Humble Oil and Refining Company discovered an oilfield in 1943 — earning a $50,000 bounty.
Among its petroleum history records, Florida’s first — but not last — unsuccessful attempt to find commercially viable oil reserves began in 1901, not far from the Gulf Coast panhandle town of Pensacola. Two exploratory wells, the first drilled to a depth of 1,620 feet and the second reaching 100 feet deeper, were abandoned.
Whether drilled using science or intuition, contemporary accounts of Florida’s two 1901 wells reveal only a small footnote: the state’s first two “dry holes.” As U.S. petroleum demand grew during World War I, an oilfield still had not been found. The panhandle region looked promising, despite many more failed drilling ventures.
By 1920, Indian legends and a petroleum company stock promoter’s claim of oil inspired another attempt near what would later become Falling Waters Park, about 100 miles east of Pensacola. Steam-powered cable-tools with a wooden derrick drilled to a depth of 3,900 feet.
Brief signs of natural gas at the well excited area residents with a false report of a possible gusher. Undeterred, the exploration company continued to drill to 4,912 feet before finally giving up. No commercial amount of oil was found and the well was capped in 1921. Another Florida dry hole.
Barron Collier’s Tamiami Trail
Around this time, one of Florida’s most widely respected entrepreneurs, Barron G. Collier, was purchasing huge sections of 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.
Gulf Oil drilled several wells, some reaching depths of 6,000 feet, but ultimately, seismic tests convinced company geologists that full scale drilling was not warranted. In 1938, Gulf Oil pulled out of the search for oil in Florida.
Bounty for First Florida Oil Well
By 1939, petroleum exploration companies had drilled almost 80 expensive dry holes, the deepest to a depth of 6,180 feet. Meanwhile in Texas, the 1901 Spindletop gusher had been followed by dozens of oilfield discoveries. 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 unshakable. 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.
1943 Sunniland Oilfield Discovery
At Sunniland, the search continued, with the drilling done by the Loffland Brothers of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the foremost drilling companies in the country.
On September 26, 1943, after spending about $1 million and reaching a depth of 11,626 feet, Humble Oil Company and Refining completed its Sunniland No. 1, Florida’s first producing oil well. A decade earlier, the Houston-based company had signed a record-setting lease in Texas with the largest ranch in the United States (see Oil Reigns at King Ranch).
The historic wellsite is about 12 miles south of Immokalee, by present day Big Cypress Preserve and a short 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, Humble Oil Company’s discovery sparked a flurry of lease purchases and wildcat wells.
By 1954, the Sunniland oilfield was producing 500,000 barrels per year from eleven wells at average depths of 11,575 feet. The field remained Florida’s top producer until 1964, when Sun Oil Company — after spending $10 million on 34 dry holes — discovered the Felda oilfield 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, now ExxonMobil.
Learn about the earliest oilfield discoveries in other U.S. producing states in First Oil Discoveries.
Recommended Reading: Oil in the Deep South: A History of the Oil Business in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, 1859-1945 (1993). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Florida Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-florida-oil-well. Last Updated: September 23, 2023. Original Published Date: March 11, 2004.