49 Delivering Oil in the Good Old Days

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

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This picture answers the age-old question,

“How many horses does it take to pull an oil tank wagon?”

We take so many things for granted. We buy groceries at the store but think little about how the products got there. We put gas in our car (or here in NJ, we have it pumped for us) without thinking about where the gas came from or how it got to the gas station.

In this picture, we see Edward Terhune’s oil truck on its way to or from a delivery. It might also have been picking up a fresh load of oil, gasoline, or kerosene to distribute. Edward (1877-1951) was a local supplier of oil, and his territory likely included Blawenburg. Note that this is not the same Ed Terhune who is affectionately remembered as the unofficial mayor of Blawenburg. His name was Edward Hoagland Terhune, and he was a relative of Edward P. Terhune.

Edward Page Terhune’s granddaughter, Judy Adams, doesn’t remember her grandfather since she was 2 ½ when he passed away. Her mother, Myrtle Terhune Hoagland, told her that her grandfather was in charge of the icehouse at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, down the hill from Blawenburg. The icehouse burned down over a decade ago, and the Institute is now Skillman Park. “Even though I do not have recollections of my grandfather, I do remember hearing that he was a very kind, gentle man,” Judy said recently.

It isn’t clear when this picture was taken, but it must have been before trucks had enough “horsepower” to pull the weight of a tank full of oil. If Ed’s oil tank held 1,000 gallons of kerosene, it would require enough horsepower to pull 6,800 pounds. If he were hauling fuel oil, his horses would need to pull 7,700 pounds (almost four tons) for a considerable distance. An average day’s work for the tank wagon team was within a 15 to 20-mile radius of their supply tanks.

Horses were much more reliable than trucks in the early 20th century since a strong draft horse could pull up to 1.5 times its weight. The range of weight of horses is between 800 and 2,200 pounds. Horses like those pictured would likely be on the top end of the weight range and could pull over 3,300 pounds each. Imagine that. Three horses pulling almost 10,000 pounds, or five tons! That’s a lot of horsepower.

Oil Used for Centuries

Oil isn’t a recent discovery. It has been used for many centuries. The Chinese drilled for oil using bamboo poles as early as 350 AD and burned the product to turn brine (salt water) to salt. They even used bamboo to transport the oil to the brine fields. Many other ancient civilizations used the petroleum products to lubricate, waterproof, and as a heat source. But it wasn’t until 1859 that the modern era of oil began in earnest in America. Edwin Drake saw oil floating on a creek in Titusville, PA and drilled a well to get more. He successfully drilled a 69-foot deep well that yielded 25 barrels a day. Commercial oil was on its way.