Oljeön – The World’s Oldest Preserved Oil Refinery

With Covid-19 still a bit of an issue, the summer of 2021 is yet another one for “svemester” (Sverige-semester, or Sweden-vacation). There are plenty of things to see, and one place that I finally got to visit was the old oil refinery at Oljeön in Ängelsberg, home to Engelsbergs oljefabrik and the world’s oldest preserved oil refinery dating back to the mid-1870s. It is a beautiful piece of industrial history, well-preserved and with good guided tours.

View of Oljeön from the mainland. The refinery is the yellow building on the right, the darker building on the left is the one remaining oil storage shed

Refining oil in the middle of Sweden

The story of the refinery starts in the 1875, when a certain Pehr August Ålund starts the company. He had spent a few years prior experimenting with oil refining processes, starting in his own home. Eventually his first factory basically explodes in an accident (lightning struck, causing the volatile components of the oil to catch fire). Ålund had to jump into the nearby lake to quench the flames that almost burned him to death.

Despite this he was certain of the business value of the idea and decided to scale up and formed a limited liability stock company to fund the development of a proper refinery. The refinery ended up being located on a small island in the lake Åmänningen just opposite to the town of Ängelsberg. Ängelsberg was home to one of the old iron mills in Sweden, Engelsbergs bruk, and the owner of the mill both invested in the company and sold the island to the company. Putting the refinery on the island meant that accidents would not endanger any other buildings, and the factory was built to limit the damage from any accidents.

But why put the refinery in the middle of Sweden, far from the oil fields of Pennsylvania in the US, and pretty far from the coast of Sweden? The reason was that this was where the market was. Ålund had worked for some of the mills and other businesses around the area and knew that there was a desperate need for cheaper kerosene to light the mills in the winter and increase their yearly production (not to mention providing reading and working light in homes and schools). The industries needed lubricants, and petroleum products could be used for shoe polish, water-proofing, and other uses.

Shoe polish, sold under the brand name “Libian” to the whole Swedish market. A modern-day analysis of the products found that they were highly effective at water-proofing leather, but also full of highly cancerogeneous substances. They would not be approved for sale today.

In the 1870s, there was a high import duty on refined petroleum products but none for crude oil, providing a market window for local refineries. According to a book about the refinery (Oljeön, by Kersti Kollberg & Björn Ullhagen), the company had profits of 20 to 25 thousand Swedish kronor on a turn-over of 100 to 150 thousand kronor. The company processed up to 1500 barrels of oil per year – or about 200 tons. Today, that is absolutely miniscule, but it was a major business 150 years ago.

Getting the crude oil to the factory was not all that hard either – the oil arrived in barrels in Stockholm, and there it could be loaded onto smaller ships or barges and sailed through the lakes and the Strömsholms kanal up to lake Åmänningen. This was far more economical than road transport, until the arrival of the railroads.

Oil barrel, on exhibition inside the factory.

The refinery started for real in 1876 and the business was wound down already in 1902. Newly introduced import duties on crude oil compounded with an increase in the price of oil and increased competition to make the business unprofitable. Finally, in 1901, an American schooner with a load of oil for the factory exploded when approaching Stockholm – it got too close to a steamship, and some embers from the steam engine landed on the ship. Twelve people died on the ship, and the factory missed its raw materials for the next year. The manufacturing of water-proofing and leather products was restarted a few years later, but that in turn shut down in 1927.

The process used was very similar to that used at the same time in the United States, but apparently there is nothing preserved over there that is this old.

Preservation

The factory was preserved intact largely thanks to the fact that it was on an island, and the water that was such an important early source of transport was by now seen more as a hindrance. Swedish entrepreneur Axel Ax:son Jonsson bought the island with the intent to preserve it already in 1928, and the preservation has continued under a series of owners in the petroleum business. Today, Preem owns the island and rents it out to Fagersta kommun for use as a historical landmark and museum.

The factory building, completely intact with most of the machinery still in place.

The refining process

The guided tour shows the remaining buildings on the island, beginning with the one remaining oil storage shed. When the oil arrived on the island in barrels, the barrels were rolled by hand into one of the store houses where it was left to settle for a bit. The most volatile (and at this time totally useless) fractions of the oil would evaporate. The remaining store house still smells like a petrol station, more than 100 years after the last oil was offloaded.

The entry point for the oil into the factory – barrels were rolled along the track over the bridge.

Eventually, the oil was rolled into the factory. The first fraction that was moved was the paraffin, which was filtered out. After this, the oil was poured into the vats for heating and slowly warmed up. The current fraction would evaporate and condense back to a fluid in metal coolers. The workers would look at the fluids and determine the nature of the current distillate. They did all of this without any technical aids – not even a thermometer. It was high-skilled work that not everyone could do.

A diagram of the refining process, on display in the factory.
The lids cover the top of the refining vats, and the pipes are where the current fraction would be captured for condensation.

The heat for the process was produced by burning wood. The factory was cleverly designed to separate the oil products from the fires in the furnaces – double-door “air locks” separated the two compartments to minimize the risk of any spark getting across and likely causing a major accident. The inner roof of the furnace compartment was covered in metal plates to further reduce the risk of fire. The safety precautions worked, since there never was an accident and the building is still intact and available for us to visit.

Trees cover the island today, along with surrounding islands. In the days of the oil refinery, it was all cut down.

The wood firing consumed a lot of wood. Today, the island itself, other islands in the lake and the shores around the lake are all covered by trees. It was rather different back in the days of the oil refinery, where all trees within easy reach had been cut down and used to power the refinery.

The furnaces used to warm the refining vats. All wood-fired.

At the end of the refining process, a rather thick oil residue remained that would be used for leather products and water-proofing. This oil had to be “cleaned” to be used, and that was achieved by pouring it into large frames and left floating in the lake! The water removed some impurities from below, and the sun bleached it from above. Environmental protection was not a thing in the 1870s… today, the water is just fine, but you should not disturb the bottom of the lake or nasty things will well up.

The light gasoline fraction that is so valuable today was considered a useless by-product back then, and it was poured into large basins in the ground to evaporate or seep into the ground. It was used as a way to clean hands and clothes from the heavier petroleum products – the workers and their living quarters must have smelt heavily of gasoline. Indeed, the whole island was rather impregnated with petroleum products, but today all of it has sunk far into the ground and you can eat the berries that grow on the island without risk.

Wooden vats used for the production of leather treatment products.

The workers

The workers at the factory were well-paid (about twice the rate of workers in the nearby Engelsbergs bruk iron works) and lived on the island in some rather nice worker houses, with their wives and children. The worker houses were spacious and nice-looking compared to what was normally offered at the time. They were part of the package to attract skilled and reliable workers to a job that was known to be dangerous. The company appears to have paid for at least some healthcare as well.

The remaining worker house – each corner holds a two-room apartment, used by a family. Unmarried men lived upstairs. Note the false windows on the short sides, which were added for purely aestethic reasons.
Inside one of the workers’ apartments.

The guide also pointed out that the worker housing was right across the water from the director’s home called Ulvaklev, and he might have wanted to see something nice when looking at the island. The little “hoods” on the roof are a reflection of the architecture of Ulvaklev, and pretty typical for the architect.

Ulvaklev, built for Bengt Fredrik Zetterström, the second director of the oil company.

The worker houses were set as far away from the factory as possible, for safety. However, the foreman lived right next to the factory! I guess the added risk came with added pay.

Given the effort involved in transporting goods to the island, the workers aimed to be as self-sufficient as possible. There were a few small fields for growing crops, gardens, and even some barns with animals. These must have been worked in addition to the regular work in the factory itself.

The children of the workers went to school on the mainland. They normally used small row boats to get across. Fine on a nice summer’s day like when we visited, but rather nasty in cold weather the storms. In the depth of winter, you could just ski or skate across the lake ice. However, once the ice started to melt it was really dangerous. Apparently, the children would walk across the ice with a boat in front of them, and if the ice started to break up they would quickly jump into it. Things have definitely gotten better since then…

View from the island towards Ängelsberg. It is not all that far across the water, but still…

Worth a visit

This blog only touched on some of the quite fascinating insights offered by the “oil island”. There is plenty more to be seen on a visit, and more to see around Ängelsberg as well. We did not have time to visit the world heritage Engelsberg Bruk. There is a nice outdoor sculpture park, trying to rekindle the artist colony that was present back in the mid-1800s.

Giant clothespin – wonderful sculpture. A pile of wood by Lars Vilks in the background.
Another entertaining piece of art.

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