What are those things in the cornfields?
See Illinois (unpublished)
Petroleum was first coaxed out of the ground of Champaign County, but the Illinois oil business—yes, it has one—began in earnest in the 15 or so counties bordered by the Indiana border in what some call eastern Illinois and some call southern Illinois. However, oil is found in most of the counties of the state’s southern half.
These notes are taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois and history. (See Publications for more about that project.)
According to the Illinois State Geological Society, Illinois’s oil industry began in Egypt in the 1860s. Several wells drilled into Clark County produced enough oil for the name "Oilfield” to be given to a small town between Westfield and Casey. These early wells were scarcely more than holes in the ground. By 1900, new ways to encase wells from leakage improved output; one well of the era produced a whopping 35 barrels a day. From 1904 to 1910, numerous shallow oil and gas reservoirs were across southeastern Illinois; by the end of 1906, wells stood in a line some fifty miles long from western Clark County to northwestern Lawrence County. In 1913 prospectors found an oil pool near Carlyle that produced for several years, as did the Sandoval pool, in Marion County.
Such fields pushed Illinois into third place in national production behind California and Oklahoma. Yet by 1913 the older fields in Clark, Cumberland, Edgar, Crawford, and Lawrence counties had already been pretty much pumped dry. The state's total oil production dropped to less than 4.5 million barrels. Boom towns such as Martinsville, in the words of the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois, “lapsed into the slow and quiet existence of a country town.”
However, Illinois oil production, like the horse-head pumps that one sees from the highways of southern Illinois, proved to be an up-and-down affair. Thought dead, the industry was revived in the late 1930s. A new technology called seismic exploration allowed geologists to find oil-bearing structures that had been hidden from older methods. Some of Illinois’s largest oil fields—in area and volume of oil produced—were uncorked in this period. These include the Clay City Field, which covers parts of Clay, Richland, and Jasper counties, and the Louden Field in Fayette County. Locals in White County told credulous visitors they could walk the eight miles between Crossville and Grayville by stepping from rig to rig. The Lake Centralia field was the largest in the U.S. by 1940, producing 250 million cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 300,000 barrels of oil per day; in 1939, 93 million barrels of oil were pumped from Marion County alone. For a few years Illinoisans could look Texans in the eye.
No oil boom is complete without boom towns. Carmi and neighboring towns doubled in population within two years after new oil was discovered in that area in 1939. The discovery in the 1930s of fields near Salem briefly energized Marion County towns like Pakota and St. Elmo.
A FWP author visited St. Elmo when the boom was near its peak and made this report:
St. Elmo has shaken off-its leisurely ways, and its streets are now lively with lumbering oil trucks, leather-booted oil men, and optimistic predictions concerning oil. The people have taken on the carefree confidence of a community whose future is assured. Backslappings and hearty laughs are the order of the day; oil is the magic word—the touchstone of good times.
Salem found itself hosting men drawn from across the mid-continent by wages of $5.50 a day. Local farmers got rich selling mineral rights instead of corn, there were long lines at restaurants rather than at soup kitchens, and demand for housing was such that lodgers had to make do with empty sheds, chicken houses, makeshift tents and "lean-tos."
Many of the newcomers were veteran wildcatters from Texas and Oklahoma who were as experienced at raising hell as they were in drilling for oil. “None of the oil field workers qualified as gentle types,” notes historian Donald Tingley of those days. “As the oil boom hit, rough characters, gamblers, sharpers, and speculators of almost every kind poured into Casey, Robinson, Bridgeport, and Lawrenceville.”
Its oil meant that Robinson cold afford luxuries that other Illinois provincial towns its size could only dream of. The local Quail Creek Country Club Resort golf course, for example, was good enough to serve as a venue for a PGA tour event, the Robinson Open, held from 1966 through 1974; Robinson is the smallest town ever to host such a tournament.
As these new fields petered out, the Illinois petroleum industry found ways to squeeze more oil from fields already drilled. New technologies developed in the 1950s enabled producers to inject fluid into oil-bearing rocks under pressure, which opened fractures that allowed oil to flow more easily into the well. Using such secondary recovery methods, Illinois' total oil production went back up again, briefly, peaking in 1956 at more than 82 million barrels.
Illinois has been slipping down the production list ever since. High prices in the post-OPEC 1970s made it worth the cost to drill wells of only modest output, but oil that in early 1980s brought $55 a barrel by the end of the 1990s was worth only $9, and many wells have been closed. In 2000 Illinois still had more than 20,000 producing oil wells, most of them in southern Illinois, but they yielded only about 12 million barrels, or less than 1 percent of U.S. crude oil production that year; in the twenty years since, output has stabilized to around nine million barrels a year.
A place of refinement
While the region no longer pumps much crude, a lot of refining is still done in southern Illinois. Oil was discovered near the St. Clair County town of Dupo in 1928, for example, and in the excitement wells were sunk even in front yards. After only a few years they made better lawn ornaments than wells; in the 1930s the total output of the whole field was a scant 200 barrels a day.
Happily, the nation’s inland water system and major gas and oil pipelines converge in Metro East, making it a natural place to process and distribute petroleum from other places. In 1914, Standard Oil of Indiana built a refinery in Wood River; the Shell Oil Co. opened a similar facility in nearby Roxana in 1918 that was supplied by a pipeline that feeds it with Oklahoma crude. In 1999 the Shell Oil Co. Refinery became the Wood River Refining plant, owned by a joint venture of Shell Oil Products and Texaco Inc. It can process 274,000 barrels of crude oil daily and in terms of output is Shell's largest refinery.
Wood River came to life when the Standard oil Company bought 600-acres of truck farms in 1908 and planted an oil refinery there. The (by then Amoco) refinery closed in the early 1990s, reducing the assessed value of its host city by more than $20 million; today the biggest employer in Wood River is Wal-Mart; the town’s top eight employers include a law firm, an auto dealership,a social service agency, and local school systems.
The old Lincoln Oil and Refining plant on the south side of Robinson, derelict by 1924, was bought by another firm and upgraded; today it is owned by Marathon Oil Company refinery and employs nearly 600. Oil refining operations began in Lawrenceville in the late 1800s and refining remained the town’s principal industry for decades. The first paraffin-free oil was produced in 1924 at the Indian Refining Company plant next to the Embarras River on the southern edge of Lawrenceville. Indian Refining developed a world-famous brand of lubricating oil (Havoline) but began to struggle in the 1920s. Successive owners could not restore it to profitability and the facility shut down in 1995.
The story of Lawrenceville is the story of every Illinois oil town. Lawrenceville’s population of 5,900 in 1970 had slipped to not quite 4,400 in 2010. Today’s major employers in Lawrenceville are an auto parts store, an insurance company, hospitals, retirement homes, supermarkets, and—inevitably in southern Illinois—a state prison. The town is not derelict, but its brawny past seems well past it now. The old refinery site is contaminated by oily sludges, acidic clays used as filtering medium, catalyst waste, and tar and asphalt wastes that will make redeveloping the site expensive. Oil remains a good thing—if you own an oil well. ●