No. 4, 2007

Lyubov Zheltova, Cand. Sc. (History), Director of the LUKOIL-Nizhnevolzhskneft museum


The activity of the Nobel Brothers' Partnership for Oil Production is recalled with gratitude in the Volga area

The development of the oil and refining industry in what now is the Volgograd and Astrakhan Regions was started when the Nobel Brothers Partnership set up a tank farm and oil production facilities (dubbed The Nobel Town) in the city of Tsaritsyn. That was how refining industry and trade in petroleum products were started there.

An echo of the far-off years

The second half of the 19th century was marked by an increase of industrial production in Russia. The availability of various kinds of inexpensive raw materials and manpower, and the development of trade relations with many economic regions preconditioned the appearance and development in the lower-Volga area (the present Volgograd and Astrakhan regions) of an industry which promised large profits.What is now the city of Volgograd used to be a provincial uyezd (district) town of Tsaritsyn, which was part of the Saratov Gubernia (region). Gradually, the town was turning into a large transport hub and a transshipment base of the Russian Empire. Very soon it acquired new industrial facilities, storehouses and transportation routes. This was mainly due to the fact that up to 70% of the oil from Baku, a large oil-producing region of the Russian Empire, passed through that town.

Russia's largest oil company, called The Nobel Brothers' Partnership for Oil Production (Branobel for short), was established on May 25, 1879. The company had capital assets totaling three million rubles. Its founders were three Nobel brothers - Ludvig, Robert and Alfred - as well as their friend, an artillery colonel Baron Pyotr Bilderling (later a general).As early as in 1899, Branobel accounted for 17.7% of Russia's (8.6% of the world's) oil production which, at the turn of the century (1898-1901) helped Russia to become the world's number one oil-producing country. And of course, the company held the top position on Russia's domestic market. The famous Russian chemist, Dmitry Mendeleyev, wrote at the time: The Branobel company, which began its large-scale activity only recently, has today expanded it to proportions unparalleled in our industry.

One of the brothers, Ludvig Nobel, who was an excellent engineer well acquainted with modern industrial production, got down enthusiastically to reorganizing the Russian oil business, particularly in Tsaritsyn. The activity of Branobel had a beneficial effect on the industrial development of the town. Its geographical location and the transportation advantages enabled the Nobel Partnership to set up on the Volga bank a major transshipment base with numerous storehouses for petroleum products, railroad spur tracks, quay berths, machine shops and an adequate engineering and social infrastructure.

Built in Tsaritsyn in 1879 were the first eleven storage tanks with a combined capacity of 8,500,000 poods. The tanks were manufactured of riveted iron, and so the leakage of kerosene from them was extremely small - an average of 0.3-0.5%.In 1884, there were 16 such tanks there, eight of them holding 90,000 poods of kerosene each, and the other eight - 75,000 poods each. All that kerosene was to be dispatched by the Gryaze-Tsaritsyn railroad.

Before the Branobels company, the crude oil and kerosene produced at the Caspian fields were transported about Russia mostly by cart in wooden barrels which had replaced wineskins but the cost of which was even higher than their contents: while one pood of kerosene in Baku cost 45 copecks, a wooden barrel for transporting it cost 65 copecks. To transport kerosene and other petroleum products to Russia's interior regions it was necessary to employ railroad tank cars. Ludvig Nobel repeatedly appealed to the railroad authorities to acquire tank cars, but his appeals remained unheeded. Having procured 100 tank cars of his own design, which resembled steam boilers with a dome placed on iron flatcars, Ludvig Nobel delivered them to the Gryaze-Tsaritsyn railroad. Later on, having convinced himself that their method of transportation was efficient, he brought the number of tank cars to 1,500, distributing them throughout the entire railroad network. It was on the Gryaze-Tsaritsyn railroad that mazut was used as fuel for the first time ever.

Along the great oil route

Kerosene began to be brought from Baku in special iron schooners the manufacture of which had been ordered in Sweden. Their structure was as follows: the vessel's iron body contained 12 iron boxes which were filled with kerosene. The boxes were placed in such a way as to leave empty spaces between them and the vessel's sides and bottom. If during a voyage the sides or the bottom were damaged, they were quickly repaired by the workers on board, and the water which had penetrated was pumped out. Thus the boxes with kerosene remained undamaged.In 1884, on the Volga and in the Caspian Sea, Branobel had 20 such schooners. Each had a holding capacity of up to 150,000 poods and cost from 120,000 to 160,000 rubles. Their conduct from Sweden to Baku involved considerable difficulties: many of them were too large to navigate freely along the entire Mariinskaya waterway with its numerous canals and locks. Therefore, the larger vessels were constructed in such a way that they could be divided into two parts and go through the locks as two different vessels.

Near Tsaritsyn kerosene-carrying ships stopped some distance away from the shore. Placed between a schooner and the shore was a small round steam vessel called popovka, and a pipe was installed from the schooner to the popovka and further upwards, where it branched out to each tank separately. With the help of the popovka, the kerosene was brought up the pipe, filling this or that tank. From the tanks the kerosene was transferred over a pipe to the railroad tank cars standing by the shore. Actually, these were metal cylinders placed on railroad flatcars, and they had a holding capacity of 750 poods of kerosene each. In 1884, on the Gryaze-Tsaritsyn railroad, Branobel had a total of 2,000 tank cars, and 25 of them were included in each train. Right there on a steep bank stood a brick building housing the manager and his office. All around there were small gardens - something unheard of for a place like Tsaritsyn at the time.Floated in 1877 was the first oil tank steamship called Zoroaster. Designed by Ludvig Nobel personally, the ship was built in Sweden earlier in the year. It had a steel body 184 feet long (which accorded with the length of the locks in the Mariinskaya waterway) and 27 feet wide, and it had an immersion of nine feet. Also, it had a holding capacity of 15,000 poods of kerosene. Its machine used petroleum residues (mazut), and the vessel traveled at a speed of ten knots.The ship's eight cylindrical tanks were filled with kerosene, and its machine had a capacity of 290 HP. Some time later oil and petroleum products began to be poured right into the ship's body. Actually, the Zoroaster was the world's first tanker - in the modern meaning of the word. After 1878, some other tankers belonging to Branobel appeared in the port of Baku. Their names were: the Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Spinoza, Darwin, Linnaeus, Nordenskjold, etc.Owing to transportation by tankers, a pood of kerosene cost 70-80 copecks less to consumers in Nizhny Novgorod. In Tsaritsyn one pood of kerosene cost, on average, one ruble 85 copecks in 1877, one ruble 15 copecks in 1878, and 75 copecks in 1879; in 1882, its price fell to 50 copecks, and later on - to 25 and even 15 copecks (before the excise tax). In 1882, the flotilla of Branobel's tankers numbered 13 ships capable of bringing to Astrakhan up to 10 million poods of kerosene during a single navigation period. Within a short space of time, the transportation of petroleum products by tankers made it possible to provide Russia's interior regions with kerosene and oil.

The Nobel oil towns

A so-called Nobel oil town appeared on a vacant lot between two deep ravines in the north-eastern part of Tsaritsyn. Before long it grew in size considerably and included: 15 large storage tanks containing a total of 1,360,000 poods of petroleum products with pipelines between them and a lightning conductor on a special post; an iron quay berth with pontoons; a machine shop; a water supply line with a tower; a more than one kilometer long track leading up to the Gryaze-Tsaritsyn railroad with a weighbridge handling tank cars with kerosene and oil (a total of 125 cars a day); an office building with ten annexes; a raw-material storehouse, and some other facilities. Furthermore, the oil town had its own pharmacy and health service (a doctor with an assistant), and an admitting department for the workers. It also had electric lighting, a telephone service, a library, a billiards room, and so on. On the river near the town stood a popovka which pumped oil and kerosene to the oil town situated some 25 meters higher. The popovka and other vessels which stayed near the town for the winter were protected from the ice drift in the spring with pyramidal ice cutters. The entire oil town was planted with trees which were taken good care of.

A contemporary observer wrote: Those who in the 1870s saw the locality where Nobel's enterprise now stands cannot but marvel at the energy and enthusiasm of the oil king': the former wilderness with impassible ravines inhabited only by fugitives and outlaws has changed beyond recognition; the slopes of the ravines have been paved; everywhere there are signs of labor activity, creative energy and civilization. This locality used to exist separately from the city, and now it borders on urban structures.In the year 1900, being one of the city's largest enterprises, the Nobel Partnership provided some 500 workers with permanent jobs and good earnings at its ironworks and construction sites, as well as at its seven petroleum and kerosene storehouses.

In 1884, the petroleum bulk plant of the enterprise comprised 16 storage tanks and was closely connected with the main bulk plant in Baku. With its well-organized and mechanized intake and pouring of petroleum products, it easily handled 1.5 million poods of oil.Besides Tsaritsyn, the idea of building oil towns was realized in Astrakhan, Rybinsk, Saratov, Samara, Ufa and some other places. Set up in all of these oil towns were bathhouses, dining-rooms, bakeries and hospitals; in Baku, Astrakhan and Tsaritsyn there also were pharmacies, sanitation centers, and primary schools for the workers' children. The Nobel brothers were practically the first to introduce at their plants and oil fields a ten-hour working day (instead of a 14-hour one). Altogether, on the territory of the Russian Empire there were about 150 such wonder-towns - centers of industrial and cultural progress. They were to be found in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Perm, Libava, Nizhny Novgorod and other places. In the city of Tsaritsyn electric lighting appeared only in 1908 - 14 years after it did in the Nobel town, including its industrial enterprises. In 1885, using the city's central telegraph service, the oil town sent out commercial communications, and the telephone service connected it with the Tsaritsyn railroad junction.

The Branobel Partnership invested a total of 7.1 million rubles in the oil complex of Tsaritsyn. Erected besides administrative, office, dwelling and other buildings were a kerosene, gasoline-and-oil, and tar-and-oil plants which yielded over half a million poods of products a year. The high quality of production was achieved with the help of electrical equipment which was little known at the time. In 1897, the Branobel Partnership constructed the first electric station which was not intended for lighting but for actuating power plants. By 1901, the Partnership's enterprises had 177 steam engines, 131 electric motors, and eight gas and crude-oil engines. The personnel of the oil town lived in standard four-room annexes surrounded by apple and cherry orchards and tall poplars. Also, there was an rich library and a billiards room. The oil town was a verdant place with about 4,000 young decorative trees which were planted even round the storage tanks. In front of the office there were colorful flower beds and bushes.In May 1886, Tsaritsyn was visited by Prof. Dmitry Mendeleyev who carefully acquainted himself with the operation of the refinery there and the state of affairs of the Nobel Partnership. Having examined the company's enterprise, the great scientist commented favorably on the oil tankers built according to Vladimir Shukhov's design; he also spoke highly of Shukhov's burners which used mazut efficiently which had replaced firewood and coal used for the fuelling of ship's engines. That was very important since 70% of the mazut remaining after kerosene production was either burnt in earth pits as superfluous fuel or dumped into the sea. Now such burners were increasingly used in the steam engines on the railroads owned by the Nobels which delivered kerosene (up to 25 cisterns) to the most remote corners of the Russian Empire. Having acquainted himself with the Nobels' Tsaritsyn oil complex, Prof. Dmitry Mendeleyev supported their initiative to expand the Baku oil fields.

Built by the end of the 1890s were 85 large and 31 small storage tanks with a capacity of 11.2 million poods of petroleum products and six mazut storage pits with a combined capacity of 8.5 million poods. Every day Tsaritsyn's petroleum depots ensured the servicing and dispatch of over 60 trainloads.At several of Russia's national exhibitions the Nobel Partnership was granted the exclusive right of imprinting the Russian coat of arms on its products.

The Nobel brothers are known to have repeatedly visited Tsaritsyn. On one of his visits to the Volga area Ludvig Nobel wrote to his brother Alfred that he would like to learn as much as possible about the business of their competitors but without mentioning our name. And he went on to explain: Our competitors are not marking time either; and so a continuous struggle is going on, winning which requires considerable effort, and the winner of which may get some thrashing. Emmanuel Nobel also came to Tsaritsyn in order to check on the state of affairs in the oil town personally, and he was quite satisfied with what he found: the profits were sufficiently high.

Today, the memory of the activity of the Nobel Brothers' Partnership for Oil Production in the Volga area is being carefully preserved in the form of museum exhibits which testify to the important contribution made by those outstanding oil industry businessmen to Russia's industrial potential prior to October 1917.

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Oil of Russia, No. 4, 2007
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