Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Belmont Petroleum Refinery, c.1865
West River Drive north of Columbia Bridge, Philadelphia PA

Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Belmont Petroleum Refinery (1865)—sometimes called the Belmont Oil Works - was one of the first oil refineries in America and was built to capitalize on the discovery of oil wells in western Pennsylvania in 1859. This refinery operated for less than four years, and its very existence was in all probability a major argument for the extension of Fairmount Park on the west bank of the Schuylkill River.
 
The original owners of the land in 1684 were John Boelsen and Jan Schoeten (also Skutton), and a building known as the Boelsen Cottage is on the site.  Later Judge Peters of Belmont Mansion owned the property, and in 1864 six acres of the Peters Estate was sold to Joseph Newhouse of Philadelphia by Joseph Lovering, trustee for the Peters estate.  Newhouse then in 1865 formed a consortium of Philadelphia merchants who invested in the project, including Simon Arnold, Ernest Nusbaum and Isaac Bernheimer.  It is presumed that at this time construction at the site was undertaken, as indicated in the
Hexamer General Survey #18 (1866), "Belmont Petroleum Refinery, Newhouse Nusbaum & Co." 1
 
The Hexamer General Survey provides information about the buildings and facilities in the complex. At the center was a three-story rubble stone building that was a Treating House. At the southeast corner of this building was a small Engine House with an underground steam line running south to the Receiving House. A waste pipe ran from the Receiving House to the river.  There was a Stillhouse divided into ten sections and with a large steam boiler. Ten cooling tubs were north of the Stillhouse.  Near the Receiving House were six underground receiving tanks. A one-story stone office building was north of the Treating House and a Cooper Shop west of it. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad lines ran along the rear of the property so that it was possible to have a siding, or “Factories Railway” within the complex. Two Crude Oil Tanks for deliveries and a Bonded Warehouse for sales were located along the siding. Also to the rear were the Benzine House containing two tanks and the “Storehouse for Residuim.,” “Dwelling Houses for Operatives” and a “Stable” completed the complex.
 
The City of Philadelphia obtained the major part of its drinking water from the Schuylkill River in the 1860s, with pumping stations located downstream from the site of the Belmont Petroleum Refinery. Refining of petroleum had become a sizable business in 1866 when nearly two million gallons were refined in Philadelphia, at locations principally on the Schuylkill River.
2  There was a natural concern that the city water supply should be protected from contamination from industrial waste. Hexamer General Survey #62 (1866) "Park Oil Works, Jas. J. Brook." 3 —a smaller operation located at 38th and Girard, the site of the present-day eastbound Girard Avenue exit from the Schuylkill Expressway—specifically stated that oil waste was discharged into the stream passing through the property, which of course flowed down to the Schuylkill. This method of disposing of refinery waste was evident at Belmont, and the impending growth of the refining industry threatened the water supply. The Hexamer General Survey map for the Park Oil Refinery also gives a clue on the activity in the Treating House which contained “Agitator, Oil Pumps, Steam Engine & open Settling Tank.”
 
Following the establishment of Fairmount Park, the city purchased the six acre complex for $80,000 on June 8, 1870. The buildings were then used to house the administrative offices of the Fairmount Park Commission until 1974, when the Park offices were moved to Memorial Hall. Being unoccupied and with maintenance neglected, the buildings deteriorated. In 1986 and 1987, the workers housing and warehouses were demolished, and in 1989 the Treatment House and the Cooper Shop were leveled. What remains are the Boelsen Cottage, the Stable built in the 1930s by the W.P.A. on the site of the Stillhouse and Receiving House, and the foundations of some of the buildings. However, the underground industrial archeology contains a record of the 1865 process of oil refining and is probably intact. After the establishment of Fairmount Park, oil processing facilities came to be located further down the Schuylkill, where there is no danger of polluting the water supply or of impinging on park land.

1  The Hexamer General Survey covered a time period of c.1866-95. The low number of the survey (No. 18) indicates that it was made soon after 1866. [Editor's note: the date is confirmed as 1866].
2  Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and its Manufactures, p. 432.
3  The low number indicates the date is soon after 1866.


Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
When the city bought the Belmont Petroleum Refinery in 1870, after the establishment of Fairmount Park, it had only been in operation for four years. Some have speculated that the facility had been established in 1866 on land that was known to become parkland so that a profit could be made when it was sold to the city; the purchase price was $80,000. The Main Administrative Offices of the Fairmount Park Commission and the Engineering Office were housed in the Treatment House for eighty-one years, from 1893 to1974. The park offices were moved to Memorial Hall, which had been renovated in the 1960s, and the Treatment House was abandoned. The three workers’ houses, occupied by park employees, were demolished in 1986-1987. The Treatment House and the Cooper House were taken down in 1989. Today there is no indication that the oil refinery buildings were ever there. The Hexamer General Surveys list the Belmont Petroleum Refinery as No.18.