This Week in Petroleum History, March 6 to March 12
March 7, 1902 – Oil discovered at Sour Lake, Texas
Adding to giant Texas oilfields, the Sour Lake oilfield was revealed just a few miles from the world-famous Spindletop field discovered about one year earlier. The spa town of Sour Lake soon became a boom town where many oil companies, including Texaco, got their start.
Originally settled in 1835 and called as Sour Lake Springs because of its sulphureous spring water known for healing, the sulphur wells attracted petroleum exploration companies. As the science of petroleum geology evolved, some geologists predicted a Sour Lake salt dome formation similar to that predicted by Pattillo Higgins, the Prophet of Spindletop.
Sour Lake’s 1902 discovery well was the second attempt of the Great Western Company. The well, drilled “north of the old hotel building,” penetrated 40 feet of oil sands before reaching a total depth of about 700 feet. The well was the first of many to bring riches to Hardin County, whose oilfield yielded almost nine million barrels of oil within a year. The Texas Company made its first major oil find at Sour Lake in 1903 (see Sour Lake produces Texaco).
March 11, 1829 – Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well
Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty in 1829 found an oilfield only 171 feet deep. Some historians consider this the earliest commercial oil well in North America.
Beatty, an experienced driller from Pennsylvania, had drilled brine wells to meet growing demand from settlers needing salt to preserve food. He bored his wells by percussion drilling – raising and dropping a chisel from a sapling, an ancient technology for making hole.
According to historian Sheldon Baugh, prior to the Cumberland County oilfield discovery, Beatty first found oil in a McCreary County brine well in 1819. That well “provided very little of the useless stuff” and was soon forgotten. The historian described the scene of Beatty’s oil well of March 11, 1829:
On that day, well-driller Beatty bragged to bystanders “Today I’ll drill her into salt or else to Hell.” When the gusher erupted he apparently thought he’d succeeded in hitting “hell”! As the story goes “he ran off into the hills and didn’t come back,” quite terrorized by the situation.
A later newspaper account reported Beatty’s well was neglected for years, “until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities. It has been bottled up in large quantities and is extensively sold in nearly all the states.”
Oil from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well eventually found its way to Pittsburgh, where Samuel Kier sold it as medicine until he started refining kerosene from oil production of the first American well.
March 11, 1930 – Society of Exploration Geophysicists Founded
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists was founded in Houston as the Society of Economic Geophysicists. Based in Tulsa since the mid-1940s, SEG fosters “the expert and ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources.” It began publishing the journal Geophysics in 1936 and in 1958 formed a trust to provide scholarships for students of geophysics. The society today has more than 27,000 members in 128 countries.
March 12, 1912 – Oklahoma’s “King of the Wildcatters”
Long before Cushing, Oklahoma, became the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World” and trading hub for oil, its prolific oilfield was revealed by a wildcatter once called “Dry Hole Slick.”
On March 12, 1912, Thomas Baker Slick struck a gusher with his Wheeler No. 1 well about 12 miles east of Cushing. It was the first well to reveal the soon famous Drumright-Cushing field midway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Knowing speculators would descend on Cushing when the word got out, Slick posted guards at his well. As a competitor later complained, the oilman also had secretly hired all the local drilling contractors. At its peak, Slick’s field produced 330,000 barrels of oil a day.
After his success in Cushing, Slick began an incredible 18-year streak of drilling successful wells. He became known as “King of the Wildcatters” prior to his death from a stroke in 1930 at the age 46.
Slick is among the industry leaders honored at the Conoco Oil Pioneers of Oklahoma Plaza at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Learn more about his oilfield-discovering career in Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.
March 12, 1914 – Last Coal-Powered U.S. Battleship Commissioned
The U.S.S. Texas, the last American battleship built with coal-fired boilers, was commissioned in 1914. Coal-fired boilers, which produced dense smoke and created tons of ash, required the Navy to maintain coaling stations worldwide. Coaling ship was a major undertaking and early battleships carried about 2,000 tons with a crew of “coal passers.”
Dramatic improvement in efficiency came when the Navy began adopting fuel oil boilers. By 1916, the Navy had commissioned its first two capital ships with oil-fired boilers, the U.S.S. Nevada and the U.S.S. Oklahoma. To resupply them, “oilers” were designed to transfer fuel while at anchor, although underway replenishment was soon possible in fair seas.
The U.S.S. Texas was converted to burn fuel oil in 1925. The “Big T” – today the Battleship Texas State Historic Site docked on the Houston Ship Channel – was the first battleship declared to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Learn more in Petroleum and Sea Power.
March 12, 1943 – Secret Mission sends Roughnecks to Sherwood Forest
A top-secret team of 42 American drillers, derrickmen, roustabouts, and motormen boarded the troopship HMS Queen Elizabeth. They were volunteers from two Oklahoma companies, Noble Drilling and Fain-Porter Drilling.
Their mission was to drill wells in England’s Sherwood Forest and help relieve the crisis caused by German submarines sinking Allied oil tankers. Four rotary drilling rigs were shipped on separate transport ships. One of the ships was sunk by a U-Boat.
With the future of Great Britain depending on petroleum supplies, the Americans used Yankee ingenuity to drill an average of one well per week. Their secret work added vital oil to fuel the British war effort. Read the little-known story of the Roughnecks of Sherwood Forest.
March 12, 1968 – Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay Oilfield Discovered
Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered by Richfield Oil (ARCO) and Humble Oil Company (Exxon).
The Prudhoe Bay State No. 1 exploratory well arrived more than six decades after the first Alaska oil well. It followed Richfield Oil’s discovery of the Swanson River oilfield on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957. At more than 213,000 acres, the Prudhoe Bay field was the largest oilfield in North America, surpassing the 140,000 acre East Texas oilfield discovery of October 1930.
Prudhoe Bay’s remote location prevented oil production beginning in earnest until 1977, after completion of the 800-mile the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The field’s production exceeded an average rate of one million barrels of oil a day by March 1978, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It peaked in January 1987 at more than 1.6 million barrels of oil per day.
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