F., and Arnold R. Daum. The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination, 1859-1899. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1959.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1992.

 

The editor acknowledges the kindness of Sandra Feigley, of Harrisburg, who graciously shared information, publications, and photographs pertaining to Samuel R. Dresser and his family.

 

The author and editor thank Barbara Zolli, director, and Susan J. Beates, curator and historian, of the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, for their assistance in reviewing this article prior to publication and for providing illustrations drawn from the museum’s extensive holdings of vintage oil region photographs.

 

Gregory DL Morris is a journalist and historian based in New York. He serves as editor of The Green Magazine and is a member of the editorial board of the Museum of American Financial History. He is the former editor-in-chief of Lubricants World Magazine and Today’s Refinery Magazine.