This Week in Petroleum History, May 28-June 3
May 28, 1923 – “Oil Well of the Century” taps Permian Basin in West Texas
It took 646 days of difficult cable-tool drilling before a well near Big Lake, Texas, proved there was oil on University of Texas land in the Permian Basin. The arid Reagan County region was once thought to be worthless, but the Santa Rita No. 1 well discovered an oilfield, helping to reveal the true size of the Permian Basin.
Discovered after 21 months of drilling that averaged less than five feet a day, the Santa Rita – named for the patron saint of the impossible – will produce for seven decades. Within three years of the discovery by Texon Oil and Land Company, petroleum royalties endowed the University of Texas with $4 million.
The U.T. student newspaper described the well “as one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.” The Santa Rita No. 1 wells was named “Oil Well of the Century” in 1999 by Texas Monthly. Learn more in Santa Rita taps Permian Basin.
May 29, 1940 – Nebraska’s First Oil Well
After more than a half century of dry holes, Nebraska’s first commercial oil well was completed near Falls City in the far southeastern corner of the state. Eager to join other states benefiting from revenue gained from petroleum production, Nebraska lawmakers had offered a $15,000 bonus for the first well to produce 50 barrels of oil daily for two months.
Pawnee Royalty Company completed the Bucholz No. 1 discovery well with production of about 170 barrels of oil a day in its first 60 days. The well was about five miles east of a “vein of petroleum” first reported by geologists in 1883. Nebraska production today is largely in the southwestern panhandle, where oil was found in 1949.
May 30, 1911 – First Indianapolis 500
The first Indianapolis 500 began with 40 cars; only 12 finished the 1911 test of endurance and automotive technology. The winner averaged almost 75 mph after about about seven hours of racing.
All the cars – except the winning No. 32 Marmon Wasp – had two seats. Most drivers traveled with “riding mechanics,” who manually pumped oil. Ray Harroun, driver of the winning Wasp, would also develop a kerosene carburetor. “Let the fuel people fight it out amongst themselves, I’ll have a car soon that will burn anything they send,” he declared.
Created to showcase the new sport of automobile racing, early races emphasized engine endurance. Gasoline powered fewer than 1,000 of all U.S. cars just a decade before the first Indy 500. Learn more in Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show. Also learn about the natural gas fueled motor of the 1970’s Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car.
May 30, 1987 – Million Barrel Museum opens in Monahans, Texas
The Million Barrel Museum opened on a 14.5-acre site in Monahans, Texas. The museum’s main attraction was a large elliptical oil storage tank built in 1928 to store Permian Basin oil.
The experimental concrete tank – 525 feet by 422 feet – was designed to hold more than a million barrels of oil. The highly productive West Texas region lacked oil pipelines. The tank’s 30 foot earthen walls sloped at a 45-degree angle and were covered in concrete. It included a roof made of California redwood. But repeated efforts could not stop oil from leaking at seams. Shell eventually abandoned the giant structure, which would be patched to briefly become a water park in the 1950s – until it leaked again.
June 1, 1860 – First Book about Oil published
Less than a year after Edwin Drake completed the first commercial U.S. oil well at Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Thomas A. Gale published an 80-page pamphlet many historians regard as the first book about America’s petroleum resources. Rock Oil, in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere described a radical new fuel source for lamps.
“Those who have not seen it burn, may rest assured its light is no moonshine; but something nearer the clear, strong, brilliant light of day,” Gale declared in his pamphlet, which sold for 25 cents. “In other words, rock oil emits a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world; a light fit for Kings and Royalists, and not unsuitable for Republicans and Democrats.”
Published by Sloan & Griffith of Erie, Pennsylvania, the pamphlet’s cover noted the author as “a resident of Oil Creek” and included a biblical quote: “The Rock poured me out rivers of oil.” (Job, 29:6).
June 1, 1940 – Dallas Artist depicts Texas Oil Patch
Artist Jerry Bywaters of Paris, Texas, exhibited his newly completed Oil Field Girls in the Fine Arts Palace of San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. The 1940 painting of two young women framed in the booming West Texas oilfields would become one of Bywaters’ best known works.
Almost 70 artists, including famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, participated in the “Art in Action” exhibition. Oil Field Girls would move on to the Dallas Museum of Art and eventually into the collection of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. Bywater’s oil-on-board painting’s companion piece, Oil Rig Workers (Roughnecks), was also painted in 1940.
June 1, 1909 – Howard Hughes Sr. Secretly tests Dual-Cone Drill Bit
Drilling near Goose Creek, Texas, Howard Hughes Sr. demonstrated his new creation – a dual-cone roller rock bit. The technological advancement would soon bring faster and deeper drilling worldwide, helping to find previously unreachable oil and natural gas reserves.
“In the early morning hours of June 1, 1909, Howard Hughes Sr. packed a secret invention into the trunk of his car and drove off into the Texas plains,” notes Gwen Wright of History Detectives. The drilling site was near Galveston Bay. Rotary drilling “fishtail ” bits of the time were “nearly worthless when they hit hard rock.”
The innovation of the Hughes dual-cone bit created many Texas millionaires, explained Don Clutterbuck, one of the PBS show’s sources. “When the Hughes twin-cones hit hard rock, they kept turning, their dozens of sharp teeth (166 on each cone) grinding through the hard stone,” he added. Hughes would team with R. Carlton “Carl” Baker. Learn more about early drilling technologies in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
June 2, 1908 – Goose Creek Oilfield discovered
The first offshore drilling for oil in Texas occurred along Goose Creek in Harris County, about 20 miles southeast of Houston. Two years earlier, a local land owner had noticed bubbles on the surface of the water where the creek emptied into the bay (he used a match to confirm the bubbles were natural gas).
Goose Creek Production Company – a Houston syndicate of investors – drilled on the marsh of the bay and found oil at 1,600 feet deep, according to Priscilla Myers Benham in a 2010 article, Goose Creek Oilfield. Within days the syndicate sold out to a subsidiary of the Texas Company, the future Texaco.
June 3, 1979 – Bay of Campeche Oil Spill
Drilling in about 150 of water, the semi-submersible rig Sedco 135 suffered a devastating blowout 50 miles off Mexico’s Gulf Coast. State-owned company Pemex succeeded in reducing the flow to about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, but the well spilled 3.4 million barrels of oil before being brought under control with two relief wells nine months later.
Considering the size of the spill, its environmental impact was limited, according to a 1981 report by the Coordinated Program of Ecological Studies in the Bay of Campeche. “Nature played the biggest role in attacking the slicks as they floated across the Gulf. Ultraviolet light broke down the oil as it crept toward land. So did oil-eating microorganisms. Hot temperatures spurred evaporation.” The category-four Hurricane Federic at the end of August also helped disperse the oil.
Recommended Reading: Chronicles of an Oil Boom: Unlocking the Permian Basin (2014); Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 (2012); Rock Oil, The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere (1860); Blanton Museum of Art: Through the Eyes of Texas, Masterworks from Alumni Collections (1900).
Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of each month. AOGHS welcomes sponsors to help maintain this website and preserve U.S. petroleum heritage. Please support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.