Sep 22, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Technology

David L. Weber, 2008

“Mining for petroleum” has been attempted numerous times since the Drake Well’s completion, 1859. Nearly all the early oil shaft operations were failures. Only one - drilled during World War II - was a success in the original Oil Region (although there have been successes in other parts of the United States and foreign countries). Plans for another oil mine are underway at this writing.

Here are the stories of the “oil mines”:

Titusville journalist James T. Henry, in his 1873 book The Early and Later History of Petroleum, described such attempts to “mine” for oil:

“Many, in the early history of oil developments, entertained the idea of sinking shafts so as to obtain oil in vast quantity; and then, as it were, to tap the fountain as its head.”

Oil mines in Burma and India were said to have been operated many centuries ago. A similar operation has long existed at Pechelbronn, Alsace, France.

Henry stated that one petroleum shaft was attempted in Pennsylvania almost simultaneous with the Drake Well’s drilling:

“The first oil shaft sunk in this country was near Tarentum, in Allegheny County, about twenty miles above Pittsburgh, which was finished in the latter part of 1859. The third sand rock in this locality is found at a depth of not much less than two thousand feet, and as the shaft was sunk to a depth of only one hundred and sixty feet, it is needless to say that little or no oil was obtained. The salt wells of this section, which usually penetrate to a great depth, have always yielded more or less oil mixed with salt water.”

Tidioute, Warren County, was the scene of a similar “oil mining” attempt. New York Enterprise & Mining Company sunk a shaft into the Third Stray sand, in Limestone Township, 1864 - 1865.

Andrew Cone and Walter Johns described their visit to the Tidioute mine site (1870):

“The works were enclosed by a high board fence, intended to shut out inquisitive mortals. Over a small door, apparently the only entrance, was printed in large letters NO ADMITTANCE, a Yankee phrase signifying ‘Come In,’ accordingly we went in, but were soon accosted by a person evidently in authority who requested us to get out. [He] Said we would have to get permission from C. M ___, as he was opposed to give anything of the kind. We then asked permission to look at and go down into the merits of the thing…. He eyed us suspiciously as though we would pocket his big hole in the ground, or whisk away his 20 horsepower engine, and was proof against all our entreaties.”

A lit candle caused a natural gas explosion, which killed the New York Enterprise & Mining shaft foreman. Work on the project ended.

A second Tidioute oil shaft was also attempted, and came to failure.

The Petroleum Shaft & Mining Company started a similar operation near the boundaries of the McCray, Hyde & Egbert and Hayes farms, Petroleum Centre, 1865. Cone and Johns gave details regarding this venture:

“The Petroleum Shaft & Mining Company, of Pennsylvania, are sinking a shaft on the southwest on the northwest part of this [McCray] farm, near the line of the Egbert & Hyde farms, on the hillside, in the rear of the Maple Shade and Jersey wells. Its location is about fifty feet above the level of the [Oil Creek] flats.”
“The shaft is seven by seventeen feet. The foundations are built for the engines, which are now being put up for operations in the Spring. They intend to put up three engines, one of which is ninety horsepower, and two of fifty horsepower each. They propose to sink the shaft 500 feet, or to the Third sand rock. The company expect to open up a new era in the process of mining for Petroleum.

“…. Depth of first sand rock, 180 feet - 25 feet thick; second sand, 360 feet - 30 feet thick; third sand, 480 feet - 20 feet thick.”

Gas vapors (and the fear of an explosion) caused the Petroleum Centre shaft’s abandonment, 1865 - 1866. Stone foundations / ramparts can still be seen at the old work site today.

James T. Henry elaborated further on the end of Petroleum Centre’s oil mine: “Work was suspended on reaching one hundred and sixty feet, owing to the large flow of gas, and the great cost of the undertaking.”

Other accounts state that the hole was filled in with refuse and dead horses!

A fourth, more successful (and long - lived) horizontal “oil mine” was located at Two Mile Run, Sugarcreek (Franklin), Venango County, 1943. Samuel Pees described the wells of this type dug / drilled by Leo Ranney (1989):

“Leo Ranney drilled his first horizontal hole in 1937 into an oil bearing sandstone which cropped out on the bank of Havener Run in Morgan County, Ohio. That borehole achieved a length of 802 feet. A branch well was drilled from a point in the same hole to dip down into the lower section of the pay zone which was considered to be the best interval. The branch hole was drilled out to 953 feet from the face of the outcrop. It was shot and produced oil.

“Ranney then sunk a shaft 37 feet at a nearby location and cored two horizontal holes on opposite sides of the bottom sector of the shaft…. Ranney drilled six wells in that shaft. It was this method that was to be later used in the horizontal well at Franklin.”

Leo Ranney had also excavated and drilled approximately 50 horizontal water wells, notably in Britain and Portugal, during the 1930s.

A group of Penn Grade oil producers and refiners interested Ranney in digging an oil shaft at Two Mile Run, near Franklin, Venango County, April, 1942. These individuals and companies organized the Venango Development Corporation for the purpose of managing / operating the Ranney Process “mine.”

Venango Development Corporation purchased the 400 - acre Grant and Grant oil lease along Two - Mile Run. This property contained 91 shallow Franklin First sand (Franklin “Heavy Crude”) oil wells.

Carolee Michener listed some of the Venango Development officers and shareholders, 1995:

“Samuel Messer, president of Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation, Oil City, was the first president of Venango Development, with F.D. Dorn, head of Forest Oil Company, Bradford, as vice president. Others interested in the project were South Penn Oil Company, based in Pittsburgh; Pennzoil Company [a division of South Penn Oil Company], Oil City; Freedom Oil Company, Freedom, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Refining Company, Butler; Canfield Oil Company, Cleveland, Ohio; Franklin Creek Refining Corporation [division of L. Sonneborn’s Sons], Franklin; Kendall Refining Company, Bradford; Alliance Oil Corporation, New York City; Earl Emery, Bradford; John P. Herrick, Olean, New York; C.M. Davison, New York City; United Refining Company, Warren, Pennsylvania; Grant and Grant, Franklin, and Page Oil Company, Olean.”

Leo Ranney was also the project’s technical advisor. A shaft was sunk to the First sand, near the lease’s middle section.

The shaft was 429 feet deep, with a working chamber 55 feet high. Two horizontal wells, 2500 feet long, were drilled into the formation.

Six tons of TNT and gelatin (solidified nitroglycerine) were used for shooting the horizontal holes - and the largest oil industry “shot” up to that time, November, 1943.

Twenty additional holes were drilled by the end of 1944. Oil from the “mine” was refined by Sonneborn / Amalie at Franklin (Sugarcreek) and Wolf’s Head at Reno (Sugarcreek).

Carolee Michener commented on the shaft’s steep costs:

“Original cost estimates for the project were $75,000, but soon exceeded those expectations. The shaft itself, including concreting, ran more than $75 per linear foot, the original high estimate. Final estimates by the Venango Development Corporation were reported at $50,000 for the mine shaft and $38,000 for equipment, with precaution taken to make each piece explosion proof. Initial costs were quickly over budget.”

Wolf’s Head Oil Refining Corporation purchased the Grant and Grant oil lease / Venango Development Corporation “mine”, 1946. Several additional horizontal wells were drilled by the rotary method after the shaft’s sale.

New technology was developed for stimulating the mine’s oil production, according to the Franklin News - Herald, August, 1953:

“The Wolf’s Head work is known technically as ‘electro fracturing,’ and the experiments thus far feature the conducting of high voltage electrical current through the first Venango sand. The Pennsylvania Electric Co. has collaborated with the experiments by furnishing special equipment and engineering staff for the tests.

“The object of the electrical applications was to electro fracture the oil formation and to induce movement of fluids….

“C.B. McClintock, of Wolf’s Head, and P.J. Stevenson, Penelec, assisted in the supervision of these tests.

“The electrical equipment for the experiments was taken to the field by special trailer and the electrical circuit was set up with special provision for short circuit protection and for guarding the sub - station about a mile away.”

Wolf’s Head Oil Refining became part of Pennzoil, 1963 - 1964. The Two - Mile Run shaft was shut down and abandoned, 1967 - 1970.

Old equipment remained in place for approximately another thirty years, but the site has recently been filled and leveled.

Another “oil mine” project took place in Venango County simultaneous with the Two - Mile Run shaft’s completion, 1944.

John B. Hawley, Jr., a Minneapolis industrialist / engineer involved in World War II defense contracting (Northern Ordnance, Inc.), purchased 20,000 acres of oil properties in Venango, Warren and Forest counties. Hawley, convinced of postwar oil shortages, began a program of drilling 1500 air - gas injection wells served by elaborate compressor plants.

Northern Ordnance, Inc. (Hawley’s company) purchased, among others, the former National Petroleum Corporation leases. One of these was the old Davidson & Farel operation at Bull Run, Funkville, Venango County.
Samuel Pees described the elaborate oil mine that Hawley / Northern Ordnance had proposed for this lease:

“Among Hawley’s plans was an experimental oil mine in the ravine of Bull Run, a tributary of Oil Creek. The mine was to consist of two cylindrical shafts connected by a tunnel. The objective was the Venango Third sand which was estimated to be at a depth of 580 feet at that site. The first shaft was 9 feet in diameter and was dug with a clam bucket operated by heavy winches.”

Expenses soon exceeded Northern Ordnance’s budget per - foot. The first shaft was abandoned, filled in and sealed (the second never dug), late 1944. The grandiose project ended….

Pat Oil, the production division formed by Cities Service Company, bought the former National Petroleum leases from Northern Ordnance, 1945.

Recently another local attempt at “oil mining” has been proposed. Rock Well Petroleum a Canadian firm (and operator of oil shafts in Canada and the western United States, mainly Montana), has purchased the former Beck lease near Pleasantville (Allegheny Township, Venango County). A shaft with horizontal wells will be excavated and rotary drilled, similar to the old Venango Development operation near Franklin.

Robert M. Davidson (1852 - 1920) once owned the former Beck lease. He was also Nelson Farel’s partner in the Bull Run property, where the Northern Ordnance “oil mine” was later unsuccessfully attempted!