Depression Years

Aerial view, 1938

Aerial view of the Wood River Refinery in 1938. MCHS photograph. The photograph views the refinery from the west. Note the refinery supervisors’ residences in the foreground.

Everything changed in 1930. Consumer purchases of durable goods – including cars – dropped drastically. After over a decade of increasing demand for gasoline, Shell Petroleum faced a shrinking market and plummeting prices. Fifty percent of the company’s employees lost their jobs. The Wood River Refinery shut down half its Dubbs units within two years.

Shell began exploring different household markets. Low fuel oil prices increased demand for oil-burning home heaters. The same was true for kerosene-fueled kitchen ranges and hot-water heaters. The nascent commercial aviation industry was another growing market.

Super-Shell gas pump

Super-Shell visible-register 10-gallon gasoline pump from 1928. Displayed at the Missouri History Museum April 25, 2017. Photograph by Mary Z. Rose.

The company also worked to market its gasoline products more effectively.

In 1927, customers had paid 3¢ more per gallon for premium “Super-Shell” gas. It was later replaced with “Super-Shell Ethyl.” As technology improved, the newer equipment at the Wood River Refinery routinely produced gasoline as good as the old Super-Shell gas.

So in 1933, Shell Petroleum replaced its regular gasoline with the new version of Super-Shell, marketing it as “premium gasoline at the price of regular.” Sales skyrocketed.

But the Great Depression still hit Shell Petroleum hard. The company didn’t show a profit for the first half of the decade. In 1936, the company took a hard look at projected demand, anticipated supplies, and facility requirements. A gasoline pipeline from Wood River to Ohio would vastly and permanently reduce delivery transportation costs. The 450-mile pipeline went into operation in 1938. The same year, the company shut down its refineries in Arkansas City and East Chicago, concentrating Mid-Continent production in Wood River.

An expansion and modernization of the Wood River Refinery completed in 1940 increased the facility’s daily capacity to 75,000 barrels.