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 town of Humble grew from 700 to 20,000 in a few months as production from the field – the largest in Texas in 1905 – reached almost 16 million barrels of oil. The field would lead to the founding of the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1911 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,” noted 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.”

Humble Oil Company later consolidated operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey, eventually leading to today’s ExxonMobil. Another oilfield discovery in 1903 at nearby Sour Lake established Texaco.

January 7, 1957 – Michigan Dairy Farmer finds Giant Oilfield

december oil Mrs. Houseknecht at oil well of 1957

Ferne Houseknecht.

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.

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.

“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, and of oilfield legends,” explains 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.

January 9, 1862 – Union exports Oil to England during Civil War

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Barrels of vinegar at a Massachusetts port, in 1870 would be similar to the 1861 loading of oil and kerosene barrels at the Port of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The brig Elizabeth Watts arrived at London’s Victoria dock after a six-week voyage from Philadelphia. The small brig carried 901 barrels of oil and 428 barrels of kerosene from northwestern Pennsylvania oilfields. It was the first time America exported oil.

Anxious sailors had feared the vessel would explode before casting off on November 19, 1861. Within a year Philadelphia would export 239,000 barrels of oil – without the technology of railroad tank cars or “tanker” ships. The United States became an importer of oil in 1948.

January 10, 1870 – Rockefeller incorporates Standard Oil Company

John D. Rockefeller and five partners formed the Standard Oil Company in Cleveland, Ohio. The new oil and refining company immediately focused on efficiency and growth. Instead of buying oil barrels, it bought tracts of oak timber, hauled the dried timber to Cleveland on its own wagons, and built the barrels in its own cooperage.

Standard’s cost per wooden barrel dropped from $3 to less than $1.50. The company’s improved refineries extracted more kerosene per barrel of oil (there was no market for gasoline). By purchasing properties through subsidiaries and using local price-cutting, Standard Oil captured 90 percent of America’s refining capacity.

January 10, 1901 – Texas Well launches Modern Petroleum Industry

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The 1913 painting “Spindletop viewing her Gusher” was featured at the Dixie Hotel in the Beaumont, Texas.

The modern oil and natural gas industry was born on a hill in southeastern Texas, when a wildcat well erupted on Spindletop Hill in Beaumont. The new oilfield produced 3.59 million barrels in its first year alone.

The “Lucas Gusher” changed the future of American transportation and industry – and brought many new technologies. It came just four months after the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history devastated nearby Galveston. The prolific well’s salt dome had been predicted by Patillo Higgins, the Prophet of Spindletop.

January 10, 1919 – Elk Hills Oilfield discovered in California

Standard Oil of California discovered the Elk Hills field in Kern County, and the San Joaquin Valley soon ranked among the most productive oilfields in the country. It became embroiled in the 1920s Teapot Dome lease scandals and yielded its billionth barrel of oil in 1992. Visit the “Black Gold” exhibit of the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield and at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft.

January 10, 1921 – Oil Boom begins in El Dorado, Arkansas

“Suddenly, with a deafening roar, a thick black column of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” noted one observer in 1921 when the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil near El Dorado, Arkansas. H.L. Hunt would soon arrive from Texas (with $50 he had borrowed) and join lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were soon made – and lost. “Union County’s dream of oil had come true,” reported the local paper. The 68-square-mile field would lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. Learn more in First Arkansas Oil Wells.

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A downtown museum exhibits Borger’s oil heritage. Photo by Bruce Wells.

January 11, 1926 – “Ace” Borger discovers Oil in North Texas

Thousands of people rushed to the Texas Panhandle in 1926 after Dixon Creek Oil and Refining Company completed the Smith No. 1 well, which flowed at 10,000 barrels a day in southern Hutchinson County.

A.P. “Ace” Borger of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leased a 240-acre tract and by September his Borger oilfield had more than 800 producing wells, yielding 165,000 barrels a day. Borger himself would lay out streets for the town, which grew to a city of 15,000 in just 90 days.

Dedicated in 1977, the Hutchinson County Boom Town Museum in Borger today celebrates “Oil Boom Heritage” every March. Special exhibits, events and school tours occur throughout the Borger celebration, about 40 miles northeast of Amarillo.

January 12, 1904 – Henry Ford sets Speed Record

petroleum history january Ford race car No. 999

The Ford No. 999 used an 18.8 liter inline four-cylinder engine to produce up to 100 hp. Image courtesy Henry Ford Museum.

Seeking to prove his cars were built better than most, Henry Ford set a speed record on a frozen Michigan lake in 1904. At the time his Ford Motor Company was struggling to get financial backing for its first car, the Model T. It was just four years after America’s first auto auto show.

Ford “bounces” his No. 999 Ford Arrow across the Lake St. Clair, which separates Michigan and Ontario, Canada, at a top speed of 91.37 mph.

January 12, 1926 – Texans patent Ram-Type Blowout Preventer

Seeking to end dangerous and wasteful oil gushers, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron received a patent for a hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. Petroleum companies embraced the new technology, which the inventors improved in the 1930s. Their concept used rams – hydrostatic pistons – to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure. Abercrombie had taken his idea for the ram-type preventer to Cameron’s machine shop in Humble, Texas, where the two men sketched out details on the sawdust floor. Learn more in Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.

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Recommended Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (2004); Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery at Beaumont, Texas, in 1901 (2008); Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); The Ford Century: Ford Motor Company and the Innovations that Shaped the World (2002).

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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 and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

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