Abundance, Dependence, and Trauma at Philadelphia’s Point Breeze Petroleum Refnery: A Mirror on the History of Pennsylvania’s Oil Industry


Catastrophic fre struck the Atlantic Refning Company petroleum refnery at Point Breeze on June 11, 1879. Lightning sparked this f rst confagration at the plant, and it was devastating. The blaze destroyed twenty-fve thousand cases of petroleum stored at Atlantic’s Schuylkill River docks, as well as fve foreign ships. Six other ships were towed away before they ignited. Fire destroyed virtually every structure at the works, including the offce and the superintendent’s house, the cooperage, the tin shop (which made cans for shipping oil), and ref ning equipment. Fueled by oil that saturated the ground, the fre continued to burn long into the night. Two days later, lingering fames 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, fremen, 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 fre highlights Pennsylvania’s often traumatic relationship with the commodity that it introduced to the world in 1859.