January 4, 1948 –  Deep Discovery in Permian Basin

After years of frustration, exploration of the Permian Basin suddenly intensified again when a wildcat well found oil and natural gas in a deep geologic formation. The Slick-Urschel Oil Company drilled the well in partnership with geologist and independent producer Michael Late Benedum, who had discovered oilfields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia since the 1890s.

petroleum history january

Tom Slick Jr. of Oklahoma helped Michael Benedum of Pennsylvania discover a deep Permian Basin field in Texas. Image from February 16, 1948, LIFE magazine.

The latest Permian Basin discovery in Texas, the Alford No. 1 well, 50 miles south of Midland, was completed at 12,011 feet. A famous West Texas well completed two decades earlier, Santa-Rita No. 1, had produced oil from just 440 feet deep. The Benedum partnership drilled 10,000 feet in less than five months, but it had taken another seven months to penetrate the last 384 feet.

Help came from Tom Slick Jr., the son of Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters, who branched off the well using a “whipstock” and reached the prolific limestone formation. The field was named in 1950 by the Texas Railroad Commission in honor of Benedum, “who devoted 69 of his 90 years to the oil business.”

January 7, 1905 – Humble Oilfield Discovery rivals Spindletop

C.E. Barrett discovered the Humble oilfield in Harris County, Texas, with his Beatty No. 2 well, which brought another Texas oil boom four years after Spindletop launched the modern petroleum industry. The Beatty well produced 8,500 barrels of oil per day from a depth of 1,012 feet.

The population of Humble jumped from 700 to 20,000 within months as production reached almost 16 million barrels of oil, the largest in Texas at the time. The field directly led to the 1911 founding of the Humble Oil and Refining Company by a group that included Ross Sterling, a future governor of Texas.

petroleum history january Humble Texas postcard

An embossed postcard circa 1905 from the Postal Card & Novelty Company, courtesy the University of Houston Digital Library.

“Production from several strata here exceeded the total for fabulous Spindletop by 1946,” explains an historical marker dedicated in 1972. “Known as the greatest salt dome field, Humble still produces and the town for which it was named continues to thrive.”

Another giant oilfield discovery came in 1903 at nearby Sour Lake established Texaco.

Humble Oil Company would later consolidate operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey, leading to today’s ExxonMobil.

January 7, 1957 – Michigan Dairy Farmer finds Giant Oilfield

After two years of drilling, a wildcat well on Ferne Houseknecht’s Michigan dairy farm discovered the state’s largest oilfield. The 3,576-foot-deep well produced from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone.

Mrs. Houseknecht at oil well of 1957

After 20 months of on again, off again drilling, Ferne Houseknecht’s well revealed a giant oilfield in the southern Michigan basin.

The Houseknecht No. 1 discovery well at “Rattlesnake Gulch” revealed a producing region 29 miles long and more than one mile wide. It prompted a drilling boom that led to production of 150 million barrels of oil and 250 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the giant Albion-Scipio field in the southern Michigan basin. The formation represented a classic “fracture-controlled dolomite reservoir,” according to petroleum geologists.

“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams,” proclaimed Michigan historian Jack Westbrook.

Learn more in Michigan’s “Golden Gulch” of Oil.

January 7, 1913 – “Cracking” Patent to bring Cheap Gasoline

William Burton of the Standard Oil Company’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery received a patent for a process that effectively doubled the amount of gasoline produced from each barrel of oil. Because commercial (coal-fueled) electricity was being made available to more homes and businesses, demand on the petroleum industry for kerosene had plummeted. Burton’s invention came as consumer demand for gasoline was growing with the popularity and affordability of automobiles. His thermal cracking idea was a key breakthrough, although the process would be superseded by catalytic cracking in 1937.

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January 9, 1862 – Union Oil arrives in England during Civil War

The brig Elizabeth Watts arrived at London’s Victoria dock after a six-week voyage from Philadelphia. It carried 901 barrels of oil and 428 barrels of kerosene from Pennsylvania oilfields. It was the first time America exported oil. Within a year, Philadelphia would export 239,000 barrels of oil – without the technology of railroad tank cars or oil “tanker” ships. The United States first became an importer of oil in 1948.

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Recommended Reading: Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); Humble, Images of America (2013); Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35-year Michigan Oil and Gas Industry Investment Heritage in Michigan’s Public Recreation Future (2011); Handbook of Petroleum Refining Processes (2016).

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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