Immediately after the war ended, Americans lined up for gas at any service stations that had survived wartime rationing. Farmers and other companies began using the rust-inhibiting turbine oils originally manufactured for the Navy. Business continued to be good for the Wood River Refinery.
But a flood interrupted the local post-war boom on June 30, 1947. The waters of the Mississippi River breached a levee about ten miles south of the refinery. A few days later, the pipelines supplying crude oil to the refinery burst. It took pipeline crews four days to repair a line and restore operations.
In the spring following the flood, a twister touched down in communities near the refinery where many employees lived. The next year another tornado devastated parts of Wood River and Roxana. Finally, in December 1949 and January 1950 two tornadoes found the Shell refinery itself. The damage shut down the lube processing and deasphalting plants.
Automobile destroyed by the tornado that touched down in Fosterburg on March 19, 1948. The car belonged to Harvey Challengsworth. MCHS Edwardsville Intelligencer photograph collection. Can you identify any auto body parts in the pile of debris?
A grave tragedy of a different sort struck the refinery on September 17, 1951. As night crew workers prepped the Dubbs 17 cracking unit for routine cleaning, oil trapped in the bottom of the unit ignited. The explosion killed four men instantly.
It took more than 100 firefighters to subdue the resulting fire. Blazes reached to fifty feet high and men ran screaming from the scene, their clothing in flames. Initial casualties included thirteen deaths and twenty injured. The death toll ultimately rose to eighteen.1
Nonetheless, production at the refinery continued to increase: oil displaced coal as the primary source of energy in America in 1950. The Wood River Refinery opened the decade processing 140,000 barrels of crude a day and employing 4,000 people.
1The brief description here of this tragedy summarizes information from various newspaper articles, September 18-October 25, 1951, in Oil Companies [scrapbook], comp. Harold Meisenhemer. The scrapbook is available at the Madison County Archival Library for readers who would like more information about the tragedy and contemporary newspaper coverage of it as it unfolded.