It was on a fine Sunday in April in 1919 that William S. Rheem decided to motor with his family from his home in Oakland to Santa Cruz, perhaps to take a look at the ocean.

While most people still traveled by horse and buggy at the time, it was logical that Rheem would make the trip in a motorcar. After all, he was the president of Standard Oil of California. And he had built the Richmond refinery, which at the time was one of the biggest refineries in the world.

Rheem never made it back home. Before heading back to Oakland, the family stopped at a cafe for supper.

"Rheem had seated himself when he gave a short gasp and fell from the chair, dead. Heart disease was given as the cause of his death. Medical aid was called immediately by his son Willliam S. Rheem Jr., but to no avail," the Oakland Tribune reported in a front-page story on Monday, April 7.

Rheem might have been only 57 at the time of his death, but he had accomplished much in the oil industry.

He was born in Minnesota and grew up in Pennsylvania, where his father practiced law. Oil was big news in that state when Rheem was a boy. Oil well after oil well was being drilled and refineries were being built.

When Rheem was 23 he got a job as a chemist at the Standard Oil refinery in Franklin, Pa. Five years later he was sent to Whiting, Ind., where he was in charge of constructing a new refinery for the company.

In 1900 Standard Oil acquired the Pacific Coast Oil Co. and let the company keep its name, which it did until 1911 when it became known as the Standard Oil Co. of California.

Rheem was sent to Alameda to look over the PCO's refinery, which, when it was built, was the largest refinery west of Cleveland.

It was situated on 8 acres, way too small to accommodate Standard's growing fuel oil business in California.

There was another problem with the Alameda refinery. The water was too shallow for big oceangoing vessels.

So Rheem looked around. He needed something rather flat and big next to deep water. And it would be extra-nice if the location included a railroad terminal.

He found it along a country road that ended at the terminus of the Santa Fe railroad.

East Yards

"On Monday morning, October 28, 1901, three Standard Oil men stepped down from a Southern Pacific train at Barrett, a flag stop in Contra Costa County. They were the company's chief engineer, J.C. Black, the mason foreman, Ed Garrard and William S. Rheem.

"The party climbed into a three-seated surrey which was waiting for them, and they drove along a dusty country road toward a tiny railroad settlement called East Yards (Point Richmond). "... At a tract of land just north of the village, Rheem drew rein. Before him stretched 600 acres of rolling, stubble-covered land which his company, then called the Pacific Coast Oil Company, had purchased a few months before. This property, known as the Peters and Silva Farms, was to be the site of a new oil refinery," was the way "The Standard Oiler" told the story of the beginnings of the Richmond refinery in its October 1951 issue celebrating the refinery's 50th anniversary. All the issues of this company publication are at the Chevron Corporate Archive in Concord.

"Rheem and his companions had a job to do and they were impatient to begin. Before sundown, a man had been hired and set to work cleaning up the abandoned farmhouse which, Rheem decided, would serve as the main construction headquarters; other men with teams of horses had started grading," continued the story.

First crude oil in 1902

The Richmond refinery received its first crude oil via railway tank cars in 1902 and started operation even though many of its employees still lived in tents.

During its first year the refinery processed more than 3 million barrels of crude oil with its original staff of 80 employees.

By 1914 it was producing 65,000 barrels of refined products a day — more than 23 million barrels a year — and had 1,615 employees.

Rheem managed the refinery during its early years and in 1906 was given charge of manufacturing and marine department of the corporation. In 1911 Rheem became one of the company's vice presidents and in 1914 was given the title of first vice president.

In 1917 when D.G. Scofield, president of Standard Oil of California committed suicide, Rheem was elected to take his place.

Nilda Rego's Days Gone By appears Sundays in A&E. Reach her at nildarego@comcast.net.