The Sixties

The longest strike

The longest strike at the Wood River Refinery began August 18, 1962. The strike involved 2,100 operating and maintenance workers from thirteen different unions. Pay raises were a key issue among many other intractable obstacles to resolution. After the strike had completely shut down production for two months, non-striking supervisory personnel filled in and got the plant back to partial operation.

Acrimony and even violence marked the long strike. An altercation between picketing strikers and company employees ended with a derailed boxcar and a visit to the emergency room. Late one night, someone fired a shotgun into the refinery manager’s house. People in a passing car shot at a striking laborer. A department manager’s wife sustained minor injuries when a brick shattered her glass door. Investigations into a power interruption at the refinery found a fuse and evidence of dynamite in an electrical manhole. Someone blew up a 20-inch reinforced concrete water supply main serving the refinery.1

The strikers (minus 300 people laid off) finally returned to their jobs in February of 1963. The strike had lasted for over five months.


A Shell Oil Company booklet begins with a statement equating oil consumption with progress:

A nation’s progress toward better living can be measured by the amount of energy it consumes. Energy is the capacity to do work. The more a nation can increase this capacity, the more goods it can produce and distribute and the better its people can live. In the United States, more than two-thirds of all the energy required comes from petroleum.

Source: Wood River Refinery (Shell Oil Company, circa 1965).

Underwood patent

United States Patent 3,115,862 for Leakage Indicator for Safety Relief Valves filed by E.D. Underwood Jr. August 28, 1961, patented December 31, 1963. Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office. View the full patent.

The 1,700-acre refinery employed approximately 2,400 workers in the 1960s. An additional 1,000-strong support staff included about 200 scientists in the research laboratory. The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued dozens of patents to Wood River employees in the 1960s, the research facility’s heyday. Shell shuttered the Wood River research laboratory in 1975 and transferred the researchers and staff to Houston.

The bragging rights to the title “Shell’s biggest refinery” passed between the facilities in Wood River, Norco (Louisiana), and Deer Park (Houston, Texas) over the years. Wood River reclaimed it in 1969 in the midst of another major expansion. The improvements increased crude processing capacity to a whopping 245,000 barrels daily.


1The brief description here of the strike summarizes information from various newspaper articles, August 21-November 29, 1962, 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 strike and contemporary newspaper coverage of it as it unfolded.