First Alabama Oil Well

Reports of “mineral tar” in the 1840s led to H.L. Hunt discovering an oilfield a century later.

Although swallowing tar pills reportedly had been curing ills since the mid-1800s, Alabama’s petroleum industry officially began when its first oilfield was discovered in 1944. Famed Texas independent producer Haroldson Lafayette Hunt drilled his successful Jackson No. 1 well in Choctaw County.

first alabama oil well steel derrick

The A.R. Jackson No. 1 well in 1944 revealed an Alabama oilfield near the Mississippi border. Photo courtesy Hunt Oil Co.

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 the 1930s, discovered the Gilbertown oilfield.

Prior to Hunt’s wildcat well, 350 dry holes had been drilled in Alabama. Despite limited knowledge of the state’s geology, regions with oil and natural gas seeps had attracted interest as early as the mid-19th century.

Geologist and petroleum historian Ray Sorenson has spent years 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.” Similar to “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.

petroleum history february alabama geological map

Alabama’s petroleum producing regions.

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 Alabama oil well 1849 geology of Alabama map

The 1849 Alabama map created by geologist Michael Tuomey, courtesy the University of Alabama.

Michael Tuomey (1805-1857), First Alabama State Geologist

From the journal Cartographic Perspectives of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS):

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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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Alabama Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-alabama-oil-well. Last Updated: February 17, 2020. Original Published Date: October 21, 2017.

First Nevada Oil Well

A 1954 commercial oilfield discovery would lead to decades of frustrated searching for another.

An early attempt for drilling the first Nevada oil well was an 1,890-foot-deep dry hole drilled in Washoe County southwest of Reno in 1907. A second well was rumored to have been drilled northwest of town, but details about it and others are rare because drilling permits were not required until 1953.

Not many Nevada exploration wells were drilled from 1907 to the early 1950s, according to Larry Garside, a research geologist for the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

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Oil Scouts – Oil Patch Detectives

Call them oilfield detectives, night riders, or simply oil scouts. These early oil and natural gas well investigators separated fact from fiction.

Since the petroleum industry’s earliest days, “scout tickets” have been the written reports of the progress of oil or natural gas wells drilling in the producing area, according to the Handbook of Oil Industry Terms & Phrases by R. Dobie Langenkamp (sixth edition, 2014). Scouting “tight holes” have required more effort.

“The reports contain all pertinent information – all that can be found out by the enterprising oil scout; operator, location, lease, drilling contractor, depth of well, formations encountered, results of drill stem tests, logs, etc.,” Langenkamp noted. “On tight holes the scout is reduced to surreptitious means to get information. Talks to water hauler, to well-service people who may be talkative or landowner’s brother-in-law,” he added.

“The bird-dogging scout estimates the drill pipe set-backs for approximate depth; he notes the acid trucks or the shooting (perforating) crew; and through his binoculars, he judges the expressions on the operator’s face: happy or disgruntled,” Langenkamp opined, further illuminating how oilfield detectives have worked since the 19th century. (more…)

Moncrief makes East Texas History

Former Marland Oil executive confounds geologists with discovery and begins long career as independent producer.

A Fort Worth wildcatter named W.A. “Monty” Moncrief drilled a well in East Texas in January 1931 that revealed the true extent of an oilfield discovered three months earlier.

As the Great Depression worsened and East Texas farmers struggled to survive, a third wildcat well miles from the earlier discoveries ultimately revealed a massive oilfield, which was the largest in the lower-48 states.

On January 26, 1931, in Gregg County, Fort Worth independent oilman W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well. The well produced 320 barrels of oil per hour (7,680 barrels a day) from a depth of 3,587 feet.

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Pump Jack Capital of Texas

Discovering the story of Electra’s mighty mid-continent oilfield.

 

A 1911 April Fool’s day oil gusher at the Clayco No. 1 well near Electra, Texas, will bring prosperity and later the title of “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.”

pump jack capital of texas scenes of oil boom architecture

An April 1, 1911, oil discovery brought prosperity to Electra, Texas, helping to build the community’s theater in 1920 and high school in 1923. A commemorative afghan is shown off by lovely ladies of Electra in 2005: Chamber of Commerce members Shirley Craighead, Georgia Eakin and Jeanette Miller. Photos by Bruce Wells.

 

pump jack capital of texas logo of clayco well centinnial in 2011

April 1, 2011, marked the centennial of the Clayco No. 1 discovery well. Electra celebrated with a parade and rededication ceremony of the well’s historic marker.

Electra was a small farm town barely four years old when the black gold excitement began on April 1, 1911. It became oil fever when “Roaring Ranger” came in neighboring Eastland County in 1917. When a third drilling boom began at Burkburnett in 1918, even Hollywood noticed.

Among other things, these oilfield discoveries brought prosperity to North Texas, launched hundreds of petroleum companies, fueled America’s Model T Fords (and victory in World War I), convinced Conrad Hilton to buy his first hotel, and inspired the movie “Boomtown,” which would win an Academy Award.

As early as 1913, newly discovered Mid-Continent oilfields like Electra were producing almost half of all the oil in Texas. Refineries began to appear in Wichita Falls in 1915 when Wichita County alone reported 1,025 producing wells.

Nearby, the McClesky No. 1 well in Eastland County struck oil in October 1917. The “Roaring Ranger” in Ranger reached a daily production of 1,700 barrels. Within two years eight refineries were open or under construction and Ranger banks had $5 million in deposits.

“Roaring Ranger” gained international fame for Ranger as the town whose oil wiped out critical oil shortages during World War I, allowing the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.” (more…)

Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry

Discovery of the giant Texas oilfield in 1901 came as autos brought rising demand for gasoline.

 

The January 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas revealed the Spindletop oilfield, which would produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.

spindletop museum water gusher demonstration

Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas, tells the story of a 1901 oil discovery that made America a world power.

Although the great Galveston hurricane of 1899 (still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history) brought misery to much of southeastern Texas, as the 20th century dawned, an oil discovery three miles south of Beaumont launched the modern oil and gas industry.

“Dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher,’ the oil discovery on Spindletop Hill changed the economy of Texas and helped to usher in the petroleum age,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. Drilled by Curt Hamill, Capt. Anthony Lucas, and two experienced Pennsylvania oilmen, the well erupted oil for nine days before it could be brought under control with the technology of the time. The museum at Lamar University today re-creates the historic gusher using water for about two minutes.

The Beaumont museum tells the story of the oil-producing salt dome three miles south that created an oil boom greatly exceeding America’s first oil discovery in 1859 in Pennsylvania.

Just as consumer demand for kerosene for lamps was declining in favor of electricity, Americans would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product: gasoline. Within a few decades, new oil companies will pump gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country. (more…)