When Kerosene Was King

Feb 23, 2007 | Posted in Essays, Progress

Neil McElwee

Gasoline, the precious liquid fuel of our American lifestyle, is the premier refined product of the American petroleum industry. This was not always the case, not at all. For more than fifty years after Drake Well, kerosene – not gasoline was the principal refined product of the petroleum industry. Throughout the nineteenth century, kerosene was king.

Light. Light to push back the darkness of night, light to read by, light to learn by, light for comfort was what the nineteenth century American hoped for and valued so dearly. Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh in September 1851 distilled crude petroleum to be used as “Carbon Oil” in lamps of his own design. Kier’s still was located at the base of Grant Street where it intercepts Liberty Avenue. He sold his lamps and Carbon Oil to the Pittsburgh residents nearby. Kier distilled his Carbon Oil twice and allowed it to sit in the air, but it remained a smoky product with a foul odor. Kier’s attempt was a first attempt to use petroleum as a lamp illuminant. Though ultimately unsuccessful as a commercial effort, the concept was sound and just needed some time.

The North American Kerosene Gas Light Co. of New York City was formed to produce manufactured gas from coal heated in a closed vessel. Some of the coal vapors were condensed to a black liquid called coal oil. In March 1856, the North American Kerosene Gas Light Co. placed a lamp oil they refined from crude coal oil, not petroleum, on the New York lamp oil market. Their product was called “Kerosene”. It remained for Samuel Downer and Joshua Merrill of South Boston, however, to perfect in 1857 the practice of treating crude coal oil with sulfuric acid and caustic soda after several distillations to produce a consistent, acceptable lamp oil product. Downer and Merrill were able to manufacture an odorless, clean burning lamp oil from crude coal oil. The Downer organization purchased an interest in the North American Kerosene Gas Light Co. and gained rights to use the “Kerosene” trade name. It was just a matter of a few years before the term kerosene became a generic one used by all refiners; they were careful to market their lamp oil products under different trade names, however.

In the late 1850’s, camphene oil made from turpentine and cottonseed oil was both plentiful and cheap. Most homes burned camphene oil in their oil lamps. Camphene oil was also dangerous and had developed an infamous reputation. Kerosene could be burned in camphene oil lamps, gave a better light and was far safer. For the better-off class of Americans, kerosene found a ready market, but kerosene refined from coal oil was more expensive than camphene oil. It was well known when Drake’s Well came in that petroleum crude could be used as a substitute for crude coal oil to manufacture refined kerosene. It was also obvious that refining kerosene from petroleum was less complex and potentially much cheaper than producing kerosene from coal. While the nation had a seemingly unlimited supply of coal, finding a sufficient quantity of crude petroleum remained the great challenge.

The production of the Pennsylvania Oil Region in 1860, the first full year after Drake Well, was no better than 500,000 barrels, probably less actually went to market. The pace of production for the first half of 1861 remained the same, not enough to displace crude coal oil or to build a petroleum refining industry. This changed in May 1861 at Funkville on Oil Creek. Funkville is the name given to a long gone, small village built around the wells and property of A. B. Funk, a wealthy lumberman from Deerfield Township in Warren County. When Funk heard of Drake’s success in August 1859, he bought both the Upper and Lower McElheny Farms on either side of Oil Creek just north of what became Petroleum Center.

A. B. Funk had his son drill a well at this site to a depth sufficient to find the Oil Creek third sand, an oil sand thought to be particularly promising. Funk’s son found the third sand at 460 feet in May 1861. At a time when most wells were pumpers producing no more than 20 barrels a day when on the pump, Funk’s well came in at 300 barrels a day and flowed freely without the need of a pump. In those days, all flowing wells were referred to as fountain wells; this well became known as Funk’s Fountain Well. Funk’s success began a very deliberate exploratory effort to find the third sand beneath the Oil Creek Valley. A stone’s throw south of Funk’s Fountain, a group of producers leased a plot from Funk and drilled deep, down to the third sand. They called their well the Empire. In September of that year, the Empire came in at 3,000 barrels a day. A hundred feet or so up Oil Creek on the nearby Espy Farm, the Buckeye came in that same month at 1,000 barrels a day from the third sand.

South of the old Funkville site on the Tarr Farm located on the east side of Oil Creek where the lower O.C.& T. Railroad Bridge now crosses is where William Phillips put down a number of successful wells for the Pittsburgh firm of Phillips & Frew. The Phillips No. 2 reached the third sand at 480 feet and came in October 19, 1861 at 4,000 barrels of oil a day. The following Spring, this well was gauged at 3,660 barrels a day, a daily production record for the nation, which was held by the Phillips for the next 22 years. For its owners, the Phillips was a plague of blessings. There was so much oil they could not store it, they could not afford barrels to package it, could not market it. Sadly, the success of the big wells like the Empire and the Phillps No. 2 killed the price of crude oil. However, the great production of these third sand wells accounted for a five fold increase in total crude petroleum production in 1861, some 2.5 million barrels. These giant producing wells demonstrated to the kerosene refining industry there was a huge natural resource available to them, one they could count on to build a petroleum-based industry. In the locale between Funkville and the Tarr Farm on Oil Creek, down there in the third sand beneath Oil Creek, the nation found sufficient petroleum to build a new industry, an industry designed to produce kerosene in great volume.

The early Venango Oil field crude was easy to refine and produced high yields of kerosene, as much as 70% of the crude. When production moved to Bradford and to western Ohio, the yield and ease of refining declined. Maintaining the quality of the kerosene product became more difficult. Until Standard Oil developed the Frasch Process in 1888 to remove the sulfur from the crude oil found in the Lima Field of western Ohio, the oil from this huge reserve was not suitable for refining to kerosene and thus considered vastly inferior to Appalachian crude. Somewhat out of desperation, Standard’s Buckeye Pipeline a year earlier had begun to market Lima crude as fuel oil for the big industrial boilers in and around Chicago. Ironically, this unwanted, heavy fraction would eventually displace kerosene as the primary product of the industry.

The days of kerosene’s long dominance were numbered. Natural gas in the 1890’s competed well with kerosene as an illuminant in better homes in urban areas. In 1893, the Duryea Brothers built the first American automobile powered by a gasoline engine. George Westinghouse developed a way to generate and transmit alternating current cheaply and over long distances enabling the use of a cheap electric light. The poor quality crude from the early Gulf Coast Field sought and found a market as fuel oil for heavy industry, for ships and for railroad locomotives. Fuel oil in the South and West not only competed with, but eventually eliminated eastern coal in those regions as an industrial energy source. By 1909, fuel oil surpassed kerosene in terms of volume as the number one refined product of the industry.

Events were bringing about major changes in the industry’s product line up. With the huge success of Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, and the subsequent improvement in American roads, demand for gasoline increased dramatically. This was fortunate for the oil industry given the alternative lighting technology emerging at the time. Though still widely used in lamps and stoves in rural America, by the end of 1914, kerosene had been replaced by gasoline in terms of total value as the preeminent product of the oil industry. It had been a long reign. Kerosene was king for fifty-five years, and during that time the nation’s great oil industry was built on a foundation strong enough to cope with whatever fate had coming its way.


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Sketches in Crude Oil, John J. McLaurin, Harrisburg, 1898
Oil Creek, the Beginning, Neil McElwee, Oil City, 2001
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