The Old Shale Game
Catlin Shale Products Company, Elko (1912-1924)

     Getting oil from a rock seems impossible but the French began doing it in the 1830s. Shale is gray green and contains organic matter called kerogen. When crushed and heated to 900 degrees Fahrenheit kerogen molecules split and make oil molecules. If the process were inexpensive, the United States would not have to rely so heavily in oil from elsewhere. Shale oil fields in the American West could provide more than one hundred billion gallons of oil. Robert M. Catlin, Sr. came close to solving the problem.

pen and ink drawing by Ron Ter Bush.
Robert M. Catlin, Jr. - pen and ink drawing by Ron Ter Bush

     Catlin always told the press that his plant was merely a testing facility and he never represented his shale oil company as anything but that. Everything he did was financed by private funding. So, what was the big fuss over? He made no promises, took no local money, and hired Elko residents. Elkoans wanted an oil boom.
     Catlin was a geologist for a Tuscarora mine in 1875 but spent much of his spare time in Elko. On one of his visits he saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow of shale down by the Humboldt River. When asked, the fellow told Catlin where he was getting the shale. From then on Catlin spent most of his spare time exploring the shale fields south of town off Bullion Road. He purchased the site from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1890 and formed the Catlin Shale Products Company. For five years he experimented then left to work for Consolidated Gold Fields in South Africa.
     Ten years later he became general manager of New Jersey Zinc Company. His project in Elko was not forgotten although it appears that he mostly supervised Elko activities from back East. R.H. Findlater examined the shale field in 1915 and declared it was a bonanza. He recommended building an extraction plant saying the shale supply would last darn near forever. A shaft was sunk and construction of a plant started.
     Catlin came back to Elko in 1917 to open his plant. He told the newspaper people that it was merely a testing and sampling facility. The United States entered World War I that year causing demand for fuel to shoot up. Catlin's people stepped up their efforts to produce oil from shale economically. 
     In 1919 a larger retort was installed and the superintendent claimed it had produced 15,000 gallons of oil. This, of course, caused a great deal of excitement among locals hoping for an oil boom.

Catlin shale oil plant.
Catlin shale oil plant about 1923 - photo courtesy of the
Northeastern Nevada Museum, Elko.

     Manager Walter L. Sheeler, in 1921, told news reporters  that the present process was successful. He employed 35 men at the site and said he would probably double that when new machinery arrived. Catlin came to Elko and told members of a local service club that the plant will remain purely an experiment until receipts were more than costs.
     Later, speaking at the American Mining Congress in Chicago, he said, "I am a patriarch in a way, having spent 58 summers, half of it chasing rainbows." Catlin told them, "Wait. When I do something, I'll tell the world."
     He expanded the plant with more equipment and added ten workers. Scheeler announced that the plant was producing 96 barrels of oil a day - it was the first time that crude oil was extracted on a commercial scale. So far, Catlin had spent $500,000 pursing his dream. Soon, Catlin "Hi-Power" lubricating oil was on the market in Elko.
     Then the plant closed for six months.  During the shutdown there was a $250,000 remodeling and upgrade. When the company opened again, there were 50 employees and the plant began producing 26,000 gallons of oil a week. Scheeler said only one problem remained, that of saving the oil that was going up in smoke during refining.
     In 1924 five-thousand gallons of lubricating oil were shipped to New York. It was looking good for Catlin's oil company. Five tunnels, 600 feet down  stretched four miles.
     Unfortunately, while there was talk of oil, the primary product was paraffin. Oil was secondary because of its high cost of refining. Labeled "Hi-Power Catlin Oil," it sold for $5 a gallon. The lubricant, because of its high paraffin base, worked well in the summer but come winter it congealed and gummed up engines. Catlin claimed it was the only successful shale oil manufacturing plant in America and the only plant in the world treating shale in mass.
     Catlin Shale Products' future seemed promising. Durant Motor Company tested the oil in the 1924 Indianapolis 500. E.E. "Monte" Mouton used the lubricant on his Elko to Reno air mail route and claimed his engine ran more than fifty r.p.m. compared to standard oil.
     Catlin announced that he would throw the "biggest celebration the state has ever known" in September and, oh, what a time the townspeople had! Three days of festivities included a circus, rodeo, parade, street dances, a barbecue out at the Hunter Ranch, boxing and wrestling matches, and an aerial circus. An estimated four thousand people, more than twice Elko's population at the time, attended the events.
     In a speech at the celebration, Catlin told an audience there was much to do yet. Less than a month later the plant and mine closed with no plans to reopen. In February 1925, he came back to town and told the newspapers there was always a possibility of reopening the mine.  However, it cost more to produce oil then it could be sold for presently.
     Robert Catlin spent more than one million dollars of his own money. The whole thing was not a total bust because his processes are still used by those trying to find a way inexpensively to produce oil from shale. The world's expert on shale oil production was decades ahead of his time and there is still no economical method to produce oil from shale.
     There for a while, though, Elkoans thought they were going to be the nation's oil capital. The Roaring Twenties fizzled as far as local black gold riches.

Howard Hickson
January 6, 2003

Source: Much of the information for this vignette came from "Fifty Years Too Soon - The Catlin Shale Products Company," by Doug Harper, Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Fall 1974. 

©Copyright 2003 by Howard Hickson.

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