Even Pickaxes Couldn't Stop The Nation's First Oil Pipeline The debate over Keystone XL is nothing compared to the battle over the nation's first commercial oil pipeline. It transformed how energy was transported forever — but not without sabotage and threats.
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Even Pickaxes Couldn't Stop The Nation's First Oil Pipeline

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Even Pickaxes Couldn't Stop The Nation's First Oil Pipeline

Even Pickaxes Couldn't Stop The Nation's First Oil Pipeline

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a battle that makes the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline look tame by comparison. You have to go back 150 years - that's when Samuel Van Syckel built an oil pipeline across the rugged terrain of Northwestern Pennsylvania. It transformed how oil is transported and it changed the modern world. NPR's Uri Berliner has the rest of this story.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: The place where all this happened is called Pithole. In January 1865, Pithole was really nowhere, just a patch of wilderness in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Then drillers struck gushers at three wells and everything changed.

SUE BATES: By September, it was estimated that 15,000 people had moved here.

BERLINER: That's Sue Bates, the curator of the nearby Drake Well Museum. We're walking the snowy grounds of what used to be Pithole City.

BATES: Right over there is with the Methodist Church used to be and on the other side of that was a Presbyterian Church.

BERLINER: But there was more to Pithole than religious devotion.

BATES: There were hotels, a jewelry store, drugstores, houses of ill repute, lots of saloons, parlor dens of all sorts - billiard parlor dens - that sort of thing.

BERLINER: Van Syckel had come to the region as an oil buyer, a middleman. Like everyone else, he was there to make his fortune, but there was a big obstacle to the Pithole boom.

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Once people were there, they discovered it was one thing to bring oil out of the ground, but it was an entirely different thing to try and get it to market.

BERLINER: Christopher Jones is a historian at Arizona State University.

JONES: The main way oil was transported during the first several years of the industry was by teamsters.

BERLINER: Teamsters - this was long before the labor union by the same name.

JONES: These were men driving wagons pulled by horses and they would collect the oil in large barrels - 300-pound barrels of oil - that they would load up on their wagons and drag them over the various roads.

BATES: Roads filled with up to 24 inches of mud.

BERLINER: The work was incredibly tough, but the teamsters made a pay.

BATES: They definitely had a monopoly on it. Oil was selling for maybe $5 a barrel, three of which went to the teamsters.

BERLINER: So the cost of moving the oil was as much or more than the oil itself. Samuel Van Syckel saw an opportunity.

JONES: He had a mechanical aptitude and a vision for new ways of doing things that exceeded most of the other people who went there.

BERLINER: By the summer of 1865, he raises $100,000 from a bank and within five short weeks he...

JONES: Builds the world's first pipeline.

BERLINER: Or, to be more exact, the first oil pipeline that...

BATES: Didn't leak like a sieve.

BERLINER: Van Syckel's pipeline was wrought iron and two inches in diameter - tiny by today's standards - but it was an engineering marvel. One challenge was preventing ruptures.

JONES: Making sure that the joints were securely enough welded that even with the pressure to push the oil through the pipelines that that pressure didn't split the pipes apart and ruin the pipeline.

BERLINER: Another challenge - the topography along the five-and-a-half mile route.

BATES: You can see the steep hills that it had to go over, which is why they were steam pumps to help push the oil up over the hills. Then it could gravity feed down the next and then steam pump pushed back up the next hill all the way to Miller Farm to the railroad.

BERLINER: The engineering worked fine, but remember the teamsters - those rugged guys who hauled wooden barrels of oil with teams of horses. They weren't too happy with Van Syckel's pipeline.

JONES: And so as soon as the pipeline was completed, several of the teamsters in the middle of the night went to various sections of the five-mile pipeline and ripped it out of the ground and pulled the pipe apart so it stopped working.

BATES: They dug it up. They took pickaxes and horses and chains and pulled the pipe apart.

BERLINER: There were threats and fistfights, but Van Syckel rebuilt his pipeline, and this time he enlisted the sheriff and his own security team.

JONES: By hiring his own armed force to patrol the line, he ended up defeating the teamsters, and they stopped trying to sabotage his line.

BERLINER: And just like that, a new technology would make an entire line of work obsolete.

BATES: It's estimated that 500 teamsters were put out of business in five weeks.

BERLINER: Bates says within a couple of years, hundreds of pipelines crisscrossed Western Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the American oil industry.

BATES: Wherever there was a big oil strike, there would be a pipeline to transport the oil to a railroad.

BERLINER: And what about Samuel Van Syckel? Jones says after making some unwise bets, he lost his pipeline to the bank. Later, the ingenious Van Syckel develops some new methods of refining oil. But within a decade someone else would emerge to dominate refining, pipelines, rail shipments, almost the entire oil industry. His name was John D. Rockefeller. Uri Berliner, NPR News.

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