Oil Pond
Home ] Up ] Yellow fever ] War with US ] McGaffey ] Civil War ] History ] Fort Manhassett ] Albert Miller Lea ] Dick Dowling ] J. H. Garner ] Uncle Joe Chasteen ] Slave Trade ] Moby Dick ] [ Oil Pond ] Peter Stockholm ] Two Cannons ] Captain Keith ] Dr. Niles Smith ] Battle of Sabine Pass ] Blockade ] Gunboat Dan ] Sabine Lake ] Lighthouse ] Alligatorville ] Catherine Dorman ] Headless Yankee ] William F. McClanahan ]

 

SABINE PASS' FAMED "OIL POND:"
IT SAVED SHIPS, BUT SNARED WHALES

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 5, 1984, p. 9DD.

The early "oil pond," which once floated a mile offshore from the beach of Sea Rim marsh, may well have been the strangest natural phenomenon that Southeast Texas ever witnessed. And certainly, if there were any axiom to be proven by it, it was only that the same Hand that churned the briny waves could also still them. Or to speak more explicitly, that same Providence that spawned the West Indian hurricanes to distress ships could also provide a floating haven to sustain them.

Written accounts of the "oil pond" exist between 1847 and 1910, the latter year being the approximate time that the 'pond' disappeared. Certainly, any attempt to explain its presence or disappearance should be left to a qualified geologist, but this much is apparent. It was located amid what is today one of America's last reserves of petroleum, the underwater salt domes of the continental shelf which cover much of our Gulf coast tidelands.

In recent years, the writer has queried two Beaumont professors of geology concerning the "oil pond," but neither had ever heard of it nor read of it in any contemporary writings. Nor did either wish to comment on the 'why of it,' in other words, what freak of nature might cause such a natural phenomenon to exist or disappear.

A military map of Sabine Pass, drawn by a Confederate engineer of the Fort Manhassett area in October, 1863, showed an unidentified circle on the map, similar to an island, at a point about one mile offshore and about five miles west of the present-day West Jetty, the exact same coordinates where the "oil pond" once floated. It was also due south of the Confederate fort that once existed on the west end of Sabine's Front Ridge.

Since no other maps drawn before or after that year depict the existence of any island in that vicinity, it was probably the cartographer's attempt to outline the physical limitations of the "oil pond." And the writer has maps of that area extending over more than a century, from 1777 to 1910.

All accounts indicate that the floating substance was composed of a mixture of sea weed; floating silt, probably from the nearby rivers; and petroleum, perhaps leaking from some nearby deposit. The floating mixture, which was several inches thick and was once from one to two miles across, had the consistency of medium to thick molasses, and a chocolate color when dried. By 1910, when a large sperm whale became stranded in it, the contents of the mammal's stomach and lungs were examined by a state zoologist in March, 1910, and were found to contain several tons of the same approximate admixture, heavy with seaweed. According to Dr. H. H. Newman, who examined the organs at Port Arthur, the contents of the lungs had eventually strangled the whale.

Although records of the strange phenomenon span only sixty-three years, the 'pond' may have existed during centuries of unreported time. In 1847 a large schooner, laden with homeward-bound veterans of the Mexican War, left Galveston for New Orleans, and when a storm arose, the vessel took refuge in the "oil pond," after losing its sails and masts. Afterward, two Sabine Pass bar pilots, Benjamin Johnson and Captain Peter Stockholm, upon being advised of the schooner's predicament, sailed a sloop to the wreck in the 'pond' and brought the stranded victims into port.

That quirk of fate resulted in the settlement at Beaumont of one of that city's earliest lawyers and most respected citizens. Capt. John Kelly Robertson was returning from the war to his home in Georgia when the storm arose, but he remained in Jefferson County thereafter. For many years, he served as Jefferson County county clerk as well as attorney until he died in 1873. His son, Will Robertson, was a printer for the old Beaumont JOURNAL from the date of its founding in 1889, and many of his descendants still live in Beaumont.

The best account of the "oil pond," a quote from the early Beaumont LUMBERMAN, appeared in the Galveston DAILY NEWS of April 8, 1880, as follows:

"The oil pond at Sabine Pass is between three and four miles across. It is about one mile from the main shore, and vessels drawing from ten to fifteen feet can easily run into the pond for safety, whenever the war among the elements is waxing furious. The heavier the gale, the thicker the mud at its entrance, and the moment the breakers strike the mud, they subside as if by magic. Vessels often put into the pond when storms are raging outside."

"The mud in this pond, when dry, cuts as easily as chalk, and burns well when put in a fire. It is a favorite resort for lumber vessels plying between the Calcasieu River and Galveston or other coast towns whenever storms arise. During the storm of 1875, when so much damage was done to property along the coast of Texas, vessels which put into the "oil pond" weathered the gale and put to sea when the storm subsided, having sustained no damage. We have some idea that there is sulphur as well as petroleum in the water -- that is, similar to the sulphur at Sour Lake."

A description of 1867 noted that the mud which surrounded the Sour Lake springs indeed had similar properties. When dry and sliced into blocks, the earth burned in the fireplaces of the Sour Lake Hotel equally as good as wood.

Another Galveston account of May 18, 1882, reveals that the pond had decreased considerably in size, but the reduction may have ceased, or the size even increased again, at least until 1910, the last year that any record of the "oil pond" appears in print. The Galveston article states:

"We learn from Captain J. Pederson, of the schooner "Silas," that the "oil pond," near Sabine Pass, into which vessels used to anchor in safety during storms, and about which so much has been said in the past, has pretty near disappeared. At one time, it was about two miles in length, and whenever the sea was furious, it was almost entirely calm. The 'Pond,' as it is called, it hardly large enough to accommodate many vessels, but the diminutive spot left there still defies the waves."

For the next 28 years, the writer found no further references to the "oil pond" until March, 1910, but in daily articles between the 9th and 15th of that month, references to the "oil pond" in the Galveston NEWS were almost identical with those it had run thirty years earlier. Also a brochure of the 'Mammoth Whale Company' of that year described the locality where the 60-ton sperm whale was captured alive in the "oil pond," and from there, was towed into Sabine Pass and Port Arthur while still alive and quite frisky, as follows:

"The Port Arthur whale was captured March 8, 1910, in the Gulf of Mexico, four miles to the west of Sabine, Texas, by Captain Cott Plummer and a crew of nine men and was towed into Sabine, Texas, a distance of five miles, by the tug (pilot boat) "Florida".....The monster denizen came to grief by going aground in what is known as "The Oil Pond"....There were fourteen feet of water in the "Oil Pond" at the time the whale went aground, giving you an idea of its enormous bulk..."

In October, 1863, after Major Julius Kellersberg built Fort Manhassett about six miles west of Sabine Pass, he drew a military map of Sabine Pass, which still appears in Official Atlas of The Civil War. He drew a small circle offshore from the fort, that might be mistaken for an island in an area where no island was ever known to be. The writer is convinced that that was Kellersberg's "drawing" of the offshore "oil pond," even though it was not so identified.

And with those comments, the story of the Sabine Pass "oil pond" fades away into historical oblivion among the chronicles of Southeast Texas. Back in the early 1970s, the writer learned that a few old Sabine Pass nestors had heard about the 'pond' during their youthful days, but only as told to them by their parents or grandparents.

What happened to the "oil pond" so soon afterward? How long had it been in existence? What geological activity was taking place to create it in the first place? The writer has neither ideas, nor the answers to these or any other questions about that unusual phenomonen of yesteryear. But if extreme underground gas pressure could release methane and petroleum through the soil and springs at Spindletop, as it did in pre-gusher days, or as it did at Sour Lake or High Island, sufficient to ignite a blue flame from a simple bamboo cane stuck a few inches into the ground, then it seems equally plausible that a corresponding reduction of underground gas pressure could stop the flow which forced it to the surface. A geologist might some day quickly toss that theory into the garbage dump, but until one does, that is the conjecture that the writer intends to live with.

Copyright 1998-2016 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WTBlock