Once derided as a novelty, the automobile transformed society during the second decade of the 20th century. From 1914 to 1918, the number of passenger cars in the United States rose from 1.6 million to 5.6 million. Motor trucks, farm tractors, and aircraft all increased at a comparable rate. Small wonder that this abrupt transformation intensified the demand for gasoline, lubricants and other petroleum products. This demand was particularly acute in the Western United States, where the population increased by 30 percent—three times the national average—between 1910 and 1920.
With its plentiful crude oil, state-of-art equipment, prime location, and dedicated work force, the Richmond Refinery became an increasingly valuable asset as Standard Oil Co. (California) adapted its product base to accommodate the growing popularity of the automobile and other means of transportation. By 1915, the refinery employed 1,700 workers. Now spread across 435 acres, the plant included 117 stills with a capacity of 60,000 barrels a day, adequate condensers and receiving houses, 41 agitators (which “look like giant truffles,” as one visitor put it), 182 storage tanks, an engine house capable of developing 22,000 horsepower, an acid plant that manufactured 170,000 horsepower, a grease plant, an asphaltum plant, a can factory with a capacity of 25,000 five-gallon cans a day, a barrel works, a machine shop, a tank car repair shops, and several pump houses. Interconnecting the plant was a maze of 360 miles of pipelines through which the crude and refined oils were transported. The products served markets throughout the Pacific Coast and other parts of the United States as well as points all around the globe.
To meet rising demand, the Richmond Refinery intensified its experiments in fractionating and cracking. In 1916, the refinery got an extra infusion of energy when R.W. Hanna was transferred to Richmond as assistant superintendent. Dubbed “Pony Express” because his impatience prompted him to insist on riding a horse to his appointments, Hanna soon persuaded refinery superintendent J.P. Smith to conduct experiments in vacuum distillation. After the refinery added a new battery of 24 600-barrel vacuum stills, its new distillation process became an immediate success, as the production of lubes virtually tripled from about 6 percent to as much as 18 percent a barrel of crude oil.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Richmond adapted to a new imperative. Overnight, as one article described, the refinery “looked like a fortress. Searchlights and machine guns were installed. A torpedo boat patrolled the Bay.” The article credited the refinery with playing a “vital role in World War I because of the war effort’s dependency on fuel for trucks, tanks, tankers, trains, and planes.” And historian Gerald White reported that the “high quality of the medicinal white oil developed at Richmond to take the place of Russian white oil, cut off by the war, caused an executive of E.R. Squibb & Sons to comment that the Richmond product was ‘superior to the best oil’ ever imported.”
The war’s end brought equally demanding peacetime priorities. Even before the return of the company’s tankers from war service, Richmond doubled its output of Petrolite kerosene. By 1919, Standard Oil Co. (California)’s exports of Petrolite reached an all-time record of nearly 3.6 million barrels. That same year, the Richmond and El Segundo, Calif., refineries were jointly responsible for one-fifth of the pale oils manufactured in the United States.
Richmond also became active in petrochemicals when it began manufacturing benzol, toluol and xylol, much of which was used for dynamite during World War I. Several of the petrochemical-based products were sold under the company’s Oronite label.
Recognizing the importance of experimental as well as basic product research, the company introduced a well-equipped red brick laboratory building to the Richmond facility in 1919. Development manager Ralph A. Halloran’s emphasis on centralized, systematic research helped the department gain greater prestige in support of the company’s tenet, “Research First - Then Advertising,” which ensured that a product was thoroughly tested before being introduced to the public. By 1924, the laboratory’s staff grew to 75 skilled employees, who engaged in tests and experiments, not only to develop new uses for petroleum, but to improve existing processes. A year earlier, the refinery added a separate metallurgy laboratory.
Spurred by its dedication to technological progress, the refinery constructed a new Hydro Plant for the manufacture of synthetic aviation gasoline in 1938. The Hydro Plant was the first in the Western United States to produce synthetic gasoline by combining purified hydrogen gas with a by-product of unsaturated gas formed in gasoline cracking operations. The raw material for this product originated in the refinery’s year-old polymerization plant.
Undeterred by the Great Depression, the refinery also moved ahead with other investments, constructing enlarged cracking units and a new steam plant in 1937, a duosol plant for solvent refining of its RPM lubricants in 1938, and a second research laboratory in 1939.
The refinery made a significant contribution to the economic well-being of its employees and the City of Richmond when it instituted a job-sharing program under which more than 3,000 workers were able to retain their jobs during the worst years of the Depression by sharing their work with others who were often transferred from positions that had been terminated. One historian credited Socal and other companies for helping to maintain Richmond’s economic viability during this difficult time, stating: “the worst effects of the stagnant economy were certainly blunted by the ability of Richmond’s businesses to keep their factories running and their employees working.”
An important contributor to the refinery’s success was the company’s relationship with its employees. “Personnel policy advanced farther at Richmond, the site of the largest concentration of employees, than at any other company installation, but nearly everywhere the desire was manifest to improve channels of communication and to lesson worker grievances,” wrote historian White. The company’s enlightened policy included frequent promotions, the establishment of an eight-hour work day beginning in 1917, and thorough training program for its employees and for apprentices, who often advanced to regular jobs as journeymen at the end of a four-year period.
At Richmond, safety was a major priority, as it is today. In 1915, the refinery opened a well-staffed emergency hospital, at which employees were treated for accidents and injuries and received annual physical examinations. Training played a major part in Richmond’s commitment to safety. New employees received special instruction in safety measures and practices. In 1924, the refinery began devoting a portion of each foreman’s meeting to a discussion of safety. Eleven years later, the first edition of “Safety Broadcast,” a periodic refinery newsletter, gave employees the opportunity to read about—and contribute articles on—this all-important topic. The editor expressed that its objective was “to make the ‘Broadcast’ a real live factor in achieving the ultimate in safety, efficiency and good will.”
The onset of World War II brought major changes to the refinery. Many employees left for service in the U.S. military. Close to 400 women joined the refinery workforce, many as operators in the plant’s new catalytic cracking unit. The refinery quickly shifted its focus from a peacetime economy to provide high-octane fuel and other products to meet military needs. The 1943 addition of a $10 million toluene plant enabled the refinery to supply the key ingredient for TNT. At the request of the U.S. military, the plant was later converted to production of 100-octane gasoline. The U.S. Secretaries of War and Navy and the Petroleum Administrator commended Socal’s California refineries for exceeding the production of aviation gasoline requested by the government. And in 1945, the Richmond Refinery won its fifth U.S. Army-Navy “E” award for its support of the military effort.
For the second time in the 20th century, the Richmond Refinery had given its unstinting support to supporting the nation in a time of challenge. It had also weathered the worst depression in U.S. history.