The International Steam Pages

Digboi Centenary (Assam Oil Industry) Museum

This is the original illustrated report which I uploaded following my 2008 visit. I have now (30th January 2013) added an account of the background to the museum provided by Sabeena Chowdhary.

As part of the centenary celebrations of the first production oil well in India, the Assam Oil Company (part of Indian Oil) established a museum of the history of the Assam oil industry, behind the refinery at Digboi, which opened in early 2002. There is a fair amount of preserved machinery present, much of it stationary steam. Not illustrated are a number of small simplex and duplex pumps, mostly anonymous but including a couple of examples by Weir. Note that the museum is closed on Monday and nearby is the Digboi War Cemetry, poorly sign posted but as ever a poignant reminder of the futility of war as a means of solving problems. Not far away are some rather less well conserved North Eastern Coalfields Relics.

Pride of place is given to this large Borsig stationary engine - unfortunately not all exhibits have explanatory notices (as this one) and the curator is not a technical man...



Next to it is a large duplex pump, marked only as Dow 41245.



From the workshops is a steam hammer from B & S Massey (Manchester, England), dating from about 1930, a nice 'spot' following our afternoon with working examples in Howrah.:



This is a Clarke, Chapman (Gateshead, England) steam winch, 8" x 12" as marked on the cylinders:




There are three very similar large duplex pumps, this one has been painted and appears to be from Brasov (Romania, I believe):


Unrestored are two almost identical engines to this, one is marked with 'Weston' and the other is Romanian with a plate  from Uzinele "Strungul" Orasul Stalin, dating it from 1959.

I was quite unclear what this monster did, but have been informed by Tom Sherrif that it is a diesel driven gas compressor, most likely produced in the USA in the 1950s.:


Exhibited in the main hall is a vertical Ashworth and Parker (Bury, England) engine, its plate carries 1856/1949, although the explanatory notice dates it to 1930!


Metre gauge Ruston and Hornsby 4wDM (Size 88, Class DSC No. 394011) is displayed, presumably it worked here, there are also two pictures of steam locomotives at work in Digboi exhibited. More bizarrely present is one of the small Bagnalls from Coal India with two home made coaches:


The following account of the museum has kindly been supplied by Sabeena Chowdhary, Deputy Manager (Corporate Communications), Indian Oil Corporation Limited (Assam Oil Division), Digboi.

Tell the Story

It was in the late 19th century that history was made with the birth of oil in a remote corner of Assam in the midst of the deep, dense jungles by a group of intrepid pioneers. However, it began with ‘Wood’ from the jungles of Assam which was the first attraction; which led to the knowledge about the region that it was faultlessly matched to cultivate tea; coal was discovered simultaneously and much needed in the tea factories. The Assam railway & Trading Company strategically planned to lay the railway lines in the upper Assam region for easy transportation of coal. Italian engineers commissioned by the Assam Railways and trading Company to build a railway line from Dibrugarh to Margherita used elephants to haul heavy rails and also to wade through the dense jungles. During this project, it was observed that the elephants returned with glistening oil drops on their feet; thus the liquid Gold was accidentally discovered at Digboi around 10 miles from Margherita.

Though the earliest recorded reference to the existence of oil in India is found in the memoirs and dispatches of the Army officers who traveled in Upper Assam as early as in 1825, it was only in 1866 that Mr Goodenough of Mckillop, Stewart & Co., Calcutta started the first systematic programme of drilling for oil in India in November 1866, at Nahorpung about 30 miles south east of Digboi. It was a hand-dug well was drilled up to 102 feet and proved dry. This was just seven years after the World’s First commercial oil well was drilled by Col William Drake in Pennsylvania, USA.

Subsequently several attempts were made and finally in September 1889, in Digboi, the first commercially viable well in India was successfully drilled. It was christened as the Well No. 1 or the Discovery Well and it set the scene of birth of the Oil industry in India. The Digboi Refinery was built and commissioned with the First Still in December 1901. The emergence of Kerosene in the markets in January 1902 announced the very first organized petroleum market in India.

Once Upon a Time…

Standing close to the historic Discovery Well no.1 at Digboi , in close proximity to the vintage oil producing field of 1001 wells, the Digboi Centenary Museum is the first of its kind in India. Established in the centenary year of Digboi Refinery, it provides tourists, students, researchers, historians and all with a dekko of history of oil, beginning in the dense rain forests of Digboi in the late 19th Century. The museum depicts the development of the modern oil industry in India with exhibits, artefacts, rare and amazing photographs, memorabilia, precious letters, tableaux, archived materials, historic machinery, vignettes of World War II touching Digboi and various period knick-knacks. The museum offers an absorbing mixture of entertainment and education for all age groups and indeed one has to visit the museum to be transported in time and re-live the years of hardship experienced by those magnificent oil men.

As the visitors to the museum walk inside, they encounter the giant diorama depicting a life size elephant set amidst a tropical jungle scene, for it was the sight of oil drops on elephant’s feet that set the ball rolling for the search of oil by the British pioneers in true spirit. 

More than a Hundred Years Unrolled....

The walled panels on the upper floor of the museum present an insight into the past and present of the petroleum industry in Digboi with visually dynamic graphics interspersed with exhibits of machinery, equipment, models of plants and rare relics of an earlier period.

The history of Assam Oil from its foggy past to its present state, the first steps to build the edifice of a modern refinery, the adventurism of oil production, refinery & marketing, the joys and traumas, glimpses of British Sahab and the Indian bearer in the office scene, a peep into the cultural life of people of another era – all rolled out in a fascinating, seamless journey through time.

Parallel to the growth of the oil industry, a flourishing township grew alongside – developed and built in their own inimitable style by the British owners, complete with European style bungalows, clubs, golf course and a distinctive life style. The exhibits of family, social and recreational and cultural life displayed in the museum tell their own story as to how life was in the days gone by.

Oil Pioneers and the Global Scene

The panels with facts and visuals on the ground floor tell the story of how oil industry was born in the wilds of Pennsylvania, USA, and elsewhere; the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirits of George Bissel, “Colonel” Edwin Drake, Rockefeller, D’Arcy, Cargill et al – the rush for the black gold and the scramble for money and power.

The ground floor of the main museum hall also contains the items from collection of machinery of the workshop, refinery, power stations, oil fields and the marketing installations. The fascinating displays from the administrative, welfare and labour offices of the Assam Oil Company bring back the nostalgia of the days gone by.

A Photograph tells a Thousand Words....

A superb ambience to soak up the past oil story, one needs to step in to the photo gallery hall, where several rare old photographs of the past are displayed with immaculate care. The visitor sails through 100 years of history of the petroleum industry of Digboi and of the nation, narrated by these historic photographs.

Stepping outside the main museum hall, the the display is a variety of vintage equipment and machinery of the refinery. All systematically laid out in pagoda style kiosks, the machines have their own fascinating stories to tell in the first person, the display is set against stunning lush green hillocks, silhouetted by the old abandoned oil derricks adjacent to the ancient Digboi Oil field of 1001 wells. And the red flare of the present day refinery towers above the exciting stage. Displayed with the gigantic 450 bhp single cylinder steam engine of Borsig, Germany, and other sturdy machines of the past, is a replica of the retail outlet of the B.O.C. days complete, a British couple as customers, with a period car and other paraphernalia of a petrol station of that era.

A Tribute to the Magnificent Oil 

The Digboi Centenary Museum is a tribute to the magnificent oil men of Digboi, all of whom have contributed immensely to keep this place alive for over 100 years – a tremendous achievement by any standards. It is a great favourite amongst visitors, who come from various parts of India and abroad.

The Museum was inaugurated by Shri Ram Naik, Naik the then Union Minister of P&NG, on 4th January 2002 and opened for the public on 1st March 2002. Mr Ram Naik also termed Digboi as the “Gangotri of the Hydrocarbon sector in India”.

The creation of this ‘abode of India’s oil heritage’ was the brainchild of Mr A N Das Executive Director of Assam Oil Division. Having completed ten years of story telling, the museum is now due for a value addition and up-gradation. Educative, informative, intriguing and exciting…the Digboi Centenary Museum and its tour leaves one with memories that could linger on for a lifetime.

Precursor of Petroleum Refining - “The Still”

In the early stages of petroleum refining, crude oil was distilled in ‘Stills’, which were mounted on structures very similar to the benches of a gallery and fired from underneath. This arrangement enabled the oil to flow from one still to the next one, placed on the step below. It is the lower portion of one of the huge cast iron pans - ‘stills’ – used to treat crude oil in 1890s. Its diameter is nine feet and the depth is four feet.

Recovered from the Digboi Oilfield, the ‘Still’ is exhibited just inside the Digboi Refinery.

Rob and Yuehong  Dickinson