This Week in Petroleum History – March 18 to March 24

March 18, 1937 – Odorless Natural Gas Explosion devastates East Texas School
With just minutes left in the school day – and more than 700 students and teachers inside the building – a natural gas explosion destroys the New London High School in Rusk County, Texas.
Odorless natural gas has leaked into the basement and ignited – with a force felt even four miles away. Roughnecks rush in from the nearby East Texas oilfield to save their children.
Despite rescue efforts, 298 people are killed (dozens more later die of injuries). The cause of the school explosion is found to be an electric wood-shop saw that sparked unscented gas that had pooled beneath and in the walls of the school.


As a result of this disaster, Texas and other states soon pass laws requiring that natural gas be mixed with a malodorant to give early warning of a gas leak.

March 20, 1919 – American Petroleum Institute founded
Founded in New York City, the American Petroleum Institute relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1929. It today maintains standards and recommended practices to promote the use of safe equipment and proven engineering practices – and has produced more than 600 technical standards covering all aspects of the oil and natural gas industry.

March 20, 1973 – Pennsylvania Boom Town listed in Historic Registry
Managed by the Drake Well Museum, the Pithole Visitors Center includes a diorama of the vanished boomtown.
The former oil boom town of Pithole, Pennsylvania, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Discovered in January 1865, the Pithole Creek field creates a massive – although short lived – oil boom town for the young petroleum industry, which began in nearby Titusville in 1859.
Pithole’s first well produced a 250-barrel-a-day gusher. As the news spread through Venango County, “everyone came to the Pithole area to try their luck,” notes one historian.

March 24, 1989 – Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Field studies continue to examine the effects of the Exxon supertanker’s disastrous grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time, on March 23, 1989,” begins a 1990 account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission.


“Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”