The Origin of the Oilers

Anthony Borgo
January 2019

Growing up I would go to football or basketball games to watch the Oilers square off against region foes.  I always thought that these hometown heroes were named after the oil refinery in Whiting’s back yard.  However, within the past few years, I learned that the high school’s nickname could have a completely different origin story.

There has never been any debate that the high school’s logo is an oil can.  The green can with the elongated spout has always appeared on school letterhead.  But, what does an oil can have to do with the oil refinery?  The particular style of oil can that historically has been used by Whiting High School is more associated with the railroad industry.

Because of the Calumet Region’s location at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, it was logical that the railroads, seeking the quickest route from the east to Chicago, would build their tracks across this area.  As a result, interest in this area quickly grew and, an area that was once considered uninhabitable, soon saw its first settlers to the territory that would become Whiting.

In 1851, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad (New York Central) reached Miller’s station in Gary.  Seven years later, the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago, financed largely by the Pennsylvania Railroad, reached the present cities of Gary, East Chicago and Whiting.  The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad followed this push in 1874.  The Calumet Terminal (Calumet Belt line) connected all three tracks in 1888.  This created a junction for the exchange of freight in carloads.  The joining of the railroad tracks brought several families to this region, forming a center of what would become Whiting.

As I began my research I discovered that the railroad industry still has a position called “oilers.”  There is even a National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, which represents working men and women in a wide variety of occupations and industries, including both passenger and freight rail.  According to Herman Lund, a railroad aficionado, “In the days of old, oilers worked at the roundhouse, tending live engines, supplying fuel oil to the bunker in the tender, and oiling journal boxes on freight cars.  Firemen did the job of the oiler if they didn’t have one on the smaller railroads.” Legend has it that Pop Whiting, the man who the city is named after, worked as an oiler during his railroad career.

But, what about Standard Oil?

Plans to build a refinery in Whiting, Indiana, were disclosed to Standard Oil executives in February, 1889.  Work on the refinery began on May 5, 1889 under the cover of secrecy. However, in October 1889, New York representatives of the Standard Oil Company revealed the mystery of what was going on in Whiting, Indiana.  Executives admitted that an oil refinery for the Standard Oil Company was being constructed. 

Around the turn of the century, newspaperman affectionately referred to the city of Gary as “Steel City” and the city of Whiting as “Oil City.”  From its inception, the Whiting High School basketball team was a force to be reckoned with.  The hardwood hoopsters even made it to the 1912 State Championship game, falling short to Franklin High School.  However, during this stretch, the sports columnists never used the term Oiler to describe Whiting’s athletes.  At times they were called the Oil City Warriors and even the Oil City Gladiators.

As I scoured newspapers from the early part of the Twentieth Century, the first time I came across the words Whiting and Oilers was in 1921.  According to the December 5, 1921, Hammond Times, the Whiting Red Crowns were preparing for a basketball contest against the South Bend Independents.  The Whiting Red Crowns were a semi-professional football and basketball program that were sponsored by Standard Oil. 

The Red Crowns were coached by L.B. Hart, who was also the football and basketball coach for Whiting High School.  The article states, “Coach Hart of the Oilers opines that the South Benders will have a big job on their hands.”  So, did Coach Hart bring over the nickname Oilers to the high school from his days with the Red Crowns?  It wasn’t until another two years that the high school team began to be referred to as the Oilers.

The first time the word Oilers appears in the Reflector, 1924

According to a Hammond Times articled dated March 3, 1923, “In the first half of the dramatized epic of high school athletics yesterday, Whiting assumed to perfection the role of villain.  Smooth, suave, confident and unruffled, the Oilers of Oil City completely put the skids under frail De Motte and skidded our little Nell right out of the picture.”  In addition, the first time the word Oilers is mentioned in Whiting’s yearbook is not seen until the 1924 Reflector.

As you can see, the Oilers’ origin is still as murky as ever.  Are the Oilers named after the railroad or the refinery?  I guess we will never truly know.  So, with a city like ours that has such a rich and storied history, why can’t it be both?