the history of texas oil -- 5/04/20

Today's selection -- from Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan. The history of Texas oil:

"Oil was never 'discovered' in Texas; it was just always there. It was the 'scum' that surviving members of the De Soto and Moscoso expeditions had found seeping up out of the Texas surf in 1543 and then used to seal the gaps in their leaky handmade rafts while they were tortured by clouds of mosquitoes. A three-or four-acre pond in the forests between the Brazos and Sabine Rivers was apparently regarded by local Indians -- the Bidais and Deadose -- as a useful resource, since blobs of lubricant in the form of petro­leum percolated up from its sulfurous shallows. When the Anglos came, they called the place Sour Lake. In the little community of Sour Lake today, on the side of an out-of-business Mexican restaurant that faces Highway 105, a fading mural depicts a group of Indians wading through the water and staring down at floating, fetid-looking brown lumps. 'All over the lake's sur­face,' an early visitor noted, 'there is an escaping gas that ignites as quickly as gunpowder the moment that a match is applied to it.'

"Yet the place was, improbably, a mecca. On the mural, next to the scene of the Indians staring down at the petroleum seeping up out of Sour Lake, is a full-length portrait of Sam Houston standing in front of a long-vanished resort hotel with an explanatory text below: 'Houston seeks mudbath.'

"Houston was indeed one of the guests who traveled to Sour Lake to take therapeutic baths and drink the supposedly medicinal waters. In fact, he sought relief there in the summer of 1863, just before he died. A few years earlier, Frederick Law Olmsted, in his narrative about his travels through Texas, left a vivid description of a sulfurous, gaseous resort. 'The approach to the rude bathing-houses,' he remembered, 'is over a boggy margin, sending up a strong bituminous odor, upon pools in which rises a dense brown, transparent liquid, described as having the properties of the Persian and Italian naphthas.'

"At the time, there was no compelling use for petroleum that extended much beyond its restorative powers. It was handy, however, for jobs that re­quired some sort of lubricant or sealant, and the dried-up, oil-saturated mud on the banks of Sour Lake could even be sliced up and burned like candles. And there were enterprising do-it-yourself types like the farmer in Liberty County who sank a pipe three feet into his backyard and, with the aid of a funnel, diverted the natural gas that emanated from the ground into his house, where he used it for cooking and lighting.

"Oil production during the first part of the nineteenth century meant mostly capturing and diverting the gas that rose naturally from the ground or gathering the petroleum deposits that seeped up out of foul-smelling bogs like Sour Lake. That changed after 1859, when Edwin Drake, a former railroad conductor, drilled a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and struck oil sixty-nine feet below the ground. All at once there was an oil industry, though at that point petroleum was used mainly for illumination, not power. Whale oil in lamps was on the way out, replaced by the cleaner-­burning kerosene that could be refined from crude oil.

"A pig, not a geologist, determined the site of the first oil well in Texas.

"Two farmers in the Big Thicket, only a few miles from Sour Lake, saw tarry splotches on their pigs and followed them to the viscous pit in the middle of the forest where they had been wallowing. In 1865 one of the farmers contracted with a Galveston man named Edward Von Hartin, who built a wooden derrick over the tar wallow. Over and over a mule laboriously pulled a weight to the top of the derrick, whereupon it would be released to slam into the earth. Von Hartin was able to penetrate a hundred feet by using this process, but it wasn't deep enough. Texas had its first dry hole.

"But oil was struck the next year at a place a few miles east of Nacogdoches fittingly known as Oil Springs. Lyne Taliaferro Barret was a clerk who had risen to become a partner in an East Texas mercantile firm. He leased some land on which to prospect for oil, but the Civil War interrupted his plans, and it wasn't until 1866 that he was able to drill, using an eight-foot steam­-powered auger. He and his four partners in the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company struck oil at 106 feet -- ten barrels a day -- the first Texans to bring in a well. But like many wildcatters who would follow him, Barret had to face the fact that fortune wasn't going to be on his side. Oil prices were low in 1866, Reconstruction tensions were high, and eastern investors were more interested in proven Pennsylvania oil fields than Texas tar pits. Barret capped his well, had eleven children, served as master of his local Masonic Lodge, became a justice of the peace, and died. Twenty years after he was forced to abandon the site he called Oil Springs, forty producing wells were crowded together there, along with Texas's first pipeline and its first refinery.

"Even then, oil was only a sidelight industry. The oil that was coaxed out of the ground using old-fashioned cable tool rigs and fishtail drill bits, and hauled to railheads by wagon along Big Thicket logging roads, had too much sulfur in it and too little paraffin to make it practicable for refining into kerosene. It was better suited to low-grade applications like lubricating machinery, firing boilers, or spraying onto dusty Texas streets. One Cen­tral Texas rancher who accidentally struck oil while drilling for water made $7.08 after selling forty-eight barrels.

"A higher-quality grade of oil was discovered in the town of Corsicana. Cor­sicana, about sixty miles southeast of Dallas, was in Navarro County, named for the Tejano patriot José Antonio Navarro. The county seat in turn was named in honor of his parents, who had been born in Corsica. In 1894, The Corsicana Water Development Company underwent a name change to the Corsicana Oil Development Company after three water wells drilled in the middle of town struck oil instead. It was an unwelcome development at first, but the report from a Pennsylvania chemist determined that the product might be as marketable as water. In 1900, the Corsicana oil field produced 839,554 barrels, nothing compared to what would soon take place in Texas, but enough for a greasy forest of derricks to sprout from the front yards of the town's resi­dents, and for oil to flow off the roofs of their houses into the streets.

"And Corsicana turned out to be a crucial testing ground for an infant industry. Cable tool rigs, which up to then had been the standard work­horses of the oil field, chipping away into the ground with percussive force, were soon superseded by rotary drills, which could reach oil sands lying at a thousand feet in days rather than weeks. The process of refining was also refined as new techniques were deployed for removing the sulfur content from crude oil, resulting in kerosene that Corsicana boosters declared had 'Quality as Good as Pennsylvania's.'

"The quality may have been there, but quantity had yet to erupt from the East Texas soil. That didn't happen until the first month of 1901, just south of the town of Beaumont, atop a vast spreading mound that was no more than fifteen feet higher than the surrounding coastal prairie. This low­-slung landmark went by the name Sour Spring Mound or Big Hill or -- most indelibly -- Spindletop. It got that name because of a pine tree that rose from the mound in stark isolation, giving it the look of a spindle.

"It could be argued that Spindletop is one of the most important locations in the history of the world. The landscape would have been more enticing before oil was discovered at Spindletop, but even then it was a malodorous sort of place, with a series of sumps and springs discharging water that smelled like gunpowder and the ground offering up hissing columns of gas."



Stephen Harrigan


Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas


University of Texas Press, Austin


Copyright 2019 Stephen Harrigan


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