the first texas oil boom -- 8/27/18

Today's selection -- from God Save Texas Lawrence Wright. The very first Texas oil boom:

"At the beginning of the twentieth century, near Beaumont, on the Gulf Coast close to the Louisiana line, there was a sulfurous hill called Sour Spring Mound. Gas seepage was so noticeable that schoolboys would sometimes set the hill on fire. Pattillo Higgins, a disreputable local businessman who had lost an arm in a gunfight with a deputy sheriff, became convinced that there was oil below the gassy hill. Wells weren't drilled back then; they were essentially pounded into the earth using a heavy bit that was repeatedly lifted and dropped, chiseling its way through the strata. The quicksand under Sour Spring Mound defeated sev­eral attempts to make a proper hole. Higgins forecast oil at a thousand feet, a totally made-up figure.

"Higgins hired a mining engineer, Captain Anthony F. Lucas, a Croatian American who had studied mining engineering in Austria. Captain Lucas's first well got to a depth of only 575 feet before the pipe collapsed. Lucas then decided to use a rotary bit, a novelty at the time, which he thought more suitable for pen­etrating soft layers. His drillers also discovered that by pumping mud down the hole, they could form a kind of cement to but­tress the sides. These innovations created the modern drilling industry.

The Lucas gusher at Spindletop, January 10, 1901.

"Lucas and his team hoped to bring in a well that could pro­duce 50 barrels a day. On January 10, 1901, at 1,020 feet, almost precisely the depth predicted by Higgins's wild guess, the well suddenly vomited mud and then ejected six tons of drilling pipe clear over the top of the derrick. No one had ever seen anything like this. It was terrifying. In the unnerved silence that followed, the flabbergasted drilling team, drenched in mud, crept back to the site and began to clean up the debris. Then they heard a roar from deep in the earth, from another era, millions of years earlier. More mud flew up, followed by rocks and gas, and then oil, which shot 150 feet into the air -- a black geyser that spewed from the arterial wound that the drillers had made in the great­est oil field ever seen at the time. For the next nine days, until the well was capped, the gusher blasted 100,000 barrels of oil into the air -- more than all the wells in America combined. After the first year of production, the well, which Higgins named Spindle­top, was producing 17 million barrels a year.

"In those days, Texas was almost entirely rural; there were no large cities and practically no industry; cotton and cattle were the bedrock of the economy. Spindletop changed that. Because of native Texas suspicion of outside corporate interests -- especially John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil -- two local companies were formed to develop the new field: Gulf Oil and Texaco (both now merged with Chevron). The boom made some prospectors mil­lionaires, but the sudden surfeit of petroleum was not entirely a blessing for Texas. In the 1930s, prices crashed, to the point that, in some parts of the country, oil was cheaper than water. That would become a familiar pattern of the boom-or-bust Texas economy."



Lawrence Wright


God Save Texas


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2018 by Lawrence Wright


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