Titusville, PA Refinery Fire, Nov 1870

The Refinery Fires

The origin of the fire which occurred yesterdaymorning at the Stewart & Van Syckels refinery, remains a matter of conjecture. It appears that about fifteen minutes before one o'clock the pump was started, and the watchman entered the treating house to ascertain that everything was all right. This treating house stood a few feet from the pumping house; it was built of brick, and its dimensions were about 30 feet square, and three stories high. The vapor arising from the manipulation of the distillate, generally filled the entire building, and it would be fatal to any man to enter with a light. A rumor prevailed yesterday, that the watchman entered upon this occasion, with a lighted lantern, and another that he placed his lantern outside the door when he entered. The absurdity of this statement becomes still more apparent, when it is known that the fire did not commence until 1 minutes after he had left.

The leaden treating tank contained about 750 barrels of refined oil, and a bright flash over the cupola, indicated that the internal vapor had ignited. there are so many apparently mysterious causes of fire, that under the circumstances it would be futile to attempt an explanation. The proprietors, however, exonerate the watchman from all the blame. Its origin has been variously attributed to spontaneous combustion, or a spark from some neighboring chimney, or to the fact that the vapor being heavier than air and the night still, the former found its way either to the pumping house, or was wafted down to the locomotive head-lights stationed in the yard twenty feet distant. All of these theories seem unsatisfactory, yet some one of them may be correct.

About half past one o'clock the confined gas from the burning oil exploded, the building fell, and the oil rapidly flowed over the groung, and through the gutters, in a southeasterly direction. It first came in contact with the adjoining 1,000 barrel iron tank to the east, which contained 100 barrels of refined oil, and almost simultaneously with two wooden tanks, encased in brick, to the south. The nearest one contained 200 barrels benzine, and the other 250 barrels crude oil. The refined oil was burned, but the iron tank remained, and the other two tanks were totally consumed with their contents. Meanwhile the fire communicated to a shanty still further south, occupied by HELEN MCCOVEY, who lived there solitary and alone on sufference. She lost everything. An adjoining shanty, belonging to A.K. MURRAY and CO., and occupied by MRS. MALONEY and her three children, was at the same time destroyed. This family also lived there on sufference, and saved nothing but themselves.

In a few minutes the treating house fell, three wooden tanks standing about 100 feet to the southeast, and belonging to the MURRAY & CO., caught fire from the running oil. The first two contained little or nothing, their capacity was 360 and 400 barrels respectively. The third was a 700 barrel tank, and contained 550 bbls crude. All three were a total loss. The large Kimogene still belonging to the refinery, contained a small quantity of crude oil, which was doubtless vaporized by the heat. About 2 1/2 o'clock one end of the still blew out, owing to the fire passing up an iron pipe which communicated with the interior. The concussion loosened some of the bricks in the pump room, but did no further damage to the refinery.

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