Like many small oil exploration companies in the years before the Great Depression, Neilan Oil & Refining Company struggled to survive in highly competitive Texas oilfields. One of the company’s founders in 1922 was M.H. Gubbels of Houston, upon whose Fort Bend County land the new company’s first exploratory well would be drilled. Gubbels was joined by partners P.A. Neilan, J.J. Chadil, and C.H. Chernosky.

Capitalized with only $150,000, the company chose a drilling location south of Houston, two and one-half miles southeast of Thompson, and about a mile southeast of Smithers Lake. To protect Neilan Oil & Refining investment, drilling operations were conducted in virtual secrecy on the Marvel No. 1 well.

When the well reportedly “blew out at 3,833 feet” it had to be abandoned. Neilan Oil & Refining tried again less than yards 30 yards from the first site with the Marvel No. 2, “for the purpose of checking up on the lay of the cap rock.” Drilling reached 1,475 feet deep before being shut down.

In July 1922, Neilan Oil & Refining completed a well that produced natural gas. The Gubbels No. 1 well produced gas close to the two earlier test sites. “Until recently little was known relative to the identity of the company drilling these wells, and they were generally referred to as the ‘mystery wells,’ ” the Houston Post noted. It was even reported that “good gas sand was encountered at about forty feet.”

This unlikely shallow production “success” enabled further exploration; Neilan Oil & Refining extended operations 25 miles away to the area of Pliant Lake, Lockwood Mound, and Big Creek. But soon after another well, the Brown No. 1, began drilling, Neilan Oil & Refining virtualy disappeared from all accounts. The company reappeared two years later, brandishing a newly developing technology from Oklahoma that promised a great future.

“According to a current rumor, another salt dome has been found in the well of the Neilan Oil company,” reported the Houston Post reported in 1924. “It was located about three miles south of Orchard and about five miles west of Rosenberg.”

The newspaper account went on to describe a remarkable oil patch innovation (learn more in Exploring Seismic Waves). “Charges of dynamite were placed in the ground and exploded. The seismograph, which is an apparatus to register the shocks and undulatory motions of earthquakes, furnished data which indicated the presence of salt domes. After interpreting the data from the seismograph, the wells were drilled,” the article explained. It continued:

“In one case, the salt dome was found at a depth which varied only 30 feet from the instrument’s prediction. In both cases the lateral location of the domes, as given by the seismograph were correct Though the general principles Involved in the operation of the seismograph are known, the detailed mechanism of the instrument yet remains a mystery to all but a selected few in the oil industry. These few refuse to disclose the secret workings of a machine which has accurately pointed out the location of salt domes.

“Practically all oil found in coastal Texas has been found off the edge of salt domes. As used in the location of salt domes, the seismograph embodies the principles of the conventional instrument, but it also involves the use of a certain German patented improvement which makes the interpretation of impressions and sound waves more accurate…all interests using the seismograph in the United States and elsewhere have retained scientists trained in Germany to operate the instrument, it is understood. The two exception have trained men from their own geological departments for the work.”

But as with the latest innovations in oil field exploration technology, there are no guarantees in the high-risk, high-reward oil patch. What happened to Neilan Oil & Refining Company thereafter is hidden in U.S. petroleum history. Brief mention was last made in July 1929, just before the Great Depression.

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The stories of exploration and production companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found updated in Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything? The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.

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