Greetings from Oil Country

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This is an ongoing project which centers on postcard images of burning oil tanks.

When I found (circa 1991) the postcard of the Olean oil tank fire, my thoughts were that it was an incredibly interesting piece of ephemera, especially when I learned that the public was often invited to watch such disasters unfold. Spectators in their fine clothes were a complete contrast to what they witnessed – presumably, an industrial accident.

A few months later, I came across other postcards of a similar fire in Bradford, Pennsylvania.  I was intrigued and started looking for additional postcards.  To my amazement, I kept finding the same exact image over and over in different printings labeled as different cities.  And just as often it was the same burning oil tank.

As my research expanded, I contacted historians and examined old newspapers in search of the date and location of the fires, I learned about the different eras in the history of postcard production, and continued to acquire every unique postcard I could find. 

Sure there were many tank fire postcards that were the “only” card showing “that” fire, but the mystery continued. And so did my collection. I discovered different views of the same fire and numerous postcards of other burning oil tanks – many of which had crowds of spectators. 

I learned that in the age of the “oil boom,” excursion trains would take “tourists” on Sundays to visit the tank fires. There was even enough tourist interest in these events that pieces of souvenir china were produced – miniature pitchers and platters with decaled images of oil fires.

At present, I’ve discovered 23 printings of the Olean postcard with captions declaring the event to have occurred in 15 different cities in 5 different states: Wellsville, NY; Bolivar, NY; Olean, NY; Bradford, PA; Kane, PA; Warren, PA; Titusville, PA; Oil City, PA; Clarion, PA; Franklin, PA; Findlay, OH; Lima, OH; Tulsa, OK; Muskogee, OK; and Beaumont, TX. Postmarked dates have ranged from 1904 to 1937

My favorite card is this realphoto from the Bowling Green, Ohio, Daily Sentinel of June 20, 1975, of the North Baltimore, Ohio, tank fire, simply because it is the only card I have found of that event.

My investigation into these postcards has raised many questions about the relationships between ephemera, history, and authenticity.  The postcard is often preserved and presented as an item of history – whether in private collections, published in books or in institutional inventories.  However, it appears that captioned information may be suspect.  What is particularly striking about this image and this instance of misrepresentation is its range: from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, and its transformation from a specific scene with specific people to a generic view representing nearly any city’s oil tank fire.


Burning Oil Tank, Olean, N.Y., as seen above is postmarked July 16, 1907 in Olean, N.Y.  It has an undivided back and has a publisher’s citation: No. 3281 The Rochester News Company, Rochester, N.Y. This may be the first of its genre.

Another spectacular oil tank fire happened in Port Arthur, Texas on September 13, 1902.

Nine Oil Tanks on Fire near Port Arthur, Texas

And, in Tiona, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1909, there was an enormous explosion that resulted in a fire reported in the Elmira, New York, Star-Gazette.

Tiona, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1909, a fire reported in the Elmira, New York, Star-Gazette.
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A stock image as this held no copyright. Scenes as the oil fire circulated widely. With no expense to a publisher future use found the picture being recycled, suited for the geography of the latest blow up.
Convenient and effective there were few who knew better.

A scary time in the oil industry… My wife had one grandfather in Duke Center, PA that drilled oil wells starting in the 1930s and another grandfather that tended the oil wells in “Haymaker Holler” near Bradford, PA.

Having lived on the Texas Gulf Coast for a large portion of my life and having experienced many of these, I can say I wonder why anyone would rush to stand anywhere nearby.

Your article is interesting and brings up a fascinating question regarding the authenticity of “historic” photos.

Similarly, I’ve seen postcards captioned “Sand in my shoes” from places as diverse as Cape Cod and Florida, yet all featuring the same beach scene. This article describes the “same sky” cards printed by Dexter Press:

I collect Lima, OH cards and have 10 different tank fire cards, some are variants. It is interesting that people would visit these events as if a fancy event. Enjoyed your article very much!

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