El Comienzo



The first commercial discovery of oil in Mexico occurred in 1901 in the rolling, coastal plains of the northeast, between the foothills of the Sierra Madre Orientals and the Gulf of Mexico, near the small village of Ebano in the State of San Luis Potosi.


El Ebano fue el comienzo.


Ebano was the beginning.


Ebano, 1908



Huasteca Petroleum's warehouse along the Mexican Central Railroad spur, south of the mainline station at Ebano; 1908,




In 1900, Edward L Doheny (1856-1935), left, had already been a successful producer of heavy oil from urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, California for five years. His company, Pan American Petroleum and Transportation, refined his Los Angeles oil into asphalt and kerosene and shipped its products all over the American West.


His friend from Los Angeles, a man named, Abraham Robinson, owned and operated the Mexican Central Railroad with lines from the port of Tampico north to Matamoros, and west thru Ciudad San Luis Potosí, Nuevo Laredo and Juarez. Robinson had encouraged Doheny to visit Northern Mexico to scout for oil and a possible fuel source for Robinson's railroad company. Doheny was then 44 years old, passionate and extremely confident in his ability to find oil. [1]


His companion to Mexico was his long time business associate, Charles A. Canfield (1845-1913), seen on the right.


They traveled from Los Angeles to Juarez and onto Ciudad San Luis Potosí, then eastward across the Sierras and into the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico. This was a region called, La Huasteca, named for its geographical and cultural ties to the indigenous Huatec people. [2]


On the eastern foothills of the mountains they came upon Ebano Estacion in the Auza area, a railroad depot on the Mexican Central Railway. They camped there for several days near the railroad tracks and found an enormous number of bitumen seeps nearby, in Spanish called, chapopotes. These seeps bubbled thick, gooey oil to the surface that collected in pools, Many of these chapapotes were so large and deep that local ranchers had to fenced off to protect their cattle. These seeps could not be drained, nor filled in, the heavy black tar boiled to the surface like water from a spring.



On the left, a chapopote in the area of Auza, 1900


Doheny and Canfield then set out from Ebano on horseback and pack animals to explore and map thick jungles and hills that rose off the coastal plains. Their Huatec guides translated conversations with local ganaderos and hacienda owners.


Upon seeing the vast number of oil seeps and the amount of heavy oil that could be mined from them, Canfield was gleeful and Doheny is reported to have said...


"The sight caused us to forget all about the dreaded climate, it's hot humid atmosphere, its apparently incessant rains, those jungle pests the pinolillas and garrapatas (wood ticks), the dense forest jungle which seems to grow up as fast as cut down, it's great distance from any center that we could call civilization and still greater distance from a source of supplies of oil well materials -- all were forgotten in the joy of discovery with which we contemplated this little hill from whose base flowed oil in various directions. We felt that we knew and we did know that we were in an oil region which would produce in unlimited quantities that for which the world had the greatest need."


After weeks of surveying the area Doheny returned to Los Angeles by train and Canfield stayed behind to begin solving logistical issues. In California, Doheny raised six million dollars for his grand, new business venture. He was back in Mexico by year end 1901, ready to roll. Doheny and Canfield's new company became known as the Mexican Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of their holding company, Pan American.

Map, 1916. Tampico is a significant port with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Railroads lines go north out of Tampico toward Nuevo Laredo and due east, toward San Luis Potosi.


Along the Mexican Central Railroad is the small village and station depot of Ebano. South are the great fields of the Faja de Oro, the Golden Lane. This is a terrific map of all Huasteca Petroleum land holdings by year end, 1916 and its pipelines from Casiano, north to its Tampico tank farm and loading docks.


On the far right of the map, near Laguna Tamiahua and the village of San Geronimo is the infamous, Dos Bocas crater.


















Below, Doheny, Canfield and staff, Ebano jungle; 1904


Doheny and Canfield traveled to Mexico City, hired a well known English speaking attorney of world acclaim and immediately bought a 283,000 acre hacienda (Tulillo) near Ebano, followed by another 150,ooo acre ranch (Chapaco) near Chijol [3]. These ranches were bought with 100% of the mineral rights, for prices ranging from 65 cents an acre up to a dollar an acre. While in Mexico City, Doheny and Canfield arranged an audience with all the correct government authorities, including the very colorful President of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz [4], and Mexican Petroleum received all the proper permits to press on finding oil in the La Huasteca of Northern Mexico under an undisclosed tax burden payable to the Federal government.


Under the belief that a large portion of their chapopote heavy oil could be surface mined and processed to provide fuel for Mexico's fledgling new Railway system, Doheny and Canfield entered into a long term contract with the Mexican Central Railroad and their old friend, Abraham Robinson.

With land acquired, the government's blessings and a market secured, the two gentlemen from California returned to Ebano and built a two mile spur line, southwest from Ebano Station to near the base of a particularly gooey hill and began clearing jungle.



They hired an old acquaintance, a driller in Los Angeles named Herbert Wylie and named him general manager of Mexican Petroleum. Wylie then supervised the building of a refinery to process heavy bitumen from seeps in the area. A massive camp was built a few hundred yards from the refinery. Storage yards, water and electricity infrastructure were also built, an ice making plant was built as well as a water treatment facility, even a hospital. Soon the Mexican Petroleum headquarters in Northern Mexico was finished, before the first actual oil well had ever been drilled. Doheny believed very strongly in oil seeps; his success in California was based entirely on wells drilled near the La Brea Tar Pits.


On a low relief hill at the end of his railroad spur called Cerro de la Dicha, Doheny built Casa Grande, a home and administrative offices for his general manager and accounting employees. He built himself a small home down the hill in the camp and lived there off and on for over 14 years


Casa Grande, Cerro de la Dicha; 1902, below


Below, The Mexican Oil Company's oilfield supply warehouse in Ebano, 1907



1905; on the porch at Casa Grande, Ebano, Mexico. Seated, mid photo, is Mr. Doheny and to his immediate left, also seated, his partner, Charlie Canfield.


Mexican Petroleum's General Manager, Herbert Wylie, standing, is also in this photo. Wylie drilled all of Mexican Petroleum's initial wells and in 1907 became its Vice President. Wylie drilled the famous Cerro Azul well, and eventually became Doheny's Power of Attorney over all Doheny operations in Mexico.




Mexican Petroleum's Asphalt refinery at Ebano, 1904


Ebano tar oil was very heavy in asphaltenes and difficult to actually process into any form of fuel oil. Mexican Petroleum began exporting the tar, in barrels, along the Mexican Central railroad westward toward Potosi and Monterrey, and east to Tampico where it was sent to Veracruz by steamship. Under Doheny and Canfield's holding company, Pan American, they formed an asphalt paving company that was successful paving roads and streets all over Mexico, including Mexico City. Eventually Ebano tar oil was exported to the United States and even England.


Ebano tar oil, Elizabeth Wharf, London; 1906



Under pressure to meet his contractual obligations to provide fuel oil to the Mexican Central Railroad, Doheny and his General Manager, Wylie, constructed two cable tool rigs and started drilling near tar seeps on the Tulillo Ranch . The second well they drilled, in May of 1901, found a sandstone at 500 feet that flowed thick oil and no water. Wylie reported to Canfield that when they encountered the drilling break at 500 feet that oil came into the well bore with such force it "lifted" the drill bit and bottom hole assembly and threw drill line slack onto the bull wheel. The well flowed 20 BOPD of 12 gravity oil, "as thick as cold honey."


A half dozen more 500 foot wells were drilled in the area near chapaptoes, one flowed 40 BOPD. These wells did little more than add volume to surface mining operations for the asphalt plant. Robinson and his railroad, in need of fuel oil, were becoming nervous.

Finally, in 1903, Canfield talked Doheny into hiring a Mexican geologist named Ezequiel Ordonez [5].


In the belief that abundant tar oil actually came from underlying source beds and migrated up to the surface, Ordonez mapped porous basalt like limestone that outcropped near the foothills of the Sierras, projected their rate of dip basin-ward, toward the Gulf of Mexico, and proposed a "deep" test near a cerro called, La Pez, or "Pitch Hill," just a few hundred yards from the Ebano camp. His proposed total depth was 2,000 feet in something he called the Agua Nuevo limestone.






Below, one of the only known photographs of Cerro de la Pez, 1904, not too far from Mexican Petroleum's camp. A well is in progress on the right; on the left are steel tanks. This hill virtually oozed oil all around it, some oil springs 100 feet wide. Courtesy SMU Digital Library.



In April, 1904 the Pez No. 1 well well came in making 1,500 BOPD of black oil from a depth of 1,570 feet. The oil flowed to the surface, was very warm, likely related to underlying volcanic anomalies, its gravity was 15-16 Baume and could be blended with chapopote oil to make a very low grade sort of bunker diesel to fire steam boilers for trains and ships. Within 15 months the Pez No. 1 well, seen in the photo above, was still flowing 100% oil to the surface and had made over 1.5 MM BO. The well flowed 14 years with little decline before turning to 100% water. Before being plugged in 1924 its total production was 6 million barrels. It was never lifted by artificial means.


With this well the Mexican oil industry was born.

1907, Ebano, Mexico. The Pez No. 6 well is in the foreground, just down from the camp bunkhouse. Cerro de la Dicha, Casa Grande, and a new, bigger office is in the background.


Seven "deep" wells were drilled at the base of the Cerro de la Pez, all of which flowed heavy, 12-15 Baume oil from 1,550-1,700 feet. Shallow, Tertiary sandstones from the surface to 800 feet were unconsolidated and caused heaving; deeper Cretaceous age limestones were basaltic, like rubble, and very problematic to drill thru. 15 1/2 in. OD casing was typically set to 200 feet TVD, 12 1/2 in. OD to 500 feet, 10 inch to 700 feet and 8 inch set to 1,3oo feet; the open hole section was 300-400 feet thick. When "drilled in" the wells flowed immediately with 285 PSI of FCP and no water.


Production from all wells in the Ebano area totaled 3.6 MM BO per year by 1908. The asphalt refinery at Ebano was revamped, numerous 55,000 steel storage tanks were built and railroad tanker cars were designed and manufactured in Monterrey to transport oil to the harbor at Tampico.


Doheny and Canfield raised more money in the wealthy areas of NE United States from, among others, the Mellons, Buckley's and the famous American oil finders, Benedum and Trees. A new company was formed in 1907 called Huasteca Petroleum and slowly the use of the name, Mexican Petroleum drifted off in the obscurity.

Ebano development south and east of camp in full swing, 1908; to the north the terrain flattens, vegetation thins and provided a better route for the railroad line between Tampico and Ciudad San Luis Potosí. Wylie was once quoted as saying the jungle around Ebano grew back almost as fast as they could cut it down. Photo courtesy Mediateca INAH, Instituto Nacional de Antropología E Historia de México


Ordonez directed Huasteca and Wylie eastward to the base of a hill on its 155,000 acre Hacienda Chapaco, near the village of Chijol, and found another field consisting of 10-12 wells with 12-15 gravity, viscous oil. Completed in Tertiary sandstones, those wells all flowed thick, black oil that was sent west back to Ebano for refining. More modifications were made to the asphalt plant. 7,000 Mexicans were employed in and around Ebano by Huasteca Petroleum in 1907.


Refining was a slow, tenuous process requiring the steam heating of the heavy oil and storage was limited. In 1909 Mexican Petroleum Company dug, and lined with concrete, an 800,000 barrel reservoir SE of camp, near the refinery. It took almost two years to complete and five months to fill.


Under Ordonez tutelage, Huasteca then started its slow, methodical march south in 1908, drilling lots of very marginal wells, and dry holes, at the base of small hills, near oil seeps. Benedum and Trees, unsatisfied with the rate of new discoveries, the quality of the oil being found in the north part of the basin, and the volatility in Huasteca Petroleum's stock value, sold all of their shares in Mexican Petroleum and Huasteca Petroleum Companies in 1907.


Then in 1910, 65 miles south of Ebano, Huasteca found enormous amounts of 22 gravity oil from the Tamasopo limestone at 1,900 feet on the Hacienda Juan Casiano. The Casiano No. 7 well came in at 60,000 BOPD; its oil was 160 degrees hot, and this single well went on to make nearly 75,000,000 barrels of oil in less than ten years. [6] When Benedum and Trees re-partnered with Pan American in 1925 on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, that time they stuck with Doheny's project and made lots of money.


With the Casiano discovery, Huasteca Petroleum contracted with Standard Oil (New Jersey) to deliver 2 MM BO per year of Casiano oil, most of which was to be shipped from Tampico to the Texas Gulf Coast. Within three months of the Casiano discovery an eight inch pipeline, with eleven different pump stations, was built from Casiano thru thick jungle, to the area south of Tampico on the uppermost reaches of Tamahua Lagoon for processing and transportation. Standard funded the pipeline build. Steam driven tanker ships were built to transport Mexican oil, including a tanker named the SS Herbert Wylie.


Pan American built a total of 37) 55,000 barrel steel tanks along a 100 foot high levee that allowed steam ships tied to Pan American's loading docks to be loaded at the rate of 7,000 BPH. This giant facility was appropriately titled, El Terminal. It was prone to massive flooding in the rainy season from the Panuco River and during hurricanes all the rivers, lagoons and tidal basins buried the port of Tampico and the nearby coastal plains in several feet of mosquito infested water, often for weeks. The wells in Casiano, and later in Cerro Azul, kept Huasteca Petroleum oil moving into, and out of Tampico non stop.


From El Terminal some Casiano oil was loaded on railroad tanker cars and sent back west, to Ebano, where it could be blended with heavy oil and refined for bunker fuel to meet Huasteca Petroleum's contractual obligations to the Mexican Central Railroad, now called, Mexican National Railroad and under new ownership.


From 1901 to 1923 total production from the northern zone, the Panuco Region (300 square miles), including Ebano, Chijol, Topilla, Cacalilao, Cordova and several small fields along the Panuco River, had total cumulative production of nearly 585,000,000 00,000 barrels. In spite of his enormous volume of oil only two refineries existed in the Veracruz region of eastern Mexico, the asphalt refinery at Ebano and a small 50,000 BOPD refinery in Tampico owned by Weetman Pearson of England. Almost all Mexican oil was exported until the early 1940's and Mexico's nationalization of its oil industry (Cardenas, 1938).

The young and ambitious geologist, Everette DeGolyer, left, an employee of the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company, owned by Weetman Pearson (Aquila Petroleum), was charged with mapping this region of Mexico beginning 1910. He eventually put all of his maps and well information together into a geological trend known as the Faja de Oro, or the "Golden Lane" of the Tamasopo Limestone. To the north, in the Ebano-Panuco region the oil was low gravity, very viscous and had limited refinery capacity. To the south, near Casiano, Amarilla and de Llano districts, the oil was much lighter, less viscous and very hot. Southern oil was 22 gravity, easier to transport, and easier to refine.


From 1901 to 1921 the Golden Lane, or the zona de sur of the Tampico and Misantla Basins, and the Ebano/Panuco region of the north zone, produced approximately 3.0 billion barrels of oil from depths less than 2,2oo feet. This remarkable amount of oil was produced from fewer than 170 wells, over 115,000,000 barrels alone from Aquila's great, Potrero de Llanos. No. 4 well.


A significant portion of the beginning of Mexico's great oil industry occurred during a long and bloody civil war (1910-1920) that ultimately led to the end of 35 year old dictatorship (Diaz) and helped create the beginning of a Constitutional Republic. Foreign oil producers in Eastern Mexico were often forced to defend their wells and facilities from revolutionists of both sides. The Huasteca region was Pancho Villa territory.

Wedding party, down the hill from the office on Cerro Dicha; 1908


By the end of his oily career in Mexico in 1924, Edward L. Doheny and Huasteca Petroleum Company owned over 1,4000,000 acres of land west and southwest of Tampico and Doheny's net worth was more than that of John D. Rockefeller's. When asked later in his life if he had taken advantage of the Mexican Revolution, or the indigenous Huatec Indians for his personal gain he responded by saying, “In the oil fields west of Tampico, where formerly the tropical jungle supported only a few Indians, 50,000 oil field workers, largely Mexicans, found immediate, continuous employment.” Indeed, Doheny paid his workers well, provided them and their families with schooling from American teachers and free medical care. He celebrated holidays, particularly Christmas, with great fiestas in camp for thousands, always in attendance himself.


By 1921 Mexico was the 2nd largest exporter of crude oil in the entire world, the port of Tampico had quadrupled in population and the entire economy of eastern Mexico flourished. Unlike other regions of Mexico, oil provided the Mexican people of this area prosperity... and hope.




 



On the right, 2017, the original Pez No. 1 wellbore at the base of Cerro de la Pez in the background. The well is actually plugged and capped, but some of the original production wellhead assembly was used to build this monument,










In 2001 a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the first commercial oil discovery in Mexico occurred in Ebano and Edward Doheny's home, left, was declared a national monument by the people of the State of San Luis Potosi.











In 2020 there were still roughly 180 wells located near Ebano/Chijol and operated by Pemex, mostly all marginal stripper wells on rod lift and or progressive cavity pumps.







Today the central part of Ebano is where Edward Doheny meant for it to be over 120 years ago, Cerro de la Dicho is downtown with Casa Grande restored fully, on top of the hill, and a lot of Mexican Petroleum camp buildings are used for the local municipality. On a side street, Doheny's old home is well cared for by the local historical society. There are reminders of the early 1900's everywhere; the oval "lake" in Zona Cuartel, SE of El Centro, is actually the remnants of the 800,000 barrel reservoir finished in 1911.


 

Footnotes:


[1] Though Doheny became one of the wealthiest men in America and was often photographed in woolen suits typical of that era, he was of Irish decent, tough as a boot, an accomplished horseman, had a scar from forehead to chin on his face from a mountain lion attack in S. Dakota, fell and broke both legs in a silver mine in New Mexico and had a puncture wound in his stomach from a splintered beam on cable tool rig.


[2] Ebano lies in the La Huasteca Potosina (that portion of the Huasteca region in the State of San Luis Potosi). West of Doheny's oil discovery are the Sierra Madre Orientals where very high peaks will have snow on them 4-5 months of the year. Cerro Potosi, in fact, is 12,208 feet above sea level.

On the east slope of the mountains it rains a great deal during the proper season and beautiful, clear, turquoise water runs down large, fast rivers and limestone gorges, eastward toward the lowveld of the coast plains and on to the Gulf of Mexico. South and east of Ciudad San Luis Potosi, near Ciudad Valle, lies many breathtaking waterfalls like the one in the photo above.

This is a region rich in Mexican heritage, warm, friendly people and some of the most breathtaking country Mexico has to offer. I am blessed to have spent some time in this area in the early 70's exploring massive caves in this region, including the famous, Sótano de las Golondrinas (Swallows basement), a 1,583 foot free fall pit, on the right.


In 1900, Doheny and Canfield must have been totally amazed at what they saw as their steam driven train passed breathtaking waterfalls and quickly lost 7,000 foot of elevation as they descended eastward onto to the coastal lowveld.


[3] Chijol is a very large, beautiful tree that grows in the Huasteca and is also called a "stone tree." The wood from the Chijol tree is easily worked when in a green state and will neither warp nor split. Over the course of years and exposed to open air, this wood will become completely petrified. Some homes built from Chijol in this part of the Huasteca are now over 250 years old, as though made of stone, and completely fire and wind proof. Today, tables and furniture made of Chijol wood are priceless.


[4] "Poor Mexico; so far from God, yet so close to the United States." Porfirio Díaz (1836-1915)


[5] On the right, Ezequiel Ordonez (1867-1950); principal geologist with Huasteca Petroleum Company and one of Mexico's great oil finders. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times, University of California Digital Library; 1935


[6] In a 1921 speech given to the American Petroleum Institute in Chicago, Edward Doheny told his audience that the Casiano No. 7 well had produce 85,000,000 barrels of oil before being plugged.










References


[a.] THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE MEXICAN PETROLEUM INDUSTRY TO 1914 by VINCENT R.

and RYAN, JR.

[b.] Oil and Revolution in Mexico; Jonathan C. Brown, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford@ 1993 The Regents of the University of California

[c.] Mexican Oil; 1901-1914; Everett DeGolyer

[d.] The Everett DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University

[e.]] American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletins

[f.] Mediateca INAH, Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México

[g.] A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF MEXICAN PETROLEUM UP TO 20 TH CENTURY: ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY, POLITICS AND TECHNOLOGY, Francesco Gerali; Institute of Geography, National Autonomous University of Mexico.

[h.] Mexican Petroleum; W.J. Archer

[i.] The Fuel Oil Journal, March, 1915

[j.] Testimony of Doheny, Investigation of Mexican Affairs, 1:237; José Vázquez Schiaffino et al., Informes sobre la cuestión petrolera (Mexico City, 1919)

[k.] Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward Doheny; Margaret Davis


A Note From the Author:


Es con gran pasión que escribo sobre la historia temprana del petróleo Mexicano.


In my poor Spanish I believe this to mean it is with great passion I write of the early history of Mexican oil and of tough men that endured relentless hardships in the early 1900's searching for hope, for esperar.


I have in the past written of the great American geologist, DeGoyler's, time in Mexico and of three of the largest oil wells the world has ever known, the great wells of Dos Bocas, Cerro Azul and the Potrero de Llano...

[1] Mr. Dee In Mexico

[2] Dos Bocas

[3] Faja de Oro de Mexico y la Gran Pozo Cerro Azul Número Quatro

[4] El Jefe


I borrow heavily from the works of others but also research early Mexican history extensively, particularly the writings of Everette DeGolyer at his library at Southern Methodist University.


The narrative of early Mexican oil is often inconsistent, photographs clearly mislabeled and dates confusing. Stories that are 120 years old are often lost in language translations and over time. I have become fairly competent reading Spanish and many of the fine pieces written by Mexican people proud of their industry, and of their country. I sometimes believe my passion for the subject of Mexican oil is such that I can actually imagine myself actually there. General George Patton once said that about his knowledge of history. Imagination helps clarify confusing aspects of the story if one can recognize rig design and look at maps and surface terrain for consistency in descriptions and narrative.


For instance, a famous photograph of Doheny's, 1910 Casiano well in the public domain is of a well not even located in SE Mexico, the new automobiles on location of the mid 1920's era and the cable tool rig completely enclosed to stave off cold weather. The photograph is actually of a well in S. Dakota. When writing about the great El Aguila fire at Dos Bocas, a trip to Global Earth shows the crater still there 110 years later, and I was able to then find dry holes drilled nearby and see how millions of barrels of oil flowed to the nearby lagoon.


I apologize for the length of this post; the beginning of a nation's' oil industry is worthy of some effort. Whatever errors or omissions I am guilty of, they are not intentional. It's my desire only to bring attention to a country I love and to it's amazing oil history, a history that rivals any in all the world.


Miguelito



Campo Compañía Petrolera Huasteca; Ebano, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, 1909. From Casa Grande, on Cerro Dicha, looking southeast toward the refinery, tank farms, warehouses and machine shops.