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Oil industry in East Texas traces roots back to 1860s

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday January 8, 2000.

As Spindletop’s 99th anniversary approaches, it is a good time to remember that our nation’s first oil gusher as well as the birth of the oil industry began in Beaumont. It is a time also to remember others in East Texas history that tried so hard to bore that first gusher, but failed.  Sources indicate, however, that Texas’ first petroleum pipeline was built in Nacogdoches County.

One of those who failed was a “Mr. Mulligan,” who drilled at Sour Lake in Feb. 1867, but history does not even provide his entire name. Mulligan’s 95-foot well produced 200 barrels of petroleum before sand clogged the well, and he abandoned the project. W. A. Savage also found small quantities of oil at Sour Lake, and he shipped the first wooden tank car of petroleum from Beaumont in 1896 before he too abandoned the search.

Credit for East Texas’ first oil driller belongs to L. T. Barret, a merchant in Melrose, in southeast Nacogdoches County, who dug the first oil well in Oil Springs in 1866. Oil drilling rigs of that era were principally deep water well cable rigs with a “Samson post and a walking beam.” That type of equipment, which was about all that was available in East Texas at that time, was very inefficient, and the principal cause of the failures.

Barret chartered the Melrose Drilling Co. with three partners in 1866, and he dug his first well 110 feet deep, using a crude steam-driven augur. That well produced 10 barrels of oil daily. The partners obtained some financing in Pennsylvania and drilled a second well, also with minimal success, after which they too abandoned the search.

In 1877 a second set of drillers and investors bored a well that produced about 75 barrels of oil daily, and for the next 15 years a small oil boom erupted. Other drillers flocked to that location, where they built a “skimming plant,” a wooden barrel factory, and a pipeline into Nacogdoches. A railroad, the Nacogdoches and Southeastern, was also built to Oil Springs.

For a few years, many buildings and tents existed at Oil Springs while the boom lasted. Nacogdoches Chronicle, reprinted in Galveston Daily News of Oct. 19, 1891, observed that:

“...Several oil wells are now being operated at Oil Springs, and during the past two years, 200,000 gallons of the finest lubricating oil have been shipped... The wells have to be capped to interrupt the flow, and there are now on hand 100,000 gallons of oil in tanks and barrels...”

“...Two oil companies have been operating there for years. There is an immense tank in the western suburb of Nacogdoches near the depot that holds 100,000 gallons of oil. The tank is connected to the wells at Oil Springs by 16 miles of pipeline, through which the oil is pumped to the tank....”

By 1894 an oil field was discovered at Corsicana, where by 1898, its 287 oil wells were each producing about 100-150 barrels daily. Production at Oil Springs had dropped off to about 1 barrel per well daily, so the drillers quickly deserted that field for Corsicana. By 1900, the Corsicana field was producing 830,000 barrels annually, and the expertise learned in that field contributed greatly to success at Spindletop.

The rotary rig of Hamill Brothers, which drilled the Lucas gusher, came from Corsicana. And when news of the giant oil discovery at Beaumont reached Corsicana, other drillers and roughnecks deserted that field in droves to bring their drilling rigs and expertise to Beaumont.

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