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"Struck Ile"; or the Scotch Petrolia No.II

 

Two weeks ago we pointed out, in a very cursory manner, the extent, the importance, and prospects of the Paraffin Oil Trade in Scotland; and we now resume the subject, in order to enter into more ample details regarding the manufacture of this comparatively new article of commerce. The oil producing shale, as we have stated, is found in some form or other in all the coal and ironstone fields in Scotland; but so far as explorations have yet been made, it seems to be most productive in the district lying between Coatbridge and the Firth of Forth.

This is our Pennsylvania, and the little village of Broxburn, on the Bathgate and Edinburgh railway, is destined in a short time to become our Oil city and capital of Paraffin. Let the reader, then, accompany us while we make a short excursion into this land, rich with treasures which a few years ago nobody conceived or dreamed of. We start from Glasgow and rush out to Coatbridge in the early morning, where we catch the train for Bathgate on the Monklands line, and during a slow ride of more than an hour's duration watch the gleams of burning ironstone and the numerous coalpits seen dimly on every side in the dusk of the morning. At Bathgate we pass onto the Edinburgh line, and have scarcely glanced at the morning papers, when the railway porter shouts "Bro-ax-burn," and we get out at a miserable looking station, though the number of greasy barrels about it indicate that fortune has looked in on the dilapidated box.

On inquiring at the ticket-lifter the nearest way to the Oil Works, he points out to us an old country road at the back of the station loading to the village; and into this we go plunge half to the knees in mud. The road is quite innocent of Macadam, and has in consequence been fearfully cut up by the recent traffic which it has had to bear since the shale fields were opened. A quarter of an hour's walk through a stagnant river of "glaur," on which are occasionally to be seen in the less muddy pools streaks of oil exhibiting the exquisite colours of the Aniline dyes, brings us to Broxburn, which lies on each side of the great turnpike between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The village before the shale era must have been a quiet, sleepy place – too far removed from any large town to feel its influence, and totally unacquainted with those brisk energies which are now operating in great force round about it. But Broxburn has awakened from its dull repose, and finds itself famous. The little place is beginning to stretch its limbs in every direction, the new roads are breaking into it from all points of the compass. It has already got some brand new buildings, and we believe the Roman Catholics, with that wise foresight for the benefit of their brethren which everywhere characterises them, are looking out for a site on which to build a handsome chapel.

But the village with all its hurry is unable to accommodate itself to the increasing trade of the locality. Workmen are pouring into it in increasing numbers every week, and there is therefore little wonder that Broxburn should be sadly put about to lodge and house the flood of new incomers. We are told that in some very small houses – we hardly like to state how small – forty persons are hurdled together, and eat, sleep, and enjoy themselves in some unaccountable manner. An old farm steading at the west end of the village has been hurriedly extemporised into a miners square, and byres, barns, and other outhouses are now filled with an overflowing population. On looking round through the dull rainy atmosphere we find the landscape pleasant though somewhat flat, and the level fields apparently in an excellent state of cultivation.

The aesthetic character of the village and surrounding country is, however, sadly broken in upon by the unsightly heaps of rubbish that dot it here and there around the pits, and by the flaring brick buildings where the paraffine oil is distilled. Here and there you observe a slander from tube projecting like a diminutive steamboat funnel above these red buildings, and at the top there streams upon the breeze a long rugged pennant of flames which has a singular appearance during the day and must have rather a striking effect at night. This beautiful burning flag, which surmounts the retorts, is the simple method in which the gas from the shale is disposed or – a process which we shall explain in a little.

We search out the house of Mr Bell, the lessee of the shale lying around about Broxburn to the extent of some five thousand square acres, and are fortunate in finding him at home. He is willing to become our clearone for the day, and so, in company with him and his intelligent manager, we start on the work of exploration.

On our way to the shale pits we pass a row of half–brick and half-wooden houses which are in course of erection for Mr Bell's workmen. They are built upon an entirely novel plan and merit a passing observation. The front is run up with overlapping wooden deals fixed to wooden standards, but so arranged that when more time is obtained the boards can be taken down and brick substituted. The row consists of a house of two apartments and a large room, or both alternately. In the home the married man with his family will reside – the wife taking upon herself the task of supplying the culinary wants of the inhabitants of the contiguous bothy, which will afford sleeping accommodation for sixteen grown up persons. The row is constructed in this fashion to meet the great demands which exist for lodgings, but it has been so planned by the pushing proprietor that, when houses have become more plentiful the bothy can easily be transformed into a comfortable dwelling of two apartments.

Passing on through new made roads, or rather ruts cut out of green fields by cart-wheels, we arrive at one of these brick buildings to which we have already referred. Here there are above a hundred retorts where the crude oil is extracted from the shale just as its taken from the mine. Mr Bell has erected a portion of his retorts on the top of a little eminence, where the shale crops out nearly to the surface. He has not, consequently, been put to the expense of sinking a pit in this locality, but having turned off the soil to the depth of a few feet he quarries the bituminous substance with the greatest ease. A considerable number of workmen are engaged with large quarrier's picks and crowbars in turning over the shale, which comes away in large thin flakes like huge slates. Men are busy filling the loose mineral into tubs capable of containing about half a ton, and these are drawn up a steep incline from the bottom of the "open cast" by a stationary engine at the top, after which there contents are either emptied into the retorts or sent off to other works.

At the low side of the shale quarry, where the metals "dip" too much to allow of their being worked in this easy fashion. Mr. Bell has driven a mine; and having supplied ourselves with large oil lamps , we venture into the dark subterraneous passage. In a few minutes we catch the last glimmer of daylight from the mouth of the mine, and can only faintly discover its jagged sides by the aid of our blazing lamps, which, to our unaccustomed eyes, serve only to make "darkness visible." At the end of the level – on which the wooden hutches are pulled to the mouth by horses – we come to the workings, where several colliers, or shalers, as they should probably be designated, are busy undermining the seam with there picks preparatory to its being brought down by gun powder. The workings are fully three feet high, although the depth of the shale seam is between five and six feet, the remainder, which is of inferior quality, being left for a roof.

The shale is worked on what is technically called the "long wall" system – that is, it is all extracted – no pillars being left for the support of the roof. Of course a great deal of wood has to be put up in order to prop the super incumbent strats, and the miners, as a still greater aid, build up the old workings with the refuse as they proceed with their excavations. This building is so closely and neatly executed that when the weight from above presses upon it, it looks almost like a solid mase which had never been touched by the pick. Though easily turned up in the "open cast" workings, the shale is not very readily extracted in the pits and the mines. The "cracks" run all in horizontal and seldom in perpendicular lines and as it is of a splintery character neither the picks or the wedge can bring it away in any great quantities. Gunpowder is not even very effective in loosening it, for the force of the explosion is lost to some extent by the character of the shale which lies, not like coal or sandstone rock in solid mass, but in laminun. Each workman, we understand, sends out as his "darg" about a ton and a half per day, in the production of which he will expend a pound of gunpowder.

In the mine which we are examining the shale is not more than four or five fathoms from the surface; but the average depth in the Broxburn fields runs from sixteen to twenty fathoms. Is is found in beds that dip all round to a centre as if it had been deposited in ancient lakes of no very great extent; for we understand that in the grounds of Mr. Bell a great number of these beds exist. The workmen make excellent wages. The process of working the shale in the pits is identically the same as that which we have described in the mine.

We have thus seen how the "ile" is struck first of all, and we will now emerge into daylight and examine the second process by which the black rock is made to yield up the fat with which it is saturated . The retorts into which the tubs of shale are emptied are, as we formerly explained, of iron supported by a brick building; and thirty or forty of them are placed side by side, having a little furnace about the size of a child's cradle beneath and at the front of them. Each retort is provided with a lid, which you see on the roof of the building, and the top or roof is made perfectly flat so as to allow the shale waggons to be run along on rails in order to supply the retorts when needed. An iron pipe, sloping at an angle of about 45 degrees, communicated between each retort and horizontal cylinder, which runs along the whole length of the back of the building, and receives the discharge from the contents of the retorts.

Another pipe, or rather a coil of pipes, having a gentle slope backwards to the cylinder and ending in a miniature funnel to which we have already referred, carries off the gas, which blazes in banner form at the top. Let us suppose the retorts to be filled with shale; the fires are then lighted and a flue carries the flames round about the sides and bottom of the retorts, each being placed so closely together that one furnace contributed to the heat of the other, thus having fuel. The discharge from the shale soon begins to run down the iron pipes into the large cylinder, where it is subjected to a process of refrigeration, and is then emptied into a large barrel sunk into earth. The contents of this barrel are oil and ammoniacal water; and the oil being the lightest comes to the top, while the water is precipitated to the bottom.

The water is then run off into another barrel by means of a syphon, and the uncondensable gas, which is the third ingredient in the shale, flames in the air. The crude oil is taken away to the refining works to go through a variety of other processes, and the ammoniacal water is emptied into a cistern in a house contiguous, where, under the influence of acid, it forms beautiful sulphates of ammonia, which are sold at from twelve to thirteen pounds sterling per ton for manure and other purposes. The shale, however, has not all passed of in gas, crude oil, and water. A workman opens a little door above the furnace and rakes out the shale from the retort, which looks at first sight little the worse for the heat to which it has been subjected, and the materials which it has lost.

On examining it, however, we find that the roasting process had made it so "frush" - to use a Scotch word – and so soft that it can be crushed up in the hand without any great exertion. But it is not therefore lost. Indeed, the singular peculiarity of the paraffin manufacture seems to be that nothing is lost. The shale, after having been stewed in the retorts is laid down in large heaps and burned, when it assumes an appearance not unlike calcined ironstone. It is taken away to a brick manufactory, where it is ground into a red putty by large stones, then mixed with a little clay, put into kilns, and comes out as s excellent red bricks as can be seen anywhere. It is with these bricks that Mr. Bell is building the workmens houses which we have already described. The refuse of the shale heaps, like ironstone dust, makes a capital top-dressing for garden walks or carriage drives.

The gas is the only article in the manufacture which had not yet been formed by which it will be carried round from the large refrigerating cylinder to the flues beneath the retort, and made to serve the purpose of fuel. We believe that Mr. Bell has offered to supply the village of Broxburn with this gas from his works, and there can be no doubt that it could be easily used for this purpose. We have thus traced the shale from its excavation in the "open cast" and the mine, through its various transformations of gas, crude oil, sulphates of ammonia and bricks. The process, it will be obscured, is much the same as that employed in a rude way by Mr. Douglas, the miner who first practically demonstrated the oil producing capabilities of shale. The head of his tobacco pipe represents the retort into which the bituminous mineral is placed, the kitchen fire is the furnace, and the shaft of the pipe is the iron tube which in the oil works communicated with the back end of the retort and the receiver underneath. Mr. Bell has added this receiver, and the coil of tubes through which the gas passes into the air, placing them at a gentle slope, so that any residue of oil might run back and be caught in the earth sunk barrel. This completes the first stage of manufacture; and here we may rest in our description, till next week, when we will follow the crude oil through the purifying process.

 

The Scotsman, 6th December 1865

 

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