January 4, 1948 – Wildcatters make Deep Permian Basin Discovery
Tom Slick Jr. helped Michael Benedum discover a deep Permian Basin oil and natural gas field. Image from February 16, 1948, LIFE magazine.
After years of frustration, exploration of the Permian Basin intensifies in 1948 when the Alford No. 1 is completed at a depth of 12,011 feet in the Ellenburger limestone about 50 miles southeast of Midland, Texas.
The Slick-Urschel Oil Company drills the well in partnership with “King of the Wildcatters” Michael L. Benedum of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More than two decades earlier, another West Texas well, Santa-Rita No. 1, had produced oil from about 440 feet deep.
Although Benedum had drilled 10,000 feet in less than five months, it took seven months to penetrate another 384 feet of hard rock. Help came from Tom Slick Jr., the son of Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters, who branched off the well using a “whipstock” and reached the limestone formation. Initially producing 900 barrels of oil a day, the Alford No. 1 also revealed a major natural gas field.
January 7, 1864 – Oil Discovery at Pithole Creek in Pennsylvania
Today, visitors can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets.
The Pithole Creek oilfield is discovered in Pennsylvania. The United States Petroleum Company’s well reportedly has been located with a witch-hazel dowser. It initially produces 250 barrels of oil a day.
Pithole will make history as an early oil boom town for America’s young petroleum industry, which began in nearby Titusville in 1859. Pithole’s population will briefly reach 20,000 residents in “bars, brothels, hotels, theaters and retail stores.”
Many factors will fuel the Pithole boom, including Civil War veterans eager to invest in the reunited nation. Newspapers stories add to the oil fever – as does the fortunes of Johnny Steele described in the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.” Visit the visitors center at today’s grassy expanse that is the ghost town of Pithole in Oil Creek State Park.
January 7, 1905 – Humble Oilfield Discovery leads to ExxonMobil
A major oil company will be born after C.E. Barrett discovers the Humble oilfield in Harris County, Texas. His Beatty No. 2 well launches another southeastern Texas oil boom four years after Spindletop launches the modern petroleum industry. The well produces 8,500 barrels of oil per day from a depth of 1,012 feet.
The Humble oilfield will lead to a major oil company. An embossed postcard circa 1905 from the Postal Card & Novelty Company, courtesy the University of Houston Digital Library.
Standard Oil of New Jersey will acquire a 50 percent interest in Humble in 1919.
The small town of Humble will grow from 700 to 20,000 in a few months as production from the field – the largest in Texas in 1905 – reaches almost 16 million barrels of oil.
The oilfield leads to the founding of the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1911 by a group that includes Ross Sterling, a future governor of Texas.
“Production from several strata here exceeded the total for fabulous Spindletop by 1946,” notes a 1972 historical marker. “Known as the greatest salt dome field, Humble still produces and the town for which it was named continues to thrive.”
Humble Oil Company will consolidate operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1919, eventually leading to Exxon, today’s ExxonMobil. Another nearby discovery at Sour Lake produces Texaco.
January 7, 1913 – “Cracking” helps fuel Automobile’s Popularity
Thermal cracking doubled a refinery’s production of gasoline just as Americans demanded the fuel for new Fords and Oldsmobiles.
William Burton of the Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana, receives a patent for a refining process that effectively doubles the amount of gasoline produced from each barrel of oil.
Because commercial (coal-fueled) electricity is being made available to more homes and businesses, demand on the petroleum industry for kerosene has plummeted.
But consumer demand for gasoline is growing with the popularity – and affordability – of internal combustion automobiles. Burton’s innovation, called thermal cracking, is a key breakthrough, although his process will be superseded by catalytic cracking in 1937.
January 7, 1957 – Michigan Dairy Farmer’s Oilfield of Dreams
A 1957 discovery well on Ferne Houseknecht’s dairy farm will uncover a 29-mile-long oilfield.
After two years of drilling, the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovers Michigan’s largest oilfield. The 3,576-foot-deep well in southwestern Michigan produces from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone.
Local lore says that the well’s namesake, Ferne Houseknecht, had been told by a spiritualist that there was oil under her farm. Houseknecht convinced her uncle, Clifford Perry, to drill a well one joint of pipe at a time between his other farm projects.
The Houseknecht No. 1 discovery well at “Rattlesnake Gulch” reveals a producing region 29 miles long and more than one mile wide. It prompts a drilling boom that ultimately leads to 734 wells that produce more than 150 million barrels of oil and 250 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oilfield legends,” explains Michigan historian and author Jack Westbrook.
Read Michigan’s “Golden Gulch” of Oil.
January 9, 1862 – America exports Oil for the First Time
Barrels of vinegar – “Vinegar Bitters” – at New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1870 would be similar to the 1861 loading of oil and kerosene barrels aboard the Elizabeth Watts at the Port of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum.
America exports oil for the first time in 1862 when the brig Elizabeth Watts arrives at London’s Victoria dock after a six-week voyage from Philadelphia. The vessel carries 901 barrels of oil and 428 barrels of kerosene from northwestern Pennsylvania oilfields.
No ship has ever crossed the Atlantic bearing such a cargo. In America, anxious sailors had feared the vessel would explode before casting off on November 19, 1861. Within a year Philadelphia will export 239,000 barrels of oil – without the technology of railroad tank cars or “tanker” ships.
America becomes a net importer of oil in 1948 – increasingly dependent on supplies from the Middle East. U.S. oil exports will resume on December 31, 2015, when a tanker leaves Corpus Christi, Texas, bound for Italy. Read more about the Elizabeth Watts in America exports Oil.
January 10, 1870 – Rockefeller incorporates Standard Oil Company
Rockefeller will create the Standard Oil Trust in 1882 to preserve his petroleum empire.
Thirty-one years old, John D. Rockefeller and five partners form the Standard Oil Company in Cleveland, Ohio.
Standard Oil immediately focuses on efficiency and growth. Instead of buying oil barrels, it buys tracts of oak timber, hauls the dried timber to Cleveland on its own wagons, and builds the barrels in its own cooperage. Standard’s cost per wooden barrel drops from $3 to less than $1.50. Also see History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel.
The company’s increasingly efficient refineries extract more kerosene per barrel of oil (there is no market for gasoline at the time). He begins building the giant Standard Oil Whiting Refinery near Chicago in 1889.
Along with adding new technologies, the company purchases properties through subsidiaries and uses local price-cutting to capture 90 percent of America’s refining capacity.
Rockefeller will continue his control over the domestic petroleum industry by reorganizing his assets into the Standard Oil Trust on January 2, 1882. More legal maneuvering will preserve his empire until 1911.
January 10, 1901 – Spindletop Discovery launches Modern Petroleum Industry
“Spindletop viewing her Gusher” by Aaron Arion – 1913, pastel on linen – was popular with oilmen staying at the Dixie Hotel in the Beaumont, Texas.
The modern oil and natural gas industry is born on a hill in southeastern Texas, when a wildcat well erupts on Spindletop Hill in Beaumont.
The discovery will change the future of American transportation and industry – and bring new technologies.
The Texas discovery will change the way people would live all over the world, proclaims Houston oilman and author Michel T. Halbouty in 1952. “It revived the industrial revolution…caused the United States to become a world power…(and) revolutionized transportation through the automobile industry.”
The southeastern Texas oil boom is welcomed. It comes just four months after the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history has devastated nearby Galveston.
The story of the Spindletop discovery well – which popularizes rotary drilling technology – begins in 1892 when the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company is formed by Patillo Higgins. He is convinced that the “Big Hill” four miles south of Beaumont has oil – despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. Read more in Prophet of Spindletop.
Higgins is no longer with the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing when the company hires former Croatian mining engineer Anthony F. Lucas. His 1901 “Lucas Gusher” uncovers an oilfield that produces 3.59 million barrels in its first year alone. Read more in Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry.
January 10, 1919 – Standard Oil of California discovers Elk Hills Field
Elk Hills in California’s San Joaquin Valley ranks among the most productive oilfields in the United States. Photo courtesy NASA.
The Elk Hills field in Kern County, California, is discovered by Standard Oil of California’s No. 1 Hay well at 2,500 feet on faulted anticlines.
“Elk Hills Oilfield in California’s San Joaquin Valley ranks among the most productive oilfields in the United States,” notes an earth observatory website of NASA.
The oilfield was embroiled in the early 1920s lease scandals during the administration of President Warren Harding – Teapot Dome – and returned to the government management. Privatized again in the 1990s, Elk Hills yielded its billionth barrel of oil in 1992 – becoming the thirteenth oilfield in U.S. history to pass that milestone. The field continues to serve as a contingency source of oil for the U.S. Navy (Naval Petroleum Reserve One). Visit the “Black Gold” exhibit of the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield and at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft.
January 10, 1921 – Oil Boom begins in El Dorado, Arkansas
A major oil discovery brought prosperity to El Dorado, Arkansas, in the 1920s. Today, downtown merchants preserve the community’s petroleum past with an Oil Heritage Park on Main Street.
H.L. Hunt launched his petroleum career in the crowded El Dorado, Arkansas, oilfield.
The Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well strikes oil and catapults the population of El Dorado, Arkansas, from 4,000 to 25,000. H.L. Hunt will soon arrive with a borrowed $50. He joins lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes will be made and lost.
Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick is plainly visible from town. A small crowd of eager spectators gathers at the well. “Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” says one witness.
“Union County’s dream of oil had come true,” reports the local paper. “Busey No. 1, the ‘Discovery Well’ of the El Dorado Oil Field yielded 15,000,000 to 35,000,000 cubic feet of gas and from 3,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil and water a day.”
The 68-square-mile field will lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. Read Arkansas Oil and Gas Boomtowns.
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