Roughnecks

From the time Spindletop blew its oily stack, Texas has never been the same.

"I wanted water, and they got me oil. I was mad, mad clean through. I said, 'Damn the oil. I want water.'"

- W.T. Waggoner, Electra, 1903

Black Gold Beginnings

Lyne T. Barret and George Dullnig may have wished they had had better luck in the oil business.

In 1866, Barret drilled the first oil-producing well in Texas near present-day Nacogdoches. He struck black gold at 106 feet and produced about ten barrels a day for a couple of years. Oil prices rose and dropped wildly during Reconstruction, and there wasn't a big demand or reliable financial backing for drilling enterprises yet, so in 1868, Barret shut down his well and went back to his mercantile business. In 1886, George Dullnig was extremely disappointed that the bubbling liquid he struck on his Bexar County ranch was oil, not water. That well produced 48 barrels of crude a year and made Dullnig an annual profit of about $7.00 in present-day money. He decided to concentrate on his grocery business.

Then the World Changed

On January 10, 1901, Lucas #1 at Spindletop Hill erupted, spewing oil 150 feet up into the wide blue Texas sky.

100,000 barrels of pure profit spewed out daily. The sleepy town of Beaumont boomed from 10,000 to 50,000 people practically overnight. Previously cheap land tracts in the area brought million dollar price tags. The now-giant Texaco and Gulf Oil companies were established specifically to store and transport the millions of gallons of Spindletop oil. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black gold of oil rivaled the white gold of cotton as the state's most lucrative crop. The Texas Oil Boom had begun.

All of a sudden, a chunk of mud came out of the six-inch hole with an explosion just like a canon popping off. I walked over and looked down in the hole there. This frothy oil was coming up, each flow a little higher and a little higher and a little higher. Finally it came up with such momentum that it just shot up clear through the top of the derrick. Al Hamill, Tales from the Derrick Floor

Boomtowns, Wildcatters, and Roughnecks

Corsicana, Borger, Wink, Ranger, Brownwood, Humble, Wichita Falls, Mexia, Beaumont, Luling, Kilgore, Longview, Desdemona. These were only a few of the Texas boomtowns where oil derricks crowded the landscape and wildcatters, boll weevils, and roughnecks slogged through the muddy streets dreaming of black gold wealth.

Oil wasn’t news to the titans of industry in the big cities of the northeast. Until the Texas explosion, John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company of Pennsylvania had an unchallenged monopoly on America’s oil and gas supply. But with significant oil strikes in Corsicana in 1894 and Spindletop’s explosion in 1901, independent oil contractors called wildcatters soon stalked the Texas frontier looking for big bucks and big opportunities in the bubbling ground. Thousands of inexperienced farmers, called boll weevils by seasoned oil workers, left their tractors and poured into boomtowns. Once they learned to sling heavy cables and pipes on the derrick floor, the farmers became oilmen and graduated to roughneck status.

Rough was the right word for life in a boomtown.

Sometimes no town existed at all near a newly-tapped oil field, so corrugated iron shanty towns popped up quickly to serve the thousands of people streaming in. Managers of flimsy boarding houses along the dirt ruts of "Main Street" charged exhausted riggers almost half a day’s pay to rent a cot for twelve hours. Enterprising restaurateurs built fires under 6-foot vats, filled them with water and dried beans, and charged oil hands 15 cents for a cup of “soup.” Gas hung in the air for miles around an oil town. It was nauseating when you could smell it and dangerous when you couldn't.  Gas blindness or even gas-induced death was a daily gamble for workers on the seeping rigs. There was also no shortage of gambling and fisticuffs in the ratty saloons. Things got so bad in one Texas boom town that Governor Moody sent the Texas Rangers to settle things down.  Safe drinking water was nowhere and dysentery was everywhere. In short, a boomtown wasn’t a healthy place to call home for very long.

There were people living in tents with children. There were a lot of them that had these great big old cardboard boxes draped around trees, living under the trees. And any and everywhere in the world they could live, they lived. Some were just living in their cars, and a truck if they had a truck. And I tell you, that was bad. Just no place to stay whatsoever. Mary Rogers, Life in the Oil Fields
The city water of Beaumont back in those days was soupy. Its odor clearly indicated the presence of alligator, bullfrogs, and fish. Everyone soon learned if the water was used for drinking purposes that it caused severe stomach cramps, or what was locally known as the Beaumonts. Toilet facilities being limited, a bad case of Beaumonts called for biddings as high as fifty cents for the immediate use of a toilet. H. P. Nichols, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin, oral history interview

The Legacy of Black Gold Lives On

The Texas oil boom continued its frenzied pace throughout the early 1900s. The impact of all that black gold changed both the state and the nation.

Boomtowns sprang up and derricks rose leg-to-leg on any patch of Texas landscape where oil looked possible. In 1923, the Santa Rita No. 1 oil pump – named for the patron saint of the impossible, St. Rita – blew in from the unlikely ground of the Permian Basin. The state’s Permanent University Fund and the University of Texas and Texas A&M have been blessed from those royalties ever since. In 1932, Governor Ross Sterling extended the authority of the Texas Railroad Commission to establish some regulatory order to the wildly expanding oil industry. Throughout the 1930s, big oilmen like Roy Cullen, H. L. Hunt, Clint Murchison, and Sid Richardson made big oil money and even bigger contributions to Texas’s cultural, scientific, and educational heritage.

By the 1950s, the heyday of the Texas oil boom was drawing to a close. Reduced but steady production of a wide range of petroleum products replaced the spectacular eruptions of the black gold days. In the early 2000s, Texas experienced a second oil boom – natural gas. With new drilling technologies and practices came vast reserves of untapped natural resources, big potential for big money, and a new word for our state's political, economic, environmental, and public health conversations: fracking.

The Texas oil legacy lives on, as do the discussions and arguments about it. The reality of Texas oil is that it is still a major component of the national economy. Roughnecks still sling cables and pipes on the big rigs. The smell of oil still hangs in the Texas coastal air. And a wildcatter somewhere continues to search the earth for black gold, still certain that there’s something down there.

Roughnecks on the Bullock Terrazzo

Launch Master Timeline

Roughneck Timeline

1543
1543Tar Pits and Oil Springs

Oil springs and tar pits were known to the Texas Indians. They used the oozings to treat rheumatism and skin diseases. Oil was also seen by the Spanish explorers as early as July 1543, when members of the De Soto expedition saw oil floating in the water near Sabine Pass and used it to caulk their boats. Later, settlers used surface oil for axel grease and for lighting and fuel.

Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

1886
1886Texas Strikes Oil

In 1859, a huge oil discovery in Pennsylvania made kerosene the dominant lighting fuel in America. The first deliberate oil strike in Texas was at Oil Springs near Nacogdoches in 1866. This well produced only about ten barrels a day. A locally successful well was drilled in Brown County in 1880 that produced about 100 barrels a day. At that time, there was no practical means of shipping the oil out of state.

Image courtesy of Texas Railroad Commission

1892
1892Drilling Begins in Beaumont

Anthony F. Lucas was a salt mining engineer from Louisiana who thought that the upper Gulf Coast had great potential for oil discovery. But an 1892 attempt to drill for oil in Beaumont failed due to quicksand. When he could raise the necessary investment, Lucas continued to explore and drill in the area for the next nine years.

June 9, 1894
1894The Corsicana Boom

In 1894, crews drilling for water in Corsicana struck oil instead. The result was chaos. So many wells were drilled that operators poured excess oil on the ground, and the price fell to less than 50 cents a barrel. To stem the contamination and waste, Corsicana contracted to build pipelines, storage tanks, and a refinery. This operation was called the Magnolia Petroleum Company, one day to be known as Mobil.

March 29, 1899
1899First State Regulation

At its height, the Corsicana field produced over 800,000 barrels a year, in an era where remote Texas still could not compete with Pennsylvania oil. Corsicana and the Magnolia Company worked to develop Texas markets for fuel, asphalt, and illumination. In 1899, the state enacted the first laws regulating the industry, requiring operators to cap off wells to protect groundwater and to stop letting natural gas escape into the air.

1900
1900Powell Oilfield

Because of the success at Corsicana, further exploration was conducted throughout Navarro Country. This led to the discovery of the Powell oilfield in 1900. By 1906 Powell produced 673,221 barrels of oil, which grew to more than 33 million barrels in 1924. The little town of Powell doubled in size to 500 people, a foreshadowing of the wild oil boomtowns to come.

1901
1901Sour Lake Boom and Bust

The resort town of Sour Lake, 20 miles northwest of Beaumont, was the site of the first refinery in Texas in 1895. A gusher came in in 1902 and Sour Lake was transformed into a boom town. By 1912, over-drilling had already caused the field pressure to decline drastically.

January 10, 1901
1901Spindletop Changes the World

On January 10, 1901, at 10:30 a.m., a gusher called Spindletop blew in—and changed Texas forever. Wildcatter Anthony F. Lucas had been right about what lay under the salt dome near Beaumont. Spindletop nearly ripped its derrick to pieces and shot a tower of pure crude 100 feet in the air. It took more than a week to bring the giant gusher under control. The black gold headlines spread around the world.

1902
1902Texaco Founded

Former Standard Oil executive Joseph F. Cullinan had founded Magnolia Company to put the Corsicana oil fields on a businesslike footing. He did the same at Spindletop with the Texas Company (later Texaco), which purchased oil and transported by barge and rail car to a new refinery in Port Arthur. In 1905, the company completed a pipeline directly from the oil field to the refinery.

1911
1911Wichita County Boomtowns

In 1911, drillers looking for water discovered the Electra field in Wichita County near the Red River. In 1912, oil was discovered in the ranching town of Burkburnett. Larger strikes in 1918 and 1925 caused a huge boom, drawing more than 20,000 people to the area before the boom died in the late 1920s. These and other vast new finds in Texas, Oklahoma, and California doubled the nation’s oil reserves.

1914
1914A Link to the Sea

Oil required the opening of new frontiers in law, chemistry, and engineering. Refineries that rivaled the largest in the world were built. Port facilities along the coast were dredged to accommodate tanker ships. In 1909, dredging began on the Houston Ship Channel. It was completed in 1914, providing the link to the sea for the interior of Texas. It remains one of the most heavily utilized waterways in the U.S.

Image courtesy of Fort Bend Museum.

November 17, 1917
1917On Strike!

On November 1, 1917, approximately 10,000 Texas and Louisiana oilfield workers walked off the job to protest long hours and low pay. The strike dragged on for months. Oil producers refused to accept federal authority to mediate the dispute. When the strike ended in June 1918, 25% of the workers had lost their jobs, though many companies did voluntarily raise wages and extend benefits for those who were kept on.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-012167-M2]

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