Rio Brava; 1902


Spindletop, Courtesy the Texas Portal of History



This is a remarkable photograph given the fact that it is dated 1902.


Drilling the hill at Spindletop could lead to all kinds of surprises, at very inconsistent, unpredictable depths. Short of running cattle thru a water hole to make mud that was heavier than water, nobody had sorted out how to control these wells when they got away. Even the simplest of ideas, like putting a valve on surface casing to close if the bailer, or tools got blown out of the hole, was not perfected yet. A lot of Spindletop was drilled with rotary tools, however, and until folks started to play with BOP's (1914-1916), lots of stuff just blew like hell and burned shit up.


In literature about Spindletop there is numerous references to the "Rio Brava", not to be confused with the Rio Bravo in the Valley. It's hard to nail any of this down exactly accurately. But because of numerous photos referencing the Brava, I suspect that the semi-circular slough on the SE flank of the dome may have been called that. It has subsequently all been drained and filled in, of course, and homes built on it.


The salt feature, the Spindletop dome, is in the middle of this TRRC GIS map; all the early wells were drilled on the southern flank of the dome where Miocene sands pinched out against the salt wall. In later years shallower wells were drilled on top of the dome, rarely exceeding 1000 feet in depth, and those wells produced from a different field designation, something called Gladys City Field.


Approximately 300 wells were drilled 1901-1903 on the flanks of the hill; in 1902 production was something in the order of 17.5 MM BO and then rapid decline set in the following year, likely related to pressure depletion and drilling wells based on the English Rule of Capture principles. In 1903 total production was less than 8.0 MM BO. Another round of drilling on the dome itself started in the early 1920's.


Nobody of course fully understood what caused this little hill to exist on a sandy plain as flat as a pool table until wells penetrated salt, then the picture became clearer.


Spindletop wells came in with a big bang, burned lots of stuff up and people from Houston could get on a train and go take pictures of the event and even stand under a rainstorm of oil if they were so inclined. For the first three years after discovery something in this area was either burning or spewing oil everywhere.


Spindletop always gets the credit for the beginning of the great oil era but in reality commercial oil production had already been been found in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, the true "birth of Texas oil" occurred in Corsicana in 1893, Doheny was drilling wells in downtown Los Angeles in 1895 and wells were being drilled all over the US and eastern Mexico in the late 1890's.


What this great spectacle of Spindletop did was create cause to focus on salt features along the Gulf Coast and whoa Nellie...that was the beginning of the oil era. Every bump along the otherwise flat coastal plain in Texas and Louisiana that had ten feet of structural relief, and a stinky gas smell in a nearby creek, started getting drilled and the ensuing results were truly historical.