A Visit to Wietze

(This is an opinion piece. It is my personal view of what Wietze might be like. However, I will attempt to justify my “view” with cites from references and canon.)

After the Ring of Fire the up-timers need fuels. Not just gasoline, but also diesel. They can strip gasoline from some of the gas wells around Grantville, but they can’t get diesel that way. That leaves them using bio-diesel substitutes to run diesel engines [see McDonnell: Grantville Gazette Volume 4]. In itself, that isn’t a problem. Diesel engines can run on bio-diesel with little or no modification. The problem is the cost of the bio-diesel. Down-time there is no waste fat or oil from fast food restaurants that you can get for a pittance and, after running it through a filter, use it in a diesel engine. They will have to use expensive seed or fish oils, at least until they can produce proper diesel, which means they have to find oil.

Unfortunately, the reference material in Grantville is very thin on German oil fields. However, fortune favors the up-timers. There are oil seeps in an area known as the Hannover Basin, and oil seeps are usually a very good indicator that there is oil in the immediate area. The seeps at Wietze were known to people on the bar when the need for an oil field was announced and we know that these seeps were also known to down-timers (Cooper (1); Kauenhowen, p.472). For this reason Wietze was selected for the first efforts in the search for oil in the 1632 universe.

Wietze is not the most productive oil field in Germany, but our heroes didn’t know that when they set out to exploit it. What they did know was that it lay within the Confederated Principalities of Europe sphere of influence, unlike the other six possible field locations hinted at in the Hammond Citation World Atlas (which is known to exist in Grantville).

Historically there is probably some confusion as to who owns the rights to the oil, but it seems it has been assumed that ownership of the oil belongs to the landowner rather than the leaseholder, and the land where the Wietze oil field exists has been determined, for 1632 universe purposes, to belong to George, the duke of Calenberg (1633; Cooper (2)).

So, where is Wietze? You might well ask. To describe its location as “in the middle of nowhere” is a slight exaggeration. However, when it comes to getting material to Wietze, and more importantly, getting oil products out to where they are needed, it certainly comes close.

Wietze is a small farming community about eighty-miles as the crow flies NWW of Magdeburg. It is such a small settlement that it doesn’t appear on the Blaeu 1645 map of Lüneburg. It lies on the left bank (traveling downstream) of the River Aller, on the left bank of the Wietze River (traveling downstream) about twenty miles north of the city of Hannover and ten miles west of Celle. From Wietze and extending east toward Celle there is a bog-like region known as the Wietzenbruch. Today this is a region of extensive forest and fen woodland (Bruchwald) about 400 square kilometers (150 sq mi) in area (Wiki: Wietze – Aller). However, if we take into account the impact of centuries of drainage engineering and modern irrigation drawing off water, the region is likely to have been larger and wetter in the early modern era.

Across the Aller, beyond the right bank, there is a trade route joining Magdeburg (via Braunschweig (Brunswick) and Celle) to the river-port city of Bremen. Not that that road will be very good. Sieglerschmidt (p.31) tells us that even the great overland roads (and this isn’t one of them) were “generally of lower quality than your modern field or woodland road.” They lacked proper foundations, and were usually in need of repair. Kriedte (p.102) tells us that a report on roads in the Duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel “dating from 1681 noted large number of ‘very bottomless and bad places.'”

From 1633 we know that Quentin Underwood is expecting to use steam sternwheel river tugs ” to provide much of the transportation for the petroleum he was starting to produce at Wietze.” The idea of using the river to transport cargo won’t be new to anybody. In fact, as far back as the 12th century metals from the Harz were shipped past Wietze from Braunschweig to the North Sea. All of which suggests that Quentin could be able to barge his petroleum at least as far as Braunschweig (using first the Aller and then the Oker River)—which only leaves another fifty or so miles to connect to Magdeburg. Unfortunately, until a railway is laid or a canal dug that will bridge that gap, the roads, bad as they might be, will remain the only way to move most goods between Magdeburg and Wietze—although a pipeline bridging the gap could deliver petroleum products to Magdeburg.

There is another way to connect Magdeburg with Wietze by water, but it involves a loop of about 300 miles—Wietze to Bremen via the Rivers Aller and Weser; the North Sea between Bremen and Hamburg; and finally, the River Elbe between Magdeburg and Hamburg. I doubt they’ll be traveling that route in 1633—maybe they’ll use it after the Baltic War, when the USE sphere of influence extends past Bremen to the North Sea, and includes Hamburg.


Having decided to head for Wietze, what can people expect to find there? Well, as I said before, it’s a small farming village. The River Wietze is a shallow river (not navigable) that flows about a quarter mile to the north of the village, and the village is about a mile and a half southeast of where the River Wietze joins the River Aller. The village is positioned close to a ford across the Wietze, which might in part explain its location.

Before the up-timers arrive to exploit the oil the village population will probably be in the one to two hundred people range, living in maybe twenty housing units centered on the village which lies in the middle of the land they farm. That’s a density of five to ten per housing unit, but that’s not unreasonable for the period. Most of the adults will work the land, either as tenant farmers or as farm laborers.

Modern aerial photographs show the village surrounded by farmland, which is in turn nearly completely surrounded by woodland. We are told that back in the 1630s the wooded area would have been less, which is important when we consider the advent of the French raid in 1634: The Baltic War, as most of the area the French would have to pass through is heavily wooded today. We are also told the ground close to the rivers is wet, especially the areas southwest of where the River Wietze joins the River Aller. Which, considering the River Aller turns from a southwest direction to northwest, isn’t too surprising. Any increase in the river level (due to rain or snow melt) is likely to flood the land bordering that outside curve.


Having arrived in Wietze the up-timers responsible for setting up the oil recovery and refining facility had to make some decisions. We know that Quentin Underwood is planning on using river barges to move the oil out of Wietze. That means they have to build a dock.

So where to build the dock? The River Wietze is an obstacle to easy movement north and south, and the known oil seeps are to the south. If the dock is north of the Wietze, then we have to transport oil from the oil seeps across the Wietze. So we have to locate the dock on that bit of curve on the River Aller south of the River Wietze. Not ideal, but the pragmatic choice.

We have placed the dock, now, what about the oil facility? The oil seeps that brought us here are about a quarter of a mile northwest of the village of Wietze, and a mile southeast of the dock. Do we put the oil facility close to the oil seeps and transport refined products a mile to the dock? Or do we put it close to the dock, and transport crude oil the mile from the oil seep? Pragmatism suggests the oil facility should be built close to the dock, for the simple reason that that is where everything enters or leaves the facility—and some of the material necessary for building the oil facility is big and heavy. This will be found to be the right decision when we start to drill for and find oil, as a good deal of the oil around Wietze is closer to the dock than it is the oil seeps.

The Technology

Having decided where to build the oil facility, we now have to decide just what is the oil facility to be like.

When most people think of an oil refinery they think of tall fractionating columns—where the oil goes in as crude and separates out into the different frctions (Gasoline, naphthas, kerosene, diesel (oil gas), fuel oil, residue). That’s nice, but those columns are big. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1977EB15th) talks of one-hundred-and-fifty feet high towers with forty to a hundred fractionating trays. If that tower is ten feet diameter and made of half-inch rolled iron plate, with forty fractionating plates in quarter-inch plate, that’s about sixty-five tons of iron. Can you imagine trying to get that much material to Wietze, let alone erecting it once you get there?

So what will they build?

In the beginning the only oil they can recover will be what they can skim off of the tar pits. Volumes will be small and production will be measured in buckets per day rather than barrels per day. That sort of volume doesn’t demand complex processing equipment, and simple batch processing in very simple stills could suffice.

Batch processing means you fill a “kettle” with a charge of crude oil and heat it. Different fractions are boiled off by controlling the temperature in the vessel and you keep boiling off the different fractions until you have all that you want. Early on they need gasoline and diesel, but they might also isolate the middle fraction, kerosene, as well, meaning they have three cycles. After they have boiled off the diesel fraction the kettle will be emptied and left to cool. The residue is “fuel oil.” You can extract lubricating oils and ashpalt from this, and or use it as fuel.

Early batch processing methods will be quite inefficient in terms of throughput for the amount of equipment and manpower required. Additionally, there will likely be difficulty in producing consistent product grades. For these reasons, it can be anticipated that a second generation process would be implemented as soon as there was a reasonable certainty of successful production from the drilling program. The second generation technology would build on the knowledge base developed from the coal tar industry which started in 1631.

In the early stages of developing the refinery capability, until they know the sort of volumes they might face, they could use something like one of the existing coal tar fractional distillation systems (built for the coal tar industry) with pots probably no bigger than an oil barrel. As such,they should be easy to transport to Wietze, even by road.

The first separator pot in the system will draw its feedstock from a wood stave storage tank of crude oil. From this tank the oil will pass through one or more heat exchangers. The heat exchangers will heat up the feedstock a little before it enters the “boiler” while also aiding cooling of the distillate and residues. For efficiency reasons the boiler will be modeled on a locomotive type small-tube boiler, except it’ll be oil passing through the tubes. The small tubes allow more surface area to be exposed to heat than would be the case by just heating a “pot,” and will heat the oil to the same temperature using less energy (fuel). From the boiler the oil, now heated to the required temperature, will go by pipe straight into the separator pot (Corwith (2)). The heat exchangers aren’t essential, and might be nothing more than a few windings of one pipe around another, but they add to the efficiency of the system, and this system was designed by an engineer. Improving the efficiency of things is what engineers live for.

If the operator has got things running correctly (And in the primitive equipment being used it will be up to the skill of the operator to control things), the desired fraction will evaporate out of the heated feed oil and rise up the pot. The vapor will hit a perforated “bubble-cap” tray near the top of the pot and the desired fraction will condense onto the drip tray (“Bubble-caps” sit over short risers in a drip tray, using the condensed fluid as a “fluid seal”).

The condensed fluid (the desired fraction) will be drawn off from the drip tray and pass through the first of the heat exchangers previously mentioned, and the cooled fraction will be piped to a storage tank, from which it can be poured into barrels ready for export. The oil being fractionated can be heated inside the separator pot, but not by exposing it to a flame. Instead, superheated steam (heated to the temperature of the desired fraction in another set of small tubes inside the boiler) can be passed through the oil collecting at the bottom of the separator pot. The system is continually pumping more heated oil into the separator pot, so the residues (everything left after boiling of the desired fraction) have to be drawn off. Otherwise the pot fills up and stops functioning. The residue will be drawn off from below the steam inlet. Hopefully, by the time it leaves the pot the desired fraction has been totally removed.

The residue from one separator pot will be the feedstock for the next pot down the line. Either it will go into a storage tank (where it’ll cool down a bit—not what an engineer will want to see), or it can be piped directly to the next pot. The process will be repeated in successive separator pots, but at higher and higher temperatures, until all the desired fractions have been removed. The final residue will contain heavy fuel oils and tars. The oils can be evaporated off by vacuum distillation at 750°F (400°C), leaving a residue of asphalt, or bitumen (1977EB15th). This system of “chained” separator pots is entirely suitable for the primitive nature of the oil processing technology available—being well within the technological and industrial capabilities available in 1633 (see EB9th: Paraffin).

Because we are drawing off fractions as we go, the amount of oil going into each successive separator pot decreases. Efficiency of design would suggest that the size of the successive separator pots should decrease as well. However, not only can the proportion of the various fractions in crude oil vary between formations, but the small differences in the sizes of the pots necessary to process the various Wietze oils do not really justify constructing different sized vessels.

Over time, as oil wells are drilled and oil is struck, they will need to increase their refining capacity. They have the choice of installing extra coal-tar size units, or building something bigger. The description of a man climbing a ladder welded to a separating pot in canon (1634:The Baltic War) suggests they went for something bigger.

There are two “something bigger” options. One is to take advantage of the fact that the useful fractions (gasoline, kerosene, and diesel) amount to only 23-51 percent of the crude found at Wietze. They could get away with having a single large pot run at a constant temperature to boil off all of the desired fractions (Corwith (2) suggests a cylinder ten feet high and about twenty-eight inches diameter (with a thin sheet metal cover protecting a layer of insulation, making the pot maybe three feet diameter), made out of quarter-inch rolled plate—and massing less than a thousand pounds when in running condition—would satisfy canon, and can process something like two hundred and fifty barrels per day (bpd) of feedstock.). These fractions can then be condensed and fed through the existing small pot line and the residue sold as fuel oil. This means we only need one large separator pot to feed two smaller pots (We are no longer using a small pot to separate diesel.). However, if we decide we need to isolate the asphalt or bitumen from the fuel oil, we need a new pot to process it.

The alternative is to design and build a new potline using the same larger separating pot design. This has the advantage of removing the cooling step, and creating a system where every pot is the same size. There are pluses and minuses for both options. All that canon says is that there must be at least one separator pot large enough for a man to need a ladder (welded to the pot) to climb so he can look out and see the French attacking, so the final choice is up to prospective authors.

The scene before the French raid in May 1634

When Quentin Underwood turns up for his last inspection of the oil facility in May 1634 what is he going to see? Let’s assume he arrives by boat (He could arrive by plane.).

When he steps onto the dock of the oil facility he is likely to find a storage area where full barrels of petroleum products are sitting waiting for the next barge out.

Most of those barrels will be headed upstream, toward Magdeburg. Others, mostly containing the heavier fuel oils, will be heading downstream, towards the river port city of Bremen. Bremen, and anywhere in between, are likely to be buying the fuel oil as a substitute for the peat they are otherwise forced to use (Depending on what is in the peat it is 12-28 times the volume for the same calorific value of heavy fuel oil.). However, there will be demand for these fuel oils in Magdeburg as well.

When he looks beyond the dock he’ll see (based on descriptions in 1634: The Baltic War) a compound surrounded by the beginnings of an earth fieldwork about a hundred yards from the operations center (which is in turn, close to the separator pots, which puts them both close to the river). There will be a number of watch towers around the perimeter (probably at least four—one per corner of the compound) manned by members of the recently arrived garrison. Within the compound there will be a number of structures housing workshops, laboratories, storerooms, the staff canteen, various other offices, and the operations center. That description sounds grander than they’ll be. At best the buildings are going to be standard fachwerk half-timbered structures with “wattle and daub” walls, and probably thatch roofs. There will be windows, but few in number and with small panes of glass—in other words, little different from normal down-time rural structures.

There will also be the cluster of separator pots with their storage tanks located close to the dock (So the filled barrels don’t have to travel far).

The earth fieldworks can only at the early stages of construction because the garrison that is routed by the attacking French would never have abandoned complete or even near complete field defenses. Not when it consists of a ditch and an earth wall, and not when it means presenting their backs to pursuing cavalry (most combat casualties occur in this period when cavalry pursue and cut down running soldiers). Where that compound is positioned the ditch that would have been dug outside the compound (doubling as a source of earth to build the fieldworks) will tend to fill with water. The combination of water filled moat and earth fieldwork is a barrier that cavalry and dismounted soldiers would hesitate to cross against armed defenders. We are told that the garrison is five hundred men, and they face about two thousand men, that’s attacking odds of four to one. Even if all the defenders have is obsolete matchlock muskets, those are not attractive odds for attacking that kind of prepared defensive position without serious engineering support (to bridge the moat).

I doubt that many people will choose to live within the working compound, and the garrison and their associated camp-followers can’t. The area isn’t big enough for the amount of housing the garrison and camp followers need, but also, soldiers defending their families—and a lot of those camp-followers are going to be soldier’s families—are unlikely to rout like they do in the book.

With only about twenty up-timers at peak working with the garrison or at the oil facility, they will most likely choose to billet with families in the village. That will be a lot more comfortable and economic than building housing inside the compound, or—after much negotiation with the landowners and leaseholders—building within the village boundary. It also has the advantage of making sure the men, and it is mostly male up-timers who have traveled to Wietze, are not left to look after themselves. Instead, their host households can provide bed and board, and do their washing etc, leaving the up-timers to concentrate on the jobs they there to do. However, the majority of the houses in the village will likely be considered primitive by the up-timers. With the up-timers willing to pay good money for what they want, the villagers are likely to enlarge and improve their houses, and/or build an inn or some kind of boarding house to cater for them.

Most of the initial down-time labor is likely to be provided by agricultural workers from the Wietze area, and they will be trained to do the jobs they are needed to do. Over time itinerant labor and journeying craftsmen will find their way to Wietze and add to the workforce. However, the numbers will grow slowly, and they’ll be more willing to live in primitive conditions—even bunking down in some of the buildings in the oil facility. This means there is no real pressure on accommodation, until the garrison arrives.

I see the garrison arriving sometime in early 1634. I say this because an extra five hundred men would have been invaluable in the mad rush of September-October 1633 when King Gustav was so worried about finding soldiers to protect his Baltic ports. The troops would probably have stayed near the Baltic over the winter, and only moved to Wietze in 1634, sometime before the French raid. They can’t arrive in Wietze too early, otherwise they should have completed those fieldworks, and they can’t arrive too close to the French raid that they can’t make a good start on them.

Normal operating procedure in this period is to billet garrison troops on the community, but Wietze isn’t big enough to support that number (one result of this is that the village is likely to be given permission to hold a weekly market, otherwise they’ll never feed all the extra mouths). The camp-followers that will join them will make a bad situation worse, as camp-follower numbers can equal those of the soldiers they serve. Note that some of these camp-followers follow crafts and trades, and could be employed by the oil exploration and processing industries.

The officers and wealthier camp-followers are likely to expect housing similar to what the up-timers want, while the common soldiers and poorer camp-followers will make do with what they can find, such as barns, tents, and temporary wattle and daub shacks. Certainly there is little likelihood that the government will spring to building them a proper barracks.

For many of the reasons already given, the garrison and camp-follower settlement is likely to be close to the village of Wietze—probably to the north (near the ford across the river) where they would have easy access to the River Wietze for water for washing and cooking.

This leaves just two more things for Quentin Underwood to see. The first is the oil derricks that should be busily drilling for oil. They will be simple timber structures broadly similar to what was used in West Virginia in the 1920’s, and be at least seventy feet high—so that the drilling bit, tools, and well casings can be lifted and lowered down the borehole. There should be a “hut” on a sled that protects the donkey engine (either a hot bulb internal combustion engine or a small steam engine) that provides the power to operate the cable drill and winches. (The alternative is that power is provided by animals on a sweep. This would work, but drilling speeds would be significantly slower. For that reason, I’m predicting the rigs have some kind of donkey engine.)

The final structure he might see is a producing well. Each well is likely to be identifiable by the walking beam pump, a small wood stave storage tank of about thirty barrels capacity, and a treadmill or animal on a sweep to power the pump (The alternative is an expensive donkey engine, and well, that level of expenditure isn’t warranted at this point).

After the French raid

From 1634: The Baltic War we learn from Jesse Woods flying above the destruction that not only are they trashing everything, they’re also “ . . . burning everything they can.” And just about everything in the compound can burn.

When Greg Ferrara is flown in to Wietze he is going to find a scene of devastation. Let’s start with the dock. That is seasoned timber. Sure it’s close to water, but it’s likely to have oil spilt on the timbers, and there is going to probably have been barrels of petroleum products sitting there waiting shipment. A lot of it will burn.

The buildings: with thatch roofs, fachwerk walls, wood floors, and plenty of fuel loading inside with furniture and fittings, even without the addition of easily accessed petroleum based accelerants, they’ll burn, leaving little but rubble.

The watch towers: they’ll be timber, and they’ll be knocked down and probably burned.

The separator pots though, won’t burn. Sure the wood stave storage tanks around them will burn and things could get hot, but the actual iron separating pots made out of thick rolled plate iron will survive. However, they’ll be pulled over. The outer skin will be penetrated and torn, exposing the insulation, and a lot of their fittings will be damaged or (especially anything in copper or brass) stolen, there won’t be a single dial or inspection window left unbroken, and the various pipes and heat exchangers will be damaged. The separator pots will be repairable, it’ll just take time.

The drilling derricks, if they are close enough to the oil facility compound will also be burned, and the engines damaged or destroyed. This will cause problems. Especially if the French cut the cables, releasing the drill bits to fall to the bottom of the borehole.

If there are any producing wells the French can get to they might damage the well-head Christmas tree, but I can’t see there being any oil well fires that can’t be easily controlled. The Christmas tree will be trashed, but that can probably be repaired or replaced. The wood stave storage tanks will be burnt, as will the walking beam of the pump and the sweep or treadmill. One hopes whoever was in charge of the animal on the sweep cut it free before the French got there, otherwise the animal is likely to be killed by the raiders. There will be a containment berm surrounding the well, so hopefully any spillage will be contained (But then, if they are so inclined, the French could breech that berm. I guess it depends on how much time it takes to do so and how they feel at the time.)

It is possible that any petroleum storage tank or barrel, especially those containing the lighter fractions (raw crude, and fractions down to Diesel), once ignited, could blow up. At special risk will be storage tanks that are only partly filled, as that can allow the necessary fuel-air mix to occur (Corwith (2)).

Rebuilding after the raid

Immediately after the raid efforts will be directed towards getting the refined products flowing again as soon as possible. That means rebuilding the separator cluster, using the existing separators. They might have problems getting exactly the same fittings, but over all, the rebuilt separator cluster should be very much the same as the old one.

There will be some reconstruction of facility buildings, but they’ll not be as important as the separator line, the storage tanks, and replacing all the burnt barrels and barrel staves that would have been awaiting the cooper. It’s summer, so they can probably survive with tents.

June and the Congress of Copenhagen

The important thing about the Congress of Copenhagen is that it signals peace. With peace the garrison is no longer necessary. There is no obvious enemy who can reach Wietze, and they will look to redeploy the men to somewhere where they will be more useful. This will make the people of Wietze extremely happy (no community likes having soldiers billeted on them). It also removes any stress on housing and sanitation. Continued security at the oil facility can be provided by arming the village and oil facility militia with SRG rifled flint- or cap-lock rifles with bayonets and giving them some training. Certainly a hundred or so such armed militia can’t do any worse than the previous five hundred man garrison.

By mid to late July 1634 the oil facility should be producing again and the number of up-timers will draw down as people leave for jobs elsewhere. Wietze will return to the slumbering farming village it used to be, except for a few minor changes.

There will be producing oil wells supplying a small oil refinery. There will be a dock that is serviced by steam powered riverboats, making trade with Wietze cheaper and regular. There will be regular employment for citizens of Wietze working on the oil facility and on the continuing drilling program. The housing stock of the village will probably improve in number and quality as more money enters the community.

There might even be a new industry. Wietze lies on a salt dome. If any wells hit that dome then the down-timers know how to extract the salt. It can be a new and profitable industry for the village. They can use fuel oil from the wells to heat evaporators to recover the salt, and that dock, with those steam powered riverboats, makes it easy to get their salt to market.


Cooper, Iver: (1) the Author’s Note (Jan. 2007) to “Drillers in Doublets”: in Grantville Gazette, Volume 4

Cooper, Iver: (2) “The Doodlebugger”: in Grantville Gazette, Volume 13

Corwith, Jeff: (1) “The Oil Mines at Wietze and Pechelbronn”: in Grantville Gazette, Volume 23

Corwith, Jeff: (2) private communications with Jeff Corwith, who is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines with nearly 30 years of experience as a Petroleum engineer in the oil industry.

Kauenhowen, Walter (1928) Oil Fields Of Germany, Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, May 1928, Volume 12 Number 5, p. 463-499.

Kriedte, Peter,: “Trade”, in Germany: A New Social and Economic History; Volume 2, 1630-1800, edited by Sheilagh Ogilvie and Bob Scriber; p.100-133

McDonnell, Allen W.,: How To Keep Your Old John Deere Plowing: Diesel Fuel Alternatives For Grantville 1631-1639: in Grantville Gazette, Volume 4

Sieglerschmidt, Jörn,: Social and Economic Landscapes”; in Germany: A New Social and Economic History; Volume 2, 1630-1800, edited by Sheilagh Ogilvie and Bob Scriber; p.1-38

1633: by Eric Flint and David Weber

1634: The Baltic War: by Eric Flint and David Weber

1977EB15th: 15th edition Encyclopedia Britannica, published 1977

EB9th: 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published 1885