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The American Oil-Wells

The Illustrated London News, vol.41, no.1173, p.506.

November 8, 1862


In the columns of this Journal have been given from time to time accounts of the wonderful oil-springs found in the United States and in Canada, accompanied by conjectures as to how the oil is produced--a point on which geologists are not agreed. Sometimes the oil bubbles out on the top of streams, or rises freely to the surface, bursting forth occasionally in jets several feet high; but generally the oil is attained by sinking wells and boring. These oil-springs at times catch fire, with, as may be supposed, the most terrible results. One scene of the kind is thus described by the Buffalo Courier:--"During the drilling of an oil-well at Tidione, Pennsylvania, a sudden rush of oil, at the rate of seventy barrels an hour, took place, the stream ascending 40ft. above the surface of the ground. Above this mass of oil the gas or benzine rose in a cloud for 50 ft. or 60 ft. All the fires in the neighbourhood were immediately extinguished, except one 400 yards distant. The fire from this ignited the floating gas, and in a moment the whole air was in roaring flames. As soon as the gas took fire the head of the jet of oil was in a furious blaze, and, falling like water from a fountain over a space of 100 ft. in diameter, each drop of oil came down a blazing globe of boiling oil. Instantly the ground was in a flame, constantly increased and augmented by the falling oil. At once a scene of indescribable horror took place. Scores were thrown flat for a distance of 20 ft, and numbers horribly burned, rushing blazing from the hell of misfortune, shrieking and screaming in their anguish. The whole air was on fire. The jet of oil, rushing up 40 ft., was almost a pillar of livid flame, while the gas above it, to the distance of 100 ft., was flashing, exploding, dashing towards the heavens, and apparently licking the clouds with its furious tongues of heat. All this time, during this tremendous combustion, the sounds of the explosions and burnings were so tremendous and continuous that they could be compared to nothing but the rushing of a hurricane or tornado through the forest. The heat of the fire was so intense that no one could approach within 150 ft. It was the most frightful and yet the grandest pyrotechnical display ever vouchsafed to a human being. The oil burned until it was exhausted."

Mr. Alexander S. Macrae, petroleum oilbroker, of Liverpool, has obligingly furnished us with a photographic view of one of these oil regions--the Spouting Wells at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania--from which we give an Engraving at page 488. In the front of the Illustration is shown a large vat, or cistern, in which a spouting well is running the oil. Owing to the specific lightness of the petroleum it floats upon the surface of water, and any deleterious matter which may be mixed with it is at once precipitated to the bottom, whence it is readily extricated. The oil is run into good strong forty-gallon casks, and dispatched to the refineries at home, or exported to every port in Europe. Phillips's Well is estimated to yield 3000 casks per week. This time last year, writes Mr. Macrae, petroleum oil was almost unknown in Europe, since which we have imported and consumed from 150,000 to 200,000 casks, representing more than half a million sterling. The uses of this oil are many. In refining, spirits of petroleum are produced, from which a turpentine substitute is made, now being largely used in the place of spirits of turpentine. The next and the most important derivative is the petroleum oil, used for burning in paraffin-lamps. Lubricating oils and greases are likewise extracted from it, and wax also in great quantities. In the United States and Canada more than one hundred refineries have been erected.

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