The Texas Oil Boom Begins
Digital History ID 3690
Anthony F. Lucas
Oil is at the very heart of the global economy. Four of the ten largest corporations in the world are oil companies. Four others are automobile manufacturers. Many of our this country’s wealthiest families owe their money to oil, including the Rockefellers, the Mellons, and the Gettys. Oil has also occupied an important place in American political history. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company stood at the center of public concern about trusts. Teapot Dome, the biggest political scandal of the early twentieth century, involved the lease of public oil lands.
Today, the chemical, plastics, and transportation industries depend on oil. American foreign policy has often been preoccupied with insuring access to oil. The modern age of petroleum begin in Texas in 1901. Patillo Higgins, a one armed mechanic and lumber merchant was convinced that oil could be found beneath a hill south of Beaumont. Higgins placed an ad in a magazine, seeking someone to drill. There was only one reply, from Captain Anthony F. Lucas, who began drilling in 1899. He hired Guffey and Galey, the country’s most successful team of wildcatters. They received funding from Andrew and Richard Mellon, whose father had founded one of the nation’s biggest banks.
On January 10, 1901, six tons of drilling pipe and mud erupted from the ground. The oil gushed out. At a time when major wells produced just 50 barrels of oil a day, Spindletop yielded 75,000 barrels a day.
…on January 10, 1901, after many difficulties, a layer of rock containing marine shells was reached, at the depth of 1160 feet…. At this time there was about 600 ft. of 4-in. pipe, weighing at least 6 tons, in the well…. When the rock was penetrated the well “blew out,” lifting the whole of the 4-in. pipe…. The pipe was short into the air…to a height of 300 feet above the derrick, the upper works and heavy tackle of which it carried away…. The remaining 4-in. pipe, freed from the weight of the upper portion, followed with greater rapidity, and was shot through the top of the derrick. Simultaneously, the water which filled the well (being used to keep the pipe-lining clear by removing the debris of drilling) was expelled to a great height; and a column of gas, rock-fragments and oil followed it, at first at the rate of about 250 barrels per hour, rapidly increased to 500, 1000 barrels, etc., until on the third day the discharge (by that tie carrying no solid matter and a diminished quantity of gas) was estimated by officials and engineers of the Standard Oil Co., who were naturally the most experienced judges, to be at least 3000 42-gallon barrels of oil per hour, or about 75,000 barrels in 24 hours….
Since this unprecedented outbreak took us by surprise, it was necessary to improvise some means of preventing the total waste of the oil ejected, and at the same time to devise a method for getting the stream under control. To attain the first object, we hastily constructed dams or levees to surround the oil. The first one, about 2.5 ft. high, was overflowed in 24 hours; a second and a third embracing larger and larger areas, the latter covering about 50 acres, were likewise overflowed. The clay soil seemed to hold the oil fairly well, but the constant danger of fire was a source of great anxiety, by reason not only of the direct loss of oil, but also of the incidental damage which it might occasion; and, above all, because the ignition of the spouting column itself would make it difficult or impossible to recover and control the well.
Source: Anthony F. Lucas, “The Great Oil Well near Beaumont Texas,” American Institute of Mining Engineers Transactions, XXXI (1902), 362-74
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