January 4, 1948 – Benedum Field discovery Deep 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.” Humble Oil Company later consolidated operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey, leading to ExxonMobil. Another oilfield discovery in 1903 at nearby Sour Lake established Texaco.

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 example of the region’s “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.

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.

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

The modern oil and natural gas industry was born 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.

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“Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher” by Aaron Arion – 1913, pastel on linen – was popular with oilmen staying at the Dixie Hotel in the Beaumont, Texas.

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.

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January 10, 1921 – Oil Boom comes to 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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Recommended Reading:  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).

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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. Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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