The Professor's History Lesson: The Discovery of Black Gold

The Brilliant Blog’s new series, The Professor's History Lessons, shares amazing moments in the history of energy, electricity and sustainable development. We hope these brief looks back in history will teach you something new and give you a greater appreciation for the energy used in your daily lives.

On Jan. 10, 1901, a gloppy black rain fell from the sky. The Lucas No. 1 oil well exploded at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas. The enormous geyser of oil, coined “black gold,” marked the birth of the modern oil industry, and helped shape the Texas we all know and love today.

Spindletop Hill was molded by an underground salt dome, which pushed the ground above it higher as it grew. When salt is under pressure and heated, it gurgles about like a lava lamp, breaking the rocks above, according to the Paleontological Research Institution. Those broken rocks can actually trap oil and natural gas. The top layer of the salt dome, known as cap rock (shown in the image to the right), can trap oil as well. (Along the Gulf Coast, nearly all of the salt domes have a petroleum-rich cap rock, according to a report by the Texas Water Development Board.)

Photograph of Anthony Lucas Image Source

Photograph of Anthony Lucas
Image Source

It’s no wonder that self-taught geologist Patillo Higgins hypothesized there might be oil churning beneath the surface, according to History.com. At the beginning of the new century, Higgins's theory was widely criticized by mainstream geologist and petroleum experts because no one thought you could find oil along the Gulf Coast. Even more so, no one was really using oil as the transportation industry ran mostly on coal, adds the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, but Higgins wouldn’t give up that easily. Years later, Higgins shared his theory with Anthony F. Lucas, an engineer, who shared similar views on salt domes. Lucas approached a prominent Pennsylvania oilman to finance a drilling operation at Spindletop Hillwithout Higgins. (Don’t worry, Higgins later sued and received a nice settlement from the Spindletop oil field.)

Lucas and his group began drilling in October 1900, and in January 1901 the team had reached 1,020 feet beneath the Texas dirt. On January 10, mud began bubbling at the drill site, and it was followed by a gush of more mud, natural gas and then finally, Higgins’s coveted “black gold.” The Lucas No. 1, or Lucas Geyser (shown in the image below), reached a height of more than 150 feet and produced close to 100,000 barrels a day, more than all other American oil wells combined.

Spindletop was actually the third major oil discovery in Texas, according to data from the Texas State Historical Association. The two earlier discoveries were in Corsicana (1894) and Powell, Texas (1900), both roughly 230 miles northwest of Beaumont. But local crews were actually looking for water in Corsicana, so they left the site not knowing how valuable the black gold truly was.

Spindletop produced more than 3.5 million barrels of oil in its first year, and another 17.4 million in its second. Oil prices were driven down; in turn, crippling John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly on the energy source. This led to a booming oil industry, in which Amoco, Gulf Oil Corporation, Exxon Company USA and Texaco can trace their origins to that hilltop.

Present-day Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum Image Source

Present-day Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum
Image Source

And while Spindletop was nearly tapped out of oil by World War I, its impact helped shape Texas’s future and position in the modern oil industry. How? Well, before the discovery, petroleum oil had limited uses in just lamps and lubrication, notes the Advisory Council On Historic Preservation. Afterward, oil helped expand the shipping and railroad businesses and led to the development of airplanes and automobiles. Without black gold who knows how advanced our machinery would be today!

As an interesting byproduct of oil, natural gas has become an increasingly sought after energy source. While it’s not as “clean” of an energy source as solar power, it does emit 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when you burn it. And at Brilliant Energy we strive to support clean energy. In fact, we even offer the Brilliant Green energy plan, which uses 100 percent renewable green energy. You can learn more about Brilliant Green here.