Although swallowing tar pills reportedly had been curing ills since the mid-1850s, Alabama’s petroleum industry officially began when its first oilfield was discovered in February 1944.
Famed Texas oilman Haroldson Lafayette Hunt drilled the No. 1 Jackson well in Choctaw County.
H.L. Hunt, who had found great success in the earliest Arkansas oilfields of the 1920s and even greater success in the East Texas oilfield of 1930, discovered the Gilbertown oilfield. Prior to Hunt’s wildcat well, 350 dry holes had been drilled in the state.
Although there had not been a major oil discovery in the state, natural petroleum seeps had attracted interest as early as the mid-19th century.
Geologist and historian Ray Sorenson has been investigating the earliest reports oil or natural gas in all of today’s producing states. He has documented many reports made before to the historic Drake well of 1859.
In Alabama’s case, Sorenson uncovered an account by the first state geologist, Michael Tuomey, who described reports of a “mineral tar.” Tuomey cited an account from the 1840s of finding natural oil seeps six miles from Oakville in Lawrence County.
Noting oil and water emerging from a crevice in limestone, it was observed that “the tar, or bitumen, floats on the surface, a black film very cohesive and insoluble in water.”
Like “American oil” and “Kentucky oil,” Alabama’s Lawrence County oil became popular for its medicinal qualities. The oil was claimed to be “a known cure for Scrofula, Cancerous Sores, Rheumatism, Dyspepsia, and other diseases.”
“Patents visiting the Spring find the tar taken and swallowed as pills, the most efficient form of the remedy,” Tuomey quoted the observation from “Tar Spring of Lawrence” in the 1858 Second Biennial Report On the Geology of Alabama (published one year after his death).
Tuomey served as the state geologist of South Carolina from 1844 to 1847, and as the first state geologist of Alabama from 1848 until his death in 1857. His Geological Map of Alabama was printed in 1849.
In addition to oil, traces of natural gas were discovered in Alabama in the late 1880s, “and by 1902, natural gas was being supplied to the cities of Huntsville and Hazel Green,” notes Alabama historian Alan Cockrell.
“In 1909, a small discovery by Eureka Oil and Gas at Fayette fueled that city’s streetlights for a time, but no natural gas was recovered anywhere in the state for several decades afterward,” he adds.
However, according to Cockrell, Alabama’s oil and natural gas industry would not truly begin until H.L. Hunt of Dallas, Texas, drilled in Choctaw County near the Mississippi border and discovered the Gilbertown oilfield.
After five weeks of drilling, the well was completed on February 17, 1944, at 2,585 feet in the Selma chalk of the Upper Cretaceous. It had reached a total a depth of 5,380 feet before being plugged back. The first Alabama oil well produced 30 barrels of oil a day.
Alabama’s first oilfield would produce 15 million barrels of oil, “not a lot by modern standards but enough to make ‘oil fever’ spread rapidly,” Cockrell notes in “Oil and Gas Industry in Alabama.” Still, the search for another oilfield took another 11 years.
The 1955 oil discovery at Citronelle, a town above a geologic salt dome, finally launched a new drilling boom; five new Alabama oilfields were discovered by 1967. Mobil Oil Company drilled Alabama’s first successful offshore natural gas well in 1981.
With modern technologies, geologists now believe opportunities exist “in the hard shales of the deep Black Warrior Basin beneath Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties and in the thick fractured shales of St. Clair and neighboring counties,” Cockrell concludes.
According to the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), at the end of 2014 more than 16,500 wells had been drilled in Alabama since the first Alabama oil well in 1944. Eleven percent produced oil, 59 percent found natural gas, and 30 percent (4,982 wells) were dry holes.
First State Geologist of Alabama
Michael Tuomey (1805-1857)
Settlement of the newly available land enabled Alabama to move rapidly from being a part of the Mississippi Territory, to its own Alabama Territory, and finally to statehood in 1819. The favorable climate and rich soil brought large plantations and slavery.
Michael Tuomey, professor of geology at the University of Alabama in the 1840s, had attempted to lead Alabama’s economy away from slavery-based agriculture. In 1849, he produced the first survey of the state’s mineral wealth. His map Geological map of Alabama showed exactly where the state’s natural riches were located. The efforts of Tuomey and others were rejected, as were similar efforts in other southern states.
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