"Abundance, Dependence, and Trauma at Philadelphia's Point Breeze Petroleum Refinery"

A Mirror on the History of Pennsylvania's Oil Industry

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Catastrophic fire struck the Atlantic Refining Company petroleum refinery at Point Breeze on June 11, 1879. Lightning sparked this first conflagration at the plant, and it was devastating. The blaze destroyed twenty-five thousand cases of petroleum stored at Atlantic’s Schuylkill River docks, as well as five foreign ships. Six other ships were towed away before they ignited. Fire destroyed virtually every structure at the works, including the office and the superintendent’s house, the cooperage, the tin shop (which made cans for shipping oil), and refining equipment. Fueled by oil that saturated the ground, the fire continued to burn long into the night. Two days later, lingering flames from one of the burning ships at the wharf spread under increasing winds to more of the oil company’s waterfront property. In total, about a half mile of Philadelphia’s waterfront was destroyed. Amazingly, firemen, sailors, workmen, and nearby residents escaped injury, but an estimated two thousand men were thrown out of employment, most sailors lost all their belongings, and some houses were destroyed. Rather than marking an exception, however, this fire highlights Pennsylvania’s often traumatic relationship with the commodity that it introduced to the world in 1859.


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  • History of petroleum refinery on the Lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia's Point Breeze Community.
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  • A Mirror on the History of Pennsylvania's Oil Industry
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