First Lone Star Discovery
In December 1859, less than four months after Edwin Drake’s celebrated discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, a similarly determined wildcatter named Lyne (Lynis) Taliaferro Barret began searching in an East Texas area known as Oil Springs. His interest in finding this newly prized commodity was no doubt prompted by its lucrative $20 a barrel selling price — and his certainty that Texan oil was waiting for him.
Indians and early East Texas settlers had long known the Oil Springs area for its seepage and used the crude for its purported medicinal benefit for both themselves and their livestock. Invention of the kerosene-burning lamp prompted immediate demand for “illuminating oil” and inspired a boom in drilling and speculation across the country. Barret was eager to profit from the new opportunity.
Barret joined the chase for oil, but prudently continued to operate his successful mercantile partnership in Melrose, Texas.
On December 15, 1859, Barret leased 279 acres near Oil Springs, about 13 miles east of Nacogdoches, from Lucy W. Skillern. He began drilling. Before he could find oil, the Civil War and Texas’ secession from the Union forced him to postpone his search.
During the war years, as the nation struggled to survival, the impact on the young oil business was dramatic. Wild fluctuations in oil prices were common. In 1859 oil sold for $20 dollars a barrel; in 1861 it averaged only 52 cents a barrel. Two years later, oil averaged $8.15 a barrel.
In these early years, such fluctuations posed great risk for those who sought their fortunes drilling for oil. As the Civil War continued, Barret served as a captain in the Confederate States of America’s Quartermaster Corps in Texas’ Nacogdoches district. The war ended in 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Va., not far from where Barret had been born in 1832.
After the war, Nacogdoches County was occupied by Union forces from the Fifth Military District and was spared much of the lawlessness that plagued other East Texas counties during the difficult post-war period of Reconstruction.
Barret rejoined his partner, Blackstone Hardeman Jr., (returned from Company K of the First Texas Infantry Regiment) and they restocked the shelves of “Hardeman & Barret General Merchandise Store” with goods brought by wagon from New Orleans since railroad service was virtually nonexistent in Texas after the Civil War.
Barret’s quest for oil was quickly underway again as he secured another drilling contract with the heirs of Lucy Skillern on October 9, 1865. By December, he had joined with Benjamin P. Hollingsworth, Charles Hamilton, John Flint, and John B. Earle to form the “Melrose Petroleum Oil Company.”
On June 9, 1866, Barret contracted with Benjamin T. Kavanaugh for use of “Butler’s Improved Auger for Boring Wells” and a $50 dollar purchase of “two augers, on eight and a half inches in diameter or thereabouts, and the other six and a half inches in diameter or thereabouts, with a coupling for the set for connecting the augers with the stem or poles for boring.”
Barret used an auger fastened to a pipe and rotated by a steam-driven cogwheel. The contract, “guarantees that the augers hereby sold shall well and truly perform the work of boring through earth boring (sic), but not through hard or solid rock. Should they fail to do so, he agrees to furnish other good ones or take them back and refund the money.”
Throughout the summer of 1866, the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company continued drilling and on September 12, 1866, Lyne Barret’s tenacity was rewarded. At a depth of 106 feet, the “No. 1 Isaac C. Skillern” struck oil. The well yielded a modest 10 barrels per day, but remains nonetheless the first commercially producing oil well in Texas. Samples were forwarded to the Department of Emigration in New York, which pronounced the oil “superior in all its properties.”
Barret subsequently traveled to New York and Pennsylvania to invest in additional equipment. There he met John F. Carll, regarded today as the visionary who almost single-handedly invented both petroleum geology and petroleum engineering. Carll agreed to run tests and assist in development of the Skillern lease with financial backing from Brown Brothers of Titusville, Pennsylvania, and on March 1, 1867, the agreement was signed.
Dramatic swings in the price of oil remained hazardous to oil men and speculators everywhere. Local production often exceeded demand, and when railroads and pipelines could not move all the crude being produced, storage tanks filled quickly and prices dropped precipitously.
When the price of oil dropped to only $2.40 a barrel, Brown Brothers determined that the low price and political unrest caused by Reconstruction made further development of Barret’s find “unfeasible” and withdrew their financial backing.
Impatient investors wanted to sell their interest in the company — but turned down Barret’s offers of land and demanded cash. Despite encouragement by the highly respected John Carll in 1868, when oil prices went up again, the field was never developed. Barret suffered extensive financial loss and was forced to give up on the oil business and return to his general store in Melrose, ending his wildcatter dreams of oil wealth.
Lyne Barret’s failed project lay dormant for nearly two decades until 1887 when new wildcat drilling companies once again found oil and by 1889 had forty producing wells. Even so, in 1890 the wells produced only 54 barrels of oil valued at $227 dollars.
The Nacogdoches oilfield remains the first and oldest in Texas and as late as 1941 still recorded production of eight barrels a day from 40 wells. Some of these produced into the 1950s. His dramatic 1867 discovery was a modest beginning for Texas’ oil business, which today leads the nation in production.
A century after Barret’s well, the Texas State Historical Survey Committee placed a marker on the site of the “No. 1 Isaac C. Skillern,” three miles northeast of Nacogdoches on Farm Road 226. The marker was mysteriously “reported missing” in a 2000 survey, and has not been recovered, adding a final strange footnote to a key event in Texas’ remarkable oil heritage.
A marker dedicated in 1966 at Barret’s grave notes: “Born in Virginia. Came with parents to Texas, 1842. Married Angelina Thomas. Had 9 children. Drilled the first oil well in Texas, 1866. If efforts to drill early in 1859 had succeeded, he would have completed first oil well in the United States. Low demand and scarce capital halted his oil operations. He spent rest of his life as a farmer and community leader.”
Editor’s Note — When Barret visited the Pennsylvania oilfields — where a young petroleum industry was inventing new technologies — he met geologist John F. Carll. Many historians consider Carll’s oilfield reports of the late 1870s “the most remarkable books on early petroleum geology and engineering ever written.”
One volume includes the surface and subsurface geology of the oil regions in Butler, Clarion, McKean, Venango and Warren counties in Pennsylvania — “and lucid, detailed descriptions and illustrations of a standard drilling rig and tools of the time and equally clear descriptions of drilling, ‘shooting’ and production methods.”
Read this abstract from “The Incredible John F. Carll – The World’s First Petroleum Geologist and Engineer,” by John A. Harper, The Oilfield Journal, Winter 2001-2002.