Documenting some of the companies that existed in South Portland in the 1800s, back when our town name was Cape Elizabeth, has been an ongoing project for years now at South Portland Historical Society. Some may not realize just how hard it can be to do that, as photography wasn’t exactly commonplace back then and when a company ceased operation, its records were much more likely to be destroyed than sent to a historical society for preservation.

This image from Atlas of Cumberland County, depicts Ligonia in 1871 and shows the large factories that were located around Kerosene Corner. Main Street runs from the lower left to the upper right where the road crossed the old Vaughan’s Bridge. F.W. Beers & Co., 1871

I’ve been particularly interested in the large factories that once played such an integral part in the lives of the residents in the Ligonia area of South Portland. This is the area around Sprague, the Forest City Cemetery and areas around Lincoln Street. The intersection of Main Street and Lincoln Street has long been called Kerosene Corner, in part due to the large kerosene factory of Portland Kerosene Oil Company that was established there in 1859.

There were other factories there, as well, and we’ll cover some of these Ligonia businesses in this and upcoming columns. While we still have a lot to discover and document about them, we have made a lot of progress to date.

Portland Kerosene Oil Company was incorporated in February of 1859 and operated as a manufacturer and marketer of kerosene, naphtha and paraffin products. The original incorporators were Francis Macdonald, St. John Smith, John B. Brown, James B. Cahoon and Phillip H. Brown. These were very wealthy and influential businessmen in the Portland area at the time.

The start-up investment was $100,000. The company began operation on April 4, 1859, with St. John Smith as the president and Francis Macdonald the managing agent. They immediately set to work erecting their own refinery in Ligonia, utilizing the expertise of William Atwood. By July 1859, they already had buildings up and were starting to manufacture crude kerosene oil, with an announcement that they would soon be starting the process of refining it. By Aug. 24, 1859, the first gallons of finished oil were being turned out.

The kerosene works here initially started out with six brick buildings, where they would convert coal to kerosene, but they added more buildings over time. The cluster of buildings covered about two acres of land to the southeast of the intersection of Lincoln Street and Main Street. They were made of brick because of the danger of fire from the manufacturing process.

The buildings were heated with steam and, in all buildings where there was the danger of fire, a two-inch pipe connected to the steam boiler; the idea was, in the event of fire, they could just open a valve and let steam work as a fire extinguisher.

In the first year of operation, while they were building the plant and getting their own manufacturing processes in place, they acted as a re-seller of oil from the Boston Kerosene Oil Company. They soon were producing their own product, however, and were experimenting on processes to produce a cleaner oil that didn’t have the off-putting smell that many other kerosene oils had.

Before long they had a thriving business and were producing plenty of quality product. In an 1882 advertisement, they were manufacturing kerosene, paraffin, and a variety of kerosene oil blends, including illuminating (lamp) oil, spindle oil, machinery oil, binnacle oil and car oil. One report in 1886 said that they were producing over 4 million gallons of oil annually.

Some of the key people involved in Portland Kerosene were Francis MacDonald, William Atwood, Thomas Haskell, and Horatio Jose.

– Francis Macdonald is credited with being a major force behind the incorporation of Portland Kerosene Oil Company, leading the group of business investors who had the funding needed to establish the refinery. Macdonald was an investor in and agent for the Albert Coal Mines, as well, which in the beginning was the sole supplier of coal for Portland Kerosene. Macdonald served in various roles at Portland Kerosene, including managing agent, treasurer and president for many years, until 1879. He was also a key player in the formation of the Portland Rolling Mills in Ligonia.

– William Atwood was a chemist who figures into the pre-history of Portland Kerosene. His brother, Luther Atwood, was an accomplished chemist who, in 1852 in Massachusetts, invented a process for extracting “coup oil” from coal. Luther continued his experiments and developed processes that would be key in the refinery process. William Atwood had worked at the same company in Waltham, Massachusetts, even assisting his brother at times in experimentation with coal tar products.

When Portland Kerosene began operation, William Atwood was the perfect choice to engineer the construction of the plant and then to supervise the manufacture of kerosene and other products; William served as the chemist and superintendent of the kerosene works in Ligonia for almost 20 years, from 1859 to 1878. During that time, he also founded and ran the Atwood Lead Company, and served one term in the Maine Legislature as South Portland’s state representative in 1873. In 1878, he moved to New York to oversee the operations of Queens County Oil Works, and the superintendent position at Portland Kerosene was taken by Gordon Garden (who had been with the company since its beginning). When Garden died in 1882, Atwood returned to Cape Elizabeth to again take on the job. Atwood continued as superintendent of Portland Kerosene until his sudden death on Feb. 17, 1884.

– Thomas B. Haskell lived on Lincoln Street (in a farmhouse roughly where the main entrance to Forest City Cemetery is today) and served as an overseer in the Portland Kerosene Works from 1864 to 1871. After leaving the company in 1871, he made a life in public service. He was elected selectman, assessor, and overseer of the poor in (then) Cape Elizabeth in 1872, serving in that capacity for 10 years. He served for a year as the town treasurer and then became the town collector in 1882, serving in that capacity for over 15 years. Haskell also represented Cape Elizabeth in the Maine Legislature, serving as our state representative in 1874, 1877, 1893 and 1894.

– Horatio N. Jose served as the company treasurer from roughly 1864 to 1879, then was named president of Portland Kerosene in May of 1879. He was also involved in the Atwood Lead Company.

From the company’s beginning, in addition to its own product, it sold products that came from companies affiliated with Standard Oil Co. Standard Oil was the huge, growing, multinational corporation headed up by John D. Rockefeller. In 1878, Standard Oil interests bought 934 out of the total 2,000 shares of Portland Kerosene.

Standard Oil trustees then continued to buy more shares in the company from 1883 to 1886. By 1886, Portland Kerosene was 100 percent owned by Standard Oil trustees. Portland Kerosene continued in operation until 1892 at which time the business was transferred to Standard Oil Co., of New York. While Portland Kerosene itself ceased operation, the refinery in Ligonia was taken over by Standard Oil Co., of New York.

We’ll continue next week with another company in Ligonia that was founded by William Atwood: the Atwood Lead Company.

Do you have local memorabilia or photographs to share that show scenes from around South Portland in earlier years? Please contact South Portland Historical Society at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at [email protected] Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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