Lou Della Crim Revealed

Widow Crim’s East Texas oil well confirmed existence of the largest oilfield in the lower-48 states.

 

Some said a gypsy told Malcolm Crim he would discover oil in East Texas three days after Christmas. Others said it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman. But few could appreciate the significance of the Rusk County well drilled by Mrs. Crim’s eldest son.

On December 28, 1930, the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well began producing  20,000 barrels of oil every day.

lou della crim sitting in front of her Eat Texas oil wells.

“Mrs. Lou Della Crim sits on the porch of her house and contemplates the three producing wells in her front yard,” notes the caption of this undated photograph about the wells that followed the historic 1930 discovery on her farm. Image courtesy Calib Pirtle/Neal Campbell.

The region’s latest oil discovery brought more headlines in Dallas newspapers, especially since the Mrs. Crim’s well was about nine miles north of an earlier oil gusher on another widow’s farm. At first, everyone thought a second East Texas oilfield had been found. 

Malcolm Crim stands by his discovery oil well on his mother's East Texas farm.

Malcolm Crim stands at site of his famous 1930 East Texas oil well, the Lou Della Crim No. 1, named after his mother.

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East Texas Oilfield Discovery

Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner in 1930 discovered the largest oilfield in lower-48 states.

Here is the story of Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt, and “Dad” Joiner, “Doc” Lloyd, the Great Depression — and one of the greatest petroleum discoveries in United States history.

With a crowd of more than 4,000 landowners, leaseholders, stockholders, creditors and spectators watching – the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well erupted. It was October 3, 1930, after an earlier production test when the witnessed the gushing column of oil.

East Texas oilfield crowd gathers at Daisy Bradford well
“Thousands crowded their way to the site of Daisy Bradford No. 3, hoping to be there when and if oil gushed from the well to wash away the misery of the Great Depression,” notes one Kilgore, Texas, historian. Photo courtesy Jack Elder and Caleb Pirttelli, The Glory Days.

Incredible to most geologists, another exploratory well 10 miles to the north – the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well – would begin flowing on December 28, 1930. Then, even more incredibly, a month later and 15 miles still farther north, a third wildcat well, the Lathrop No. 1 well, delivered another tall gusher of “black gold.”

East Texas oilfield crim oil well
J. Malcolm Crim of Kilgore names his wildcat well after his mother, Lou Della.

At first, the great distance between these discoveries convinced geologists, petroleum engineers — and virtually all of the major oil companies — that the wildcat wells had found separate oilfields. But to the delight of many small, struggling farmers who owned the land, it finally became apparent the three wells were all part of one giant oilfield.

H.L. Hunt and Oklahoma Wildcatters

In 1905, when Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt was just 16 years old, he left his Illinois farm family and headed  west. Along the way, he worked as a dishwasher, mule team driver, logger, farmhand, and even tried out for semi-pro baseball. 

East Texas oilfield a young H L Hunt
H.L. Hunt’s oil career began in Arkansas and East Texas and spanned much of the industry’s history, notes Hunt Oil Company. Photo circa 1911.

During his travels, young H.L. Hunt learned to gamble and played cards in bunkhouses, hobo jungles and saloons. But iis life would change when an Arkansas wildcat well, the Busey-Armstrong No. 1, came in  on January 10, 1921. Hunt joined the speculative rush and drilling frenzy that followed. He began with $50 in his pocket. The oilfield discovery catapulted the population of El Dorado from 4,000 to over 25,000 (learn more in First Arkansas Oil Wells). 

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Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well

Years of futile drilling for oil paid off unexpectedly for determined wildcatter.

Stella Dysart spent decades searching for oil in New Mexico. In 1955, a radioactive uranium sample from one of her “dusters” made her a very wealthy woman.

In the end, it was the uranium – not petroleum – that made Dysart a wealthy woman. The sometimes desperate promoter of New Mexico oil drilling ventures for more than 30 years, she once served time for fraud. But in 1955, Mrs. Dysart learned she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore.

Born in 1878 in Slater, Missouri, Dysart moved to New Mexico, where she got into the petroleum and real estate business in 1923. She ultimately acquired a reported 150,000 acres in the remote Ambrosia Lake area 100 miles west of Albuquerque, on the southern edge of the oil-rich San Juan Basin.

uranium
Life magazine featured Stella Dysart in front of a drilling rig in 1955, soon after making a fortune from uranium after three decades as of failure in petroleum drilling ventures.

Dysart established the New Mexico Oil Properties Association and the Dysart Oil Company. The ventures and other investment schemes would leave her broke, notes John Masters in his 2004 book, Secret Riches: Adventures of an Unreformed Oilman. He describes her as “a woman who drilled dry holes, peddled worthless parcels of land to thousands of dirt-poor investors, and went to jail for one of her crooked deals.”

Dysart subdivided her properties and subdivided again, selling one-eighth acre leases and oil royalties as small as one-six thousandth to investors.She drilled nothing but dry holes for years and years. Then it got worse.

dysart uranium
Years before her good fortune from uranium in one of her failed oil wells, Stella Dysart served 15-months in prison for selling interests in New Mexico oil leases to Los Angeles investors without authority from the California Corporation Commission. In 1941, she had promoted her Drysat No. 1 Federal well, above, which was never completed.

A 1937 Workmen’s Compensation Act judgment against Dysart’s New Mexico Oil Properties Association bankrupted the company, compelling sale of its equipment, “sold as it now lies on the ground near Ambrosia Lake.”

Two years later, it got worse again. Dysart and five Dysart Oil Company co-defendants were charged with 60 counts of conspiracy, grand theft and violation of the corporate securities (act) in 1939. All were convicted, and all did time. Dysart served 15 months in the county jail before being released on probation in March 1941.

New Mexico Uranium

By 1952, 74-year-old Dysart was broke and $25,000 in debt. Then she met uranium prospector Louis Lothman. When Lothman in 1955 examined cuttings from a Dysart dry hole in McKinley County – he got impressive Geiger counter readings. Drilling several more test wells confirmed the results.

Dysart owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. She was 78 years old when the December 10, 1955, Life magazine featured her picture captioned, “Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”

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Praised for her success, her fraudulent petroleum deals in the past, Dysart died in 1966 in Albuquerque at age 88. Secret Riches author John Masters explains that “there must be a little more to her story, but as someone said of Truth – ‘it lies hidden in a crooked well.'”

More New Mexico petroleum history can be found in Farmington, including the exhibit “From Dinosaurs to Drill Bits” at the Farmington Museum. Learn about the state’s massive Hobbs oil field of the late 1920s in New Mexico Oil Discovery.
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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.

Citation Information – Article Title: Legend of “Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/uranium. Last Updated: December 7, 2019. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.


Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”

The lucky life of John Washington Steele of the Pennsylvania Oilfields.

His good fortune started on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant.

Johnny Steele – who one day would become famous as “Coal Oil Johnny” – was adopted along with his sister, Permelia. The McClintocks brought them home to their farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Fifteen years later, the petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s 1859 oil discovery,at nearby Titusville – America’s first commercial oil well – made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties. When Mrs. McClintock died in a kitchen fire in 1864, she left the money to her only surviving child, Johnny. At age 20, he inherited $24,500.

Coal Oil Johnny
John Washington Steele of Venango County, Pennsylvania, inherited his oil riches.

Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day. “Coal Oil Johnny” Steele would earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported. “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”

Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of  his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:

I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.‎

Coal Oil Johnny
“Coal Oil Johnny” illustration from a 2010 Atlantic magazine article.

Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.

In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story. It describes the country’s fascination with the earliest economic booms brought by “black gold” discoveries in Pennsylvania.

“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 8 feature story. “Johnny owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors.

“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age – and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”

Coal Oil Johnny
Refurbished boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny”at Oil Creek State Park (and train station) north of Rouseville, Pennsylvania.

For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.

It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”

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“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” added the article.

Coal Oil Johnny
John Washington Steele died in Nebraska in 1920.

“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded. “Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”

John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.

On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing McClintock No. 1 oil well. “This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”

Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was published in 1902.

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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.

Citation Information – Article Title: Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/legend-of-coal-oil-johnny. Last Updated: December 7, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.

Oil Boom at Pithole Creek

A chaotic beginning for new U.S. petroleum industry.

 

Discoveries at Pithole Creek in Pennsylvania created a headline-making boom town for America’s new oil exploration industry, which began with Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 well drilled at a creek near Titusville. As others drilled deeper into geological formations, an 1865 well at Pithole brought America’s earliest gushers, adding to the “black gold” fever sweeping the country.

The Drake well at Oil Creek led to a rush of exploration at other local streams in the remote Allegheny River Valley. In 1864, businessman Ian Frazier found oil at Cherry Creek. After making a quick $250,000, he looked for another opportunity in the hills and valleys providing oil to new Pittsburgh refineries making kerosene for lamps.

Rare photo of Pithole creek giant wooden oil storage tanks.

The new petroleum industry’s infrastructure struggled and transportation technology evolved and oil tanks crowded Pithole, Pennsylvania. In 1865, Samuel Van Syckel constructed the first oil pipeline, a two-inch iron line linking an oil well to a railroad station about five miles away. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Frazier hired a diviner to search along Pithole Creek, which smelled like “sulfur and brimstone,” according to historian Douglas Wayne Houck. “He went to the creek and followed the diviner around until the forked twig dipped, pointing to a specific spot on the ground,” Houck noted in 2014. The young industry also had begin drilling its first “dry holes.”

Geysers of Pennsylvania Oil

Although Frazier’s United States Oil Company’s steam powered, cable-tool derrick first drilled a dry hole,  a second well erupted spectacularly on January 7, 1865, producing 650 barrels of oil a day. The Frazier well, proclaimed by historian Houck as the  first U.S. oil gusher, brought  a flood of drillers and speculators to Pithole Creek. Two more wells blew in on January 17 and January 19, each flowing at about 800 barrels a day (invention of a practical blowout preventer was still half a century away).

The Titusville Herald proclaimed Pithole as having “probably the most productive wells in the oil region of Pennsylvania, Houck writes in his 2014 book, Energy & Light in Nineteenth-Century Western New York. Frazier’s United State Oil Company subdivided its property and began selling lots for $3,000 for a half-acre plot. Fortunes were being made and lost in the oil region. See the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.”

As the news spread through Venango County, “everyone came to the Pithole area to try their luck,” noted one reporter. Many were Confederate and Union war veterans. And as more successful wells came in, about 3,000 teamsters rushed to Pithole to haul out the growing number of oil barrels. It was hard to keep up. By May of 1865, the town is home to 15,000 people, 57 hotels, many homes, shops, and its own daily newspaper. It has the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania – handling 5,500 pieces of mail a day.

pithole creek diorama of hotels and businesses and muddy streets

Managed by the Drake Well Museum, the Pithole Visitors Center includes a diorama of the vanished boom town. Photo by Bruce Wells.

There were many reason behind the Pithole oil boom, including a flood of paper money at the end of the Civil War. Many returning Union veterans of had currency and were eager to invest — especially after reading newspaper articles about oil gushers and oil boom towns.  Thousands of veterans also wanted jobs after long months on army pay .

First Oil Pipeline

As Pithole’s oil tanks overflowed (and dangerous tank fires increased), oil buyer and shipper Samuel Van Syckel conceived a solution now considered an engineering milestone. In 1865, his newly formed Oil Transportation Association put into service a two-inch iron line linking the Frazier well to the Miller Farm Oil Creek Railroad Station – about five miles away.

“The day that the Van Syckel pipe-line began to run oil a revolution began in the business. After the Drake well it is the most important event in the history of the Oil Regions,” Ida Tarbell noted about the technology in her History of the Standard Oil Company.

A park and oilfield boiler center at Pithole Creek, PA.

Today, visitors can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets and see vintage equipment, including antique steam boilers. Volunteers “mow the streets.” Photo by Bruce Wells.

With 15-foot welded joints and three 10-horsepower Reed and Cogswell steam pumps, the pipeline transported 80 barrels of oil per hour – the equivalent of 300 teamster wagons working for ten hours. With their livelihoods threatened, teamsters attempted to sabotage the pipeline, until armed guards intervened.

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Unfortunately for Syckel, Pithole oil storage tanks continued to catch fire even as the Frazier well production began to decline. Other wells were beginning to run dry when in 1866 fires spread out of control and burned 30 buildings, 30 oil wells and 20,000 barrels of oil. “Pithole’s days were numbered,” concludes historian Houck. “Buildings were taken down and carted off. A few people hung around until 1867.”

 plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum

The American Petroleum Institute in 1959 dedicated a plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum as part of the U.S. oil centennial.

From beginning to end, America’s famous oil boom town had lasted about 500 days. Pithole was  added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 20, 1973. Today, a visitors’ center added in 1975 is maintained by the Drake Well Museum. The center contains exhibits, including a scale model of the city at its peak and a small theater.

Volunteers “mow the streets” on the hillside so that tourists can stroll where the petroleum boom town once flourished. Among the oil region’s early — and most infamous — investors was John Wilkes Booth (learn more this failed oilman in the Dramatic Oil Company).

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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. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Boom at Pithole Creek.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/pithole-creek/. Last Updated: November 30, 2020. Original Published Date: March 15, 2014.

 

First Oklahoma Oil Well

After the Civil War, America’s search for oil to refine into kerosene for lamps prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and wildcatters to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.

The rolling hills and plains were part of land reserved for Native Americans by the U.S. Congress and home to an indigenous people as well as the “Five Civilized Tribes” – Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw, which had been forced to relocate from the Southeast.

A pink granite rock marks the spot of first Oklahoma oil well.

A pink granite rock marks the spot where a large crowd gathered at Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well to witness history being made in 1897. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Each of the Five Civilized Tribes established national territorial boundaries, constitutional governments, and advanced judicial and public school systems. The Indian Territory included present-day Oklahoma north and east of the Red River, as well as Kansas and Nebraska. (more…)

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