First Oil Discoveries
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AOGHS documents petroleum history – including exploration, production, transportation and generations of oil patch families. Contact the society with your suggestions for articles, comments – and much-needed financial support.
American oil history begins in a woodland valley along a creek in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. Today’s U.S. petroleum exploration and production industry is born on August 27, 1859, near Titusville when a well specifically drilled for oil finds it.
The 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas reveals the Spindletop oil field, which will produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oil fields combined.
Self-taught geologist Patillo Higgins will become the “Prophet of Spindletop” after founding the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company in 1892. He is part of America’s petroleum history – remembered for his role in discovering the giant Spindletop oilfield near Beaumont, Texas.
Along Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the wooden derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well erupted in flames in 1859, perhaps America’s first oil well fire.
Following the August 1859 oil discovery in Pennsylvania, the young U.S. petroleum industry reached the West Coast in the late 1870s with the first California oil well. After drilling three wells beginning in 1875, California Star Oil Works struck the Golden State’s first oil gusher with the fourth well. The discovery would help create a major oil company.
Attempts to find oil in Florida began in 1901, not far from the Gulf Coast panhandle town of Pensacola. After decades of expensive dry holes, a frustrated state legislature offered a $50,000 bounty for the first commercial well, which was completed in 1943 by Humble Oil Company by present day Big Cypress Preserve.
On September 12, 1866, Lyne Taliaferro Barret brought in the first Texas oil well. His Nacogdoches County discovery produced just 10 barrels a day and failed. It lay dormant for nearly two decades until 1887 when others return to the small but historic oilfield.
The first Texas oil boom arrived in the summer of 1894 when the Corsicana oilfield was discovered by a drilling contractor hired by the city to find water. Technological innovations would follow, including rotary drilling. Corsicana residents annually celebrate their town’s oil patch heritage with a Derrick Day Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.
In 1901, the first Louisiana oil well revealed the giant Jennings oilfield and launched the Pelican State’s petroleum industry. Hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled since.
The first publicized report of oil in Nebraska had been in an 1883 newspaper. After more than a half century of dry holes, Nebraska’s first commercial oil well was completed in the southeastern corner of the state. The Pawnee Royalty Company made the 1940 discovery west of Falls City in Richardson County.
After nearly half a century and 85 dry holes, Nebraska’s complicated geology finally yielded a producing oil well. On February 12, 1954, Shell Oil Company completed the first commercial well. Shell’s Eagle Springs No. 1 found oil in Railroad Valley in Nye County.
After decades of dry holes drilled from one corner of the state to the other, in 1951 new technologies and determination – true grit – brought North Dakota’s first oil discovery. The exploratory well on the farm of Clarence Iverson northeast of Williston endured blizzards and was “shot” several times before finally producing oil on April 4, 1951.
At 3 p.m. on April 15, 1897, in Indian Territory, George Keeler’s stepdaughter dropped the “go devil” down a well bore to set off nitroglycerin. A crowd watched as the explosion caused the Nellie Johnstone No.1 well to blow in as an oil gusher. Drilling had begun in January, the same month Bartlesville was incorporated – and a decade before Oklahoma became a state.
After decades of frustration over failed exploration attempts, the first Utah oil well was competed on September 18, 1948, in the Uinta Basin. “The honor of bringing in the state’s first commercial oil well went not to the “Majors” but to an “Independent,” the Equity Oil Company,” notes one Utah historian.
Tales of a Wyoming “tar spring” would inspire Mike Murphy of Pennsylvania to drill the state’s first significant oil well in 1883. Civil War veteran Philip Shannon explored more of the Salt Creek oil seeps outside of Casper. But the story of Wyoming’s oil patch really begins with Washington Irving.
Explore more posts: John Wilkes Booth and Dr. Seuss were once in the oil business; Maybelline cosmetics, Hula-Hoops, nylons, and Wax Lips were all petroleum product offspring; Harry Houdini patented a deep sea diving suit adopted by offshore drillers; “fracking” was the profitable brainstorm of a cashiered Union veteran; Florida’s first oil well was drilled after the state offered a reward; and countless thousands of obsolete stock certificates fascinate collectors – each has a tale of its own.
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