The Glory Days of Black Gold

pat2One of my all-time favorite films is “Giant,” a sprawling epic of Texas with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and the ill-fated James Dean who was killed in an accident immediately after the filming.It was the highest grossing film until “Superman” assumed that the honor, and it was nominated for eight Oscars, including best supporting actor for James Dean. One theme of the movie was the conflict between oil men and the ranchers.
I was reminded of those raucous oil years not long ago when I heard one of those old family stories that occasionally pop up. My dad’s family homesteaded in southern Arizona in 1911, and I have great family stories, including one in which my then toddler father played with a rattler. But then that’s another story.
There were three brothers and three sisters. The three sisters were all older than the brothers. My oldest uncle, an intrepid fellow who later became a war correspondent, worked on the early wells to earn money for college. One of my aunts ran a boarding house for roustabouts.

So I thought I would check out a little history of oil in the west. It was a little ironic that men searched so long and hard for minerals when black gold lay beneath their feet across the great plains.

One of the first finds was in Texas. Indians had known of places where brown fluids seeped from the earth, oils which healed battle wounds and skin diseases. Around such seeps were invisible substances in the air that would burn forever – better than pine torches to light the night during times of tribal ceremonies. The first pioneers learned to use the brown fluids for softening leather, lubricating wagon axles and making ointments. But most ranchers hated the stuff. It ruin their water for drinking.

In 1886, a rancher near San Antonio drilled for water and hit oil instead. He was not a happy man, not until he discovered he could use it for fuel around the ranch.

But nothing more happened until 1894 when a well being bored for water at Corsicana suddenly spouted oil in a steady stream. It caught fire and started the first oil boom in the west. Corsicana was soon producing petroleum commercially – 1,450 barrels the first year. Four years later production rose to more than half a million barrels.

The find encouraged other petroleum drilling, leading to the Spindletop, a oil gusher near Beaumont that was big enough to surprise even a Texan. The driller expected maybe fifty barrels. With his old fashioned rig, he drove down a thousand feet. According to “The Settlers West” by Martin Schmitt and Dee Brown, the drill pipe shot up out of the casing and knocked off the crown block. “In a very short time,” the driller said, “oil was going up through the top of the derrick and rocks were shot hundreds of feet into the air. Within a few minutes, the oil was holding a steady flow at more than twice the height of the derrick.” Spindletop spilled oil all over the Texas landscape, a hundred thousand barrels a day.

In a few weeks Beaumont was running a high fever. Wooden oil derricks shot up like weeds. The population jumped from ten to thirty thousand. Land values soared from $40 to $1,000,000 an acre.

From then oil fever consumed the country, just as gold fever had a few decades earlier. Oil was found in an impoverished Oklahoma near a sleepy village which the natives called Tulsey Town. Gamblers and speculators and the new fraternity of oil men in big hats and laced boots swarmed into the little town on the Arkansas River. Little Tulsey Town became Tulsa.

The finds in Texas and Oklahoma spurred more searches north and west across the great plains, and strike followed strike. There was so much oil that there weren’t enough storage tanks and thousands of barrels flowed back into the earth or wells caught fire and burned for days.

And wherever oil was found, tents, shacks, saloons and gambling houses, and boarding houses sprung up just as they had in the old cattle trail towns of an earlier generation.

California had some small fields before the Texas finds but boomtowns and oil fever was constrained, perhaps as an aftermath of gold fever until a gusher blew in neaar Lake View and poured out 90,000 barrels a day.   The spray covered an area 15 miles around and the well became the richest of all time.

Do any of you have any stories of those black gold glory days. And have you seen “Giant?” If not, do yourself a favor and rent it. The music is great, too.





+ posts

12 thoughts on “The Glory Days of Black Gold”

  1. Hi Pat,
    My in-laws live in Corsicana, so it’s fun to read about the area where they live regarding oil finds. And you paint a great picture of Spindletop, I can just see that oil shooting up and surprising everyone.

    No oil stories from me, unless we’re talking olive oil from Europe!!

  2. Hi, Pat,
    Fascinating blog about oil, Pat. I’ve featured oil in a couple of my early 1900s Westerns, so its nice to have this background info.
    And I love GIANT, have seen it several times. I believe the female lead was Elizabeth Taylor, not Vivian Leigh. But wasn’t James Dean amazing? What a tragedy to lose him so young.

  3. Pat, I never realized until now that I’ve never read a historical that features finding oil in it. Guess it seems too modern for most writers. I’m sure those early oil pioneers had a time trying to drill for it. They’d have to have used horses and wagons. I, too, am a fan of Giant. Some wonderful actors in it. I’m going to have to watch it again sometime.

  4. Hi Pat, fantastic blog. Never knew the whole Texas oil history, so this was a great read. I do remember reading a romance years ago, where an oilman was the hero, and he always pronounced it “awl bidness.” I can just hear it! (Fortunately, the author mentioned it once, then spelled it correct the rest of the time LOL.)

    I live on the California coast and we have a dozen or so oil rigs out in the channel. They light up at night like Christmas decorations. Of course, they are controversial. Everyone waits for a leak or a spill. They have pretty names, Gilda and Grace are two I recall.

  5. We are in Texas on vacation this week. I just finished two books by Deeanna Gist that take place in Corsicana at the beginning of the oil boom. If you are not familiar with her, she writes christian fiction and the two books are COURTING TROUBLE and DEEP IN THE HEART OF TROUBLE. They are romances, but she gives a very good picture of the town and the beginning of the oil industry when they were trying to drill water wells.
    Am trying to convince my husband to swing through Corsicana on the way home (it is out of the way).
    Thanks for another enjoyable and informative post.

  6. I did a lot of research into oil for my book Gingham Mountain. It was one of those rabbit trails a writer goes down and before you know it you’ve lost two hours of writing time.

    You can’t read about oil for more than ten minutes before you find the word Spindletop. That really started the boom.
    And there was a crash in the Kerosene market about… oh, I’m guessing .. 1850 or so because they invented Coal Oil and just when a few people were finding out oil would burn here comes coal oil. So plentiful and cheap to make and the market crashed.

    And then came Spindletop January 10, 1901
    And the Ford Motor Company in November 30, 1901
    You think those two things aren’t related?

  7. Pat, what an interesting blog. You bring up things I didn’t know. And I’ve never seen Giant — though I’m supposed to be an old movie buff. 🙂

    I’ll have to watch it. Is that the one with Elizabeth Taylor in it, by any chance?

  8. Hi, Pat,

    My family elders were not property owners until my
    Dad bought the land on which he built our family’s
    house. (The house burned down about 5 years ago,
    after being in place for 64 years) Needless to say,
    we weren’t Texans with an oil background! And yes,
    I have seen Giant. I saw it during its first run
    showing here in Houston.

    Pat Cochran

  9. hi. . So sorry about GIANT. I knew it was Elizabeth Taylor and not Vivian Leigh but apparently my fingers typed Leigh. Yes, it was definitely Elizabeth Taylor. This is what happens when I write the blog late in the evening.

Comments are closed.