First Florida Oil Well
Among its records for dry holes, Florida’s first – but certainly not last – unsuccessful attempt to find commercially viable oil reserves began in 1901, not far from the Gulf Coast panhandle town of Pensacola.
Two test wells were drilled, the first to 1,620 feet and the second a hundred feet deeper. Both were abandoned. Whether that wildcatter was following science or intuition, contemporary accounts of his efforts reveal only a small historical footnote: “Florida’s first dry holes.”
Twenty years later, as America’s oil demand continued to soar, oil still had not been found in Florida. The state’s panhandle still looked promising – despite a growing list of failed drilling ventures.
Indian legends and a wildcat stock promoter’s claim of oil inspired yet another attempt near today’s Falling Waters Park, about 100 miles east of Pensacola. A tall, wooden derrick and steam-driven rig were used to drill.
At a depth 3,900 feet, a brief showing of natural gas excited area residents with a false report of a possible gusher. Undeterred, the oilmen continued to drill to a depth of 4,912 feet before finally giving up.
No oil of commercial quantity was found and the well was capped in 1921. Another dry hole.
Barron Collier and the Tamiami Trail
Around this time, one of Florida’s most revered visionaries and entrepreneurs, Barron G. Collier, was busily purchasing land in the sparsely populated southwest part of the state. Between 1921 and 1923, he acquired about 1.3 million acres that would eventually become Collier and Hendry counties, including what is now the “Big Cypress Preserve.”
Collier had made his fortune in streetcar advertising sales, beginning in his native Memphis and spreading from New York to San Francisco as Consolidated Street Railway Advertising Company. With his capital and a vision of Florida alien to most, one of his first challenges was construction of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41).
This road, extending for 368 miles from Tampa southward along the Gulf coast to Naples, then eastward to Miami, was built through some of the most difficult terrain in the United States – mostly dense swamps and wilderness infested with snakes and alligators.
Barron Collier’s advocacy and personal financial backing was key to successful completion of the Tamiami Trail in April 1928. Ever the savvy businessman, Collier negotiated his first oil lease in the county with Gulf Oil Company in the mid 1930s, despite Florida’s still unbroken string of dry holes.
Gulf Oil brought in 50 men to conduct seismic testing, using the first big-wheeled “swamp buggy” vehicles of their type in the county. Gulf established headquarters in Everglades City, then the county seat, and began the search.
For 10 years, Gulf searched. The company drilled a number of wells, some to a depth of about 6,000 feet, but ultimately, seismic tests convinced them that full scale drilling was not warranted and in 1938, Gulf Oil pulled out.
By 1939, almost 80 dry holes had been drilled, the deepest to a depth of 6,180 feet. About this time, Florida legislators, desperate for their state to become an oil producer, offered a $50,000 bounty for the first discovery.
Hoping to find success at greater depth, Peninsular Oil and Refining Company drilled in Southwest Florida’s Monroe County to 10,006 feet, but still found no oil.
Collier’s confidence nevertheless remained unshakeable. His son relates of the time, “I said to dad, ‘You know, perhaps we have to face the fact that maybe there is no oil in Collier County.’ Well, he was just absolutely furious. He shook his finger under my nose and said, ‘Just don’t let anybody tell you that there isn’t any oil in Collier County.’ And when I looked at him, he smiled and said, ‘I can smell it.’”
Following their Monroe county disappointment, Peninsular executed a lease assignment to Humble Oil and Refining Co. and Humble began searching near the Sunniland watering stop on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Barron Collier remained confident that oil would be found in southwest Florida, but when he died in 1939, oil in Florida remained an unrealized dream.
At Sunniland, the search continued, with the drilling done by the Hoffland Brothers of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the foremost drilling companies in the country. Then, on the September 26, 1943, after expending about $1 million and reaching a depth of 11,626, Humble Oil Co. brought in Sunniland No. 1, Florida’s first producing oil well. The well’s site is about 12-miles south of Immokalee, by present day Big Cypress Preserve and a 30-minute drive from the resort city of Naples.
Initial daily production was 140 barrels of oil and 425 gallons of salt water, which eventually settled down to 20 barrels per day. This was no gusher, but it proved the tenacious Barron Collier’s wildcatter intuition to have been right on target.
Predictably, the Humble Oil Co. find sparked a flurry of lease purchases and wildcat wells. By 1954, the Sunniland field was producing 500,000 barrels per year from eleven wells at average depths of 11,575 feet. Sunniland remained Florida’s top producer until 1964, when Sun Oil Co., after spending $10 million on 34 dry holes, discovered the Felda field in nearby Hendry County.
Pleased with its discovery of the Sunniland oilfield, Humble Oil accepted the $50,000 prize offered by the state, added $10,000 – and donated the $60,000 equally between the University of Florida and the Florida State College for Women.
Humble would later become the Exxon Corp., now ExxonMobil.
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