International oil company Royal Dutch-Shell first invested in oil-producing Oklahoma properties in 1912, forming Roxana Petroleum. The subsidiary acquired oil rights and produced crude throughout the state.
In 1916, Royal Dutch-Shell decided to develop Roxana Petroleum into a fully integrated oil company. The expanded operations – including producing, refining, selling, and transporting petroleum products in the central United States – would be based in the St. Louis region. Wood River’s proximity to main railroad lines and the Mississippi River water source made it an ideal location. The company paid just under $35,000 for a 172-acre tract of farmland a few miles south of town.
Construction on the refinery began in the summer of 1917. Just a few months earlier, the United States had entered what would come to be known as World War I. The war created supply shortages and shipping delays. The refinery finally started operations in September 1918 with 175 workers.
Roxana Petroleum refinery construction circa 1917-1918. Photograph by Mr. Koch of Alton. MCHS photograph 1985-175. Note the workhorses in the foreground.
In the beginning, the refinery processed crude oil using Trumble units for distillation. The method heated crude oil to a high temperature and then progressively cooled it. As it cooled, different constituent vapors were condensed out and collected at each successive temperature, creating fuel oil, kerosene, and gasoline.
Crude processing capacity reached 16,000 barrels of crude per day after installation of a third Trumble unit.