The Esso Oil Storage Project

Slide: 1

On July 1st, 1953, a pilot project to store fuel oil in an abandoned slate quarry in Wind Gap, PA., was announced by two representatives of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which was also known as Esso Oil. The two proclamations were simultaneously made in Allentown, PA. and New York City, NY.

A brochure was prepared by Esso the following year. This presentation relies on that brochure which was first shown to me by Donald Jones of Bangor.

Slide: 2

Esso manufactured products in six states located in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and Louisiana. They marketed products in 18 other states under the trade names of "Esso", "Enco", "Humble", and others.

Slide: 3

The Esso company was formed in 1911 when Standard Oil, founded by John D. Rockefeller and others in 1870, was dissolved by court order into 34 separate companies. This breakup was done under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

The reason for splitting the company was the monopoly created by Standard Oil prior to 1911. For example, in 1904, when the lawsuit began, the company controlled 91% of oil production and 85% of final sales in the United States.

The Supreme Court ruled the company violated the Sherman act and Esso was born.

Slide: 4

The announcement made in 1953 revealed that in Sweden, fuel oil was stored underground near the coast for use in ships. Esso engineers decided it could work here as well and undertook the first project of its kind in the United States using the abandoned Alpha quarry in Wind Gap.

Esso bought or had under option between 9 and 11 quarries in Plainsfield, Bushkill, Washington and Lehigh townships, as well as Wind Gap. At least six of the quarries were to be used for oil storage; three were to be used as the water reservoirs.

The total potential capacity of the six quarries was estimated to be 336 million gallons. In 1954, this would heat 225 thousand average homes, or a city the size of Washington, D.C.

The entire quarry project was part of a storage expansion initiative undertaken by Esso. They were spending 25 million dollars to build oil storage facilities.

Slide: 5

In the pilot phase of this project only two of the nine quarries were to be developed, the Alpha and Acme quarries. If everything went well, the additional holdings would be brought online as needed.

Both the Alpha and Acme quarries were purchased from the Colonial Slate Company, which was owned by the Spry Brothers. Colonial bought the quarries from Alpha Slate Company in 1917.

The Colonial Slate Company ceased operations sometime after 1936.

Slide: 6

The reason Esso wanted to find alternate storage facilities was because of the seasonal nature of the demand and production of heating oil. Esso couldn't maintain refineries just to make heating oil. If it were to do this, the refineries would stand idle during most of the year. Each refinery had to make multiple products and store the surplus.

To stockpile enough fuel oil to meet the growing demands during the winter meant having to build additional storage facilities. Two of the main attractions of using the quarry were the fact that Esso didn't have to build steel tanks and that the acreage needed for storing oil in a quarry was far less than using above-ground facilities.

If Esso stored the amount of oil projected for this project above-ground, the facility would cover an area of approximately 14 acres. Using the two quarries, the storage area would only require 5 acres.

Slide: 7

The principle of quarry storage is simple. The oil level in the quarry would always be kept at least 10 feet below the water table. You can see the water table shown by the dotted line in the picture. As a result, the water pressure from the water table will always be higher than the pressure of the oil in the quarry. This means that any seepage would be from the water table into the quarry.

Also, since water is heavier than oil, it would settle to the bottom, sealing the quarry from any oil leakage.

As you can see in this diagram, two quarries were needed. Oil was stored in Alpha, while the water used to maintain the level and pressure within the oil quarry was stored in Acme.

Because the amount of oil in the Alpha quarry would vary as the refinery added or removed the fuel, the overall level was maintained using water from the Acme quarry. When oil was added to Alpha, water would be removed from the bottom and stored in Acme. Then when oil was later removed from Alpha, water would be pumped back in, thereby keeping the level constant.

Slide: 8

The fuel oil stored in the quarry was pumped from the Linden, N.J. Bayway refinery through a 65-mile pipeline to Wind Gap. About 250 thousand gallons a day would be dumped in the quarry during the summer manufacturing season. Oil would be pumped back through the same pipeline to Linden at a rate of 400 thousand gallons a day during the winter. From the refinery, the oil would be sent to various distribution points for delivery to homes and businesses.

Fuel oil was not distributed from the quarry itself.

Slide: 9

The pipeline used for this project existed before this scheme occurred to Esso. It ran 1500 feet from the quarry, which made it one of the reasons Wind Gap was chosen for this project.

This pipeline was called the Tidewater Line, according to Frank Zusi, Esso project engineer. It belonged to one of the oldest existing pipeline systems in the United States.

The Tidewater pipeline was the first oil pipeline laid across the Alleghenies. During construction, the steel pipe was drawn by horse and wagon across the mountains and the line itself was hand-dug.

It was built in 1878 by the Tidewater Pipe Co., a direct competitor to Standard Oil. It ran from the Titusville, PA., oilfields to the rail yards at Williamsport, PA. In 1883, Rockefeller purchased a third of the Tidewater company, which brought the pipeline under his control.

Slide: 10

David Lessig, who now owns the Alpha and Acme quarries, stated that the pipeline used by Esso in the Wind Gap quarry started in Linden N.J., went to Changewater, N.J., where it was pumped over the mountains in Warren County. It then ran across the Delaware river, up to the Ackermanville, PA. area, then over to Wind Gap, PA. From there it went to Lehighton, PA. and beyond. The total length of the Tidewater line might look as shown here, although it certainly grew beyond this in later years.

Slide: 11

Adapting the quarry to an oil storage facility was relatively straight-forward. The crews first had to install the pumping equipment, power transformers, and a branch to the Tidewater pipeline.

They also constructed a steel tank that would hold 210 thousand gallons. It was installed to check the accuracy of the meters that recorded the oil flow. It would also be used later when the quarry was abandoned. The last bit of oil and water pumped from the quarry was stored here to separate. The oil was then pumped to the refinery and the water returned to the holes.

This picture shows the two valves that controlled the flow of oil to either the steel storage tank or the quarry itself. This tank is the original one built by Esso. The pipes on the right were used as a clean-out of the pipeline.

Landscaping was done to remove all brush and trees from the site. The loose slate was removed and the perimeter was graded. An 8-foot steel fence was erected.

Slide: 12

Lastly, a metal roof had to be built to cover the oil-filled quarry. This was the most difficult engineering feat of the project. The quarry opening was 56 thousand square feet and was irregularly shaped. 240 steel rectangles were created. Each rectangle was 32 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide, and 1 foot deep. Each weighed approximately 2 3/4 tons.

All of these sheets were welded together into a solid roof. Specially shaped sections were created to tie the main roof into the irregular walls of the quarry. Aprons were then attached to the quarry walls above the roof to cover any openings along the sides. This was to prevent contaminants, animals, and direct sunlight from falling into the oil. It also prevented evaporation.

Slide: 13

With any project like this one, the question of pollution, fire hazards, and odors arises. Esso addressed these questions in their educational/promotional brochure by flatly denying any of these concerns and then providing some rationale.

Odors would not occur, Esso stated, because 1.) heating oil does not have a strong odor, and 2.) the floating roof would prevent evaporation from occurring and vapors from leaking.

Fires would not be a problem, Esso claimed, because 1.) the high flash point of heating oil would tend to discourage fires from casual sources; 2.) the level of oil would always be at least 40 feet below ground level, the sides of the container were made of slate, and the entire quarry would be covered by a steel roof. This is not an environment that would encourage fires; 3.) Esso said petroleum fires are considered "safe". It means no cinders, sparks, or embers are created by oil fires to be carried by the wind. However, Esso failed to mention the extreme toxicity of the smoke if the quarry were to catch on fire.

Stream pollution could not occur, Esso reassured, because of the physics of water pressure, as already described. In addition, oil baffles were placed where water was transferred between the Acme and Alpha quarries and where the Acme quarry empties into a stream.

Slide: 14

Additional benefits to using the quarry, according to Esso, were: 1.) using a quarry would only require a 10th of the steel a traditional above-ground tank would need. Having recently emerged from WWII, there was an awareness of steel shortages; 2.) damage from storms or bombings would be negligible, unlike the usual steel tanks; 3.) maintenance costs would be far less than those associated with tanks; 4.) quarries were usually located in less-congested areas. By moving the storage of fuels out of the highly-congested port areas, more space could be created at the shipping ports for crucial operations, including staging areas for military supplies.

Slide: 15

There were approximately twenty firms from Pennsylvania that were involved in the construction and operation of the project. Esso wrote that 90% of the labor involved was recruited locally.

Some of the Slate Belt firms were:

Charles L. Shiner, of Nazareth (legal work).
Bangor Glass Works
Bangor Lumber Company
J. H. Beers Excavating Company, Bangor
C. Bieler, Pen Argyl
Blue Mountain Consolidated Water Company, Ross Common
Blue Mountain Valley Service Company, Pen Argyl
Portland Sand & Gravel, Portland
Wind Gap Lumber Company

In addition, two Wind Gap residents, Mario Giovanni, and Joseph Pacovich were managers during the operation of the facility.

Slide: 16

These two pictures show the quarry in operation. The top photo is the Acme quarry. You can see a steel pier which held a pipe out over the water and directed the flow into the oil skimmer. The bottom photo is the Alpha quarry.

As this was a pilot operation in the United States, Esso was clear that they were going to take a "wait-and-see" attitude. Their time frame was 3-5 years before they would either expand the operation to the other quarries or discontinue the project.

On August 4th, 1955, a year after it began, the Bangor Daily News headline read, "Oil Storage in Quarry is Tremendous Success". The company planned to store seven times as much oil in 1956 as they did in 1955.

Esso initially had a three year lease to the pipeline from the Tidewater Oil Company. They renewed it at least one time. The idea to build their own pipeline next to the Tidewater was also discussed but never implemented.

Slide: 17

The project only lasted until 1968. During that summer the last of the oil was removed from the quarry and most of the equipment was evacuated. I could not find the official word on why the project was aborted. Multiple calls to ExxonMobil, the successor to Esso, were not returned after being promised someone would respond.

As I made other inquiries, two versions emerged. The first version was that the project was abandoned when oil was found leaking into other quarries. The second version is that the project simply wasn't cost-effective any more.

The water left in the quarry when Esso ended the operation was very low in oxygen. A Dr. Tremble from Lehigh University supervised the re-oxygenation process. The water was pumped above the surface in a plume which David Lessig said must have lasted 2 years.

In 1979, the pipeline was tested and a major breach was found near the Delaware River, causing it to be abandoned for oil transport. It now houses optical cable.

Slide: 18

In 1976, the Lessigs bought the property from Exxon. They distributed oil for a few years, then switched to storing propane at the site.

I mentioned earlier that the Tidewater pipeline had a breach in 1979. This pipeline had nothing to do with the Lessigs, as they did not own it.

The Lessigs want to develop the property for industrial uses. In order to do this, they had an environmental site assessment performed on the quarry, including samples of the sediment at the bottom. David Lessig said the water exceeds the state's safe-water measurements.

Slide: 19

This is how Alpha quarry looks today. All traces of the former project are gone.

Slide: 20

This is how Acme quarry looks today. You can see the spillway at the uppermost point of the quarry. Below it on the left, and center-left, are the only remains of the project within the quarry. David Lessig said the steel frame to the right of the dock was a skimmer used to hold any oil-laden water that came over from Alpha.

Also on the top right of the quarry is a recent beaver dam. David Lessig said the quarries are full of fish; bass in one, and trout in the other.

If there was a negative environmental impact from this project, it is not well-known.

Slide: 21

For a brief span of time, Wind Gap was at the leading edge of oil technology. This project promised great things for the abandoned holes but the riches never appeared.

The Esso project is just another footnote in Slate Belt History. This ends the presentation.

I want to thank Donald Jones, David Lessig, the Bangor Library, and my wife, Anna Maria Caldara for all their support.

Slide: 22

I used images and information from the following sources:

Educational/promotional brochure printed by Esso and loaned to me by Donald Jones.

Time Magazine had an article about the project in the Monday, Sep. 20, 1954 edition. URL:,9171,820287,00.html

The Baytown Briefs newsletter from Nov. 9, 1956 mentioned the project. URL:

I used the image of the Bayway Refinery from the Tremley Point Industrial History website at

I used the image of the horse-drawn pipes from the Explore PA History website. URL:

Information about the Tidewater pipeline was gleaned from the Explore PA History and the Scripophily website. URLs:

Information about Standard Oil and Esso was found at Wikipedia. URLs: