Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Mutual Oil Company and its tank cars

Awhile back, InterMountain released one of their AC&F Type 27 riveted 8000-gallon tank cars in an attractive, bold lettering for the Mutual Oil Company. Here is an image of the paint scheme, from the InterMountain website.

As a person who may be already guilty of an overheated interest in the history of oil companies, as demonstrated in my research and writing on the history of the Associated Oil Company (you can read my discussion and conclusions at: ), it was hard to resist digging into Mutual, to see what I could find.
     I should emphasize that I don’t address this topic because of any intrinsic importance of the oil company, only as an illustration of what one may wish to do in pursuit of prototype information for freight cars.
     As it happens, one can find quite a bit on the Internet, no surprise these days. The beginnings of this company date to its incorporation in Maine on December 11, 1916 as Elk Basin Consolidated Petroleum, referring to the Elk River oil field in Wyoming. It was a successor to an earlier company called the Elk Basin Oil Company. They evidently did not do much refining or marketing originally, and accordingly acquired an Arizona company called Mutual Oil (Arizona) in April 1920. Arizona was probably the place of incorporation of this company, not its primary operating area, but it owned the three refineries you can see listed on the model in the above photo, and already was marketing to service stations. Elk River, however, had a much larger supply of crude oil for refining than did Mutual. Elk River also obtained the existing tank cars of the Mutual company in the purchase. The Elk Basin company then dissolved the Arizona company, and renamed the entire operation as Mutual Oil. This is all described in the Oil Trade Journal issue of April 1920, page 98.
     The next player to appear was the Continental Oil Company. Founded in Utah in 1875, they had been absorbed by Standard Oil in 1885, acting as the Rocky Mountain region component of Standard, and became independent again in the 1911 breakup of Standard Oil. In the 1920s, they continued to be active in marketing of petroleum products to the public, using a distinctive emblem of a Continental soldier on their filling stations, of which there were over 1000 in 15 states.

     In part because of a need for more crude oil supplies, Continental Oil Company acquired all the assets of Mutual Oil by merger, Jan. 28, 1924, including about 300 tank cars marked MOCX. Continental’s acquisition of Mutual Oil is described in Moody’s Industrials for any post-1924 year. But other sources suggest that in fact Continental had acquired the assets of Mutual as early as 1920, though continuing the operations under the Mutual name until 1924; see for example Helvering vs. Continental Oil, 68 F.2D 750 (D.C. Cir. 1933). The decision in that case is available on-line at this link: .
     In any event, the history is that Mutual became part of Continental no later than 1924, and since Continental already owned some tank cars itself, apparently using the reporting marks CONX, the Mutual cars would have simply been absorbed into the CONX fleet. But exactly how and when did that happen? I was motivated to see what can be learned about the tank cars from the Official Railway Equipment Register or ORER, regarding both Mutual and Continental cars in service as such.
     I used the almost-continuous series of ORER issues archived at the library of the California State Railroad Museum for this research. But here one encounters a difficulty. Although the American Railway Association of the 1920s requested all owners of freight cars to submit their rosters to the ORER (as printed on the title page of ORER issues), they were not required to do so, and many small owners of cars which were used entirely in company service did not do so. This included Continental and Mutual prior to their merger.
     But in the April, 1925 issue of the ORER, for the first time there is an entry for Continental Oil, and the entry is all about the absorption of the tank car fleets of several smaller oil companies: Mutual Oil (MOCX), along with the Kansas Co-operative Refining Company (KOX) and the Sapulpa [Oklahoma] Refining Company (SRFX) — none of these four had previously had ORER entries! That Continental entry was soon rearranged to show more information; I reproduce below the Continental entry for December 1926.

     From this entry, it looks like the car number series were retained for most or all of the absorbed cars. Over the succeeding years, the numbers of cars shown with non-CONX reporting marks shrinks steadily, and the KOX and SRFX marks disappear well before the MOCX listing does so within Continental’s entry. Finally, the June 1928 listing for Continental in the ORER is the first in which MOCX relettering is no longer mentioned. So over about four years, the MOCX cars were absorbed into Continental’s tank car fleet and received CONX reporting marks. All through the 1920s, the CONX fleet contained over 1000 cars.
     A striking change showed up in the Continental ORER entry for October 1929. Two more companies’ tank cars were being absorbed. One was the Prudential reporting mark, POLX, used for both Prudential Refining Corp. and Prudential Oil Corp., roughly 100 cars. The other one was Marland Refining Company, MARX, and thereby hangs another tale.
     In fact, in 1929 that other oil company took over Continental. The Marland Oil Company, founded in 1911, had grown tremendously, with thousands of filling stations in 30 states. But they needed more oil supplies, and purchased Continental on June 26, 1929. They then took the name Continental Oil Company for the combined operation, and moved the headquarters of Continental from Denver to Marland’s headquarters at Ponca City, Oklahoma. They also created a new marketing emblem, using the old Marland emblem of a red triangle, but replacing the words “Marland Oils” with “Continental.” Here is an example of a Marland station. This triangle logo would be used by Continental until 1970.

     The Marland tank car fleet in 1929 was nearly 1000 cars, so when in October 1929 there is the first ORER mention of relettering MARX cars as CONX, the combined Continental, Prudential and Marland fleets amounted to over 2100 cars, though they evidently discarded some of them pretty quickly, probably older cars, and within a year or two the combined fleet was down to 1700 cars.
     The CONX reporting mark continued for many years, though Continental Oil (now Conoco) was bought and sold several times. At least as late as a 1997 ORER issue I examined, they still had 565 tank cars with that mark.
     In my following post on this topic, I return to the model shown at the top of this post, and discuss what to do with it.
Tony Thompson

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