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Black Gold: The Oil Frontier Previous Next
Digital History ID 3153


The great southwestern oil boom began January 10, 1901 at Spindletop, four miles south of Beaumont, Tex., a prosperous sawmill and farm produce shipping town. Since late October, a three-man crew, working 18-hour shifts, had been searching for oil. With $300,000 from financier Andrew Mellon of Pittsburgh, they drilled a pipe 880 feet into the ground. Repeatedly the pipe had gotten stuck. Sand and even quicksand blocked the hole, slowing the drilling. At 880 feet they hit solid rock. The men decided to try a new drill bit.

A low, rumbling sound rose up from the earth. Huge columns of mud and water blasted from the hole, followed by four tons of pipe that they had drilled into the ground. The eruption briefly stopped, and then suddenly a column of oil, 200 feet high, exploded from the earth.

The discovery of vast quantities of cheap liquid fuel at Spindletop made the era of the internal combustion engine possible. Cheap oil also fueled the allied victory in World War II. Drilling for oil had been pioneered earlier in the oil fields of Pennsylvania and Ohio. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake had drilled the nation's first oil well, 69 and a half feet into the ground near Titusville, Pa. It had taken him six months to drill, but the well only produced 10 barrels of oil a day.

In 1901, the most successful oil wells in the United States, located at Corsicana, Tex., produced at most 50 barrels a day. Huge amounts of oil had been found in Russia in 1893, but transportation and refining costs made it prohibitive to get the oil to market at an affordable cost.

Spindletop produced 100,000 barrels a day--more than all the rest of the wells in the world combined. It was, as a newspaper headline read, "An Oil Geyser." It took more than a week to cap the well. By then, the well had spewed more than 900,000 barrels of oil on the ground. Within a month, Beaumont's population of 8,500 had quadrupled. By the end of 1901, almost 140 wells at Spindletop gushed oil. Because Beaumont was just 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, it was easy to transport the oil to refineries. Since 1901, the field at Spindletop has produced more than 153 million barrels of oil.

Before Spindletop, most of the country's oil production was controlled by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. But Standard Oil was barred from Texas by the state's anti-trust laws. Andrew Mellon would build a refinery in nearby Port Arthur, Tex., that evolved into the Gulf Oil Company. Other companies that handled oil from Spindletop became the oil giants Texaco and Mobil.

Spindletop was only the beginning of the great Southwestern oil boom. Thirty years later, a 70-year-old wildcatter named Columbus "Dad" Joiner, discovered the East Texas Field spread across five Texas counties. With 7 billion barrels of oil, it was the largest reservoir of oil in the Americas. At a time when the area's water cost $5 a barrel, oil sold for a nickel a barrel.

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