Built in 1889 by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Standard of Indiana also known as Indiana Standard) quickly became a source of prosperity for the town of Whiting, Indiana, providing many of the city’s populace high-paying, secure jobs.
That’s no small wonder. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire completely dominated the oil industry in the United States during the early 1900s, at one point controlling 90% of the nation’s supply.
Whiting was an ideal spot for the new refinery. It was close to the city of Chicago, but unlike the Windy City, it had ample room for the sprawling facility. The land was also located close to Lake Michigan and the rail lines of Chicago, providing a fast shipping route for raw materials and finished products by both land and sea.
Construction began in 1889. The project was a tremendous undertaking, with over 1,500 laborers working for an entire year to level sand ridges and dunes, lay a foundation and build the refinery. Construction ended in the summer of 1890. The first shipment of finished product left the refinery on Thanksgiving Day.
In the early years, the main product produced at the Whiting refinery was kerosene for lamps. By the mid-1890s, Standard of Indiana had become the largest refinery in the country with a production capacity of 36,000 barrels of oil per day. It employed 2,400 people.
As automobiles rose in popularity during the 1910s, Standard switched much of its oil production to gasoline. The company began experimenting with a new process called “thermal cracking” to turn crude oil into a higher-quality gasoline product.
In 1911, an antitrust campaign by the federal government led to the dissolution of Rockefeller’s oil empire, transforming Standard of Indiana into an independent company.
By 1920, Standard of Indiana had become the third largest oil refinery in the US. A few years later, they acquired the American Oil Company and began branding themselves as “Amoco.” By the early 1950s, profits soared to nearly $1.5 billion a year.
The work at Standard of Indiana could be dangerous, and accidents were a constant threat for workers. One particularly horrific incident occurred on August 25, 1955. At about 6:15 AM, a major explosion destroyed a large portion of the refinery and close to 200 nearby homes. The explosion was caused by a malfunction in the plant’s 26-story hydroformer, a metal manufacturing facility, the largest of its kind in the country.
The thunderous blast shattered windows up to 3 miles away. The resulting fireball was visible for 30 miles. Terrified families rushed from their homes, fleeing on foot and by car. Many didn’t even have time to put on shoes.
The fire lasted for eight days, burning 47 acres of Standard property. Firefighters tried to contain the fire using sand dikes but largely had to watch and wait for the flames to burn out. The effort to contain the massive flames required 3,000 emergency workers and a National Guard unit. An estimated $30 million in damages resulted. It would be a full year before the plant returned to operating at full capacity.
Standard officially changed its name to Amoco Corp in 1985. In 1998, it was acquired by BP for $48.2 billion. Today, the Whiting plant continues to operate under BP’s leadership.
From its early days as an emerging player in the oil industry, Standard Oil played an integral role in the development of the city of Whiting. Today, the refinery continues to play a critical role in the gasoline supply chain, bringing reasonably priced fuel to the residents of Northwest Indiana and beyond.