When you think of Texas in the 19th century, you undoubtedly picture cowboys, Native Indians, and colorful immigrants all fighting for survival on the wild Texas frontier. Joining their ranks is the iconic, oil-crazy wildcatter, who burst forward into the public conscious in the 20th century. After decades of acknowledging that crude oil was hiding underground, only occasionally bubbling up, but not having a great need for it, Texans saw the black gold explode onto the Texas landscape at the close of the 19th century.
On January 10, 1901, the first major oil well came in at Spindletop down the road from Houston, south of Beaumont, marking the birth of the oil industry in Texas. The original Texas boomtown, this Beaumont home to the salt dome produced 100,000 barrels per day and instantly made Texas the major player in the modern petroleum industry.
When future Texaco Oil founder Joe Cullinan heard the news, he was already raking in money from oil under the salt domes around the central Texas town of Corsicana. Their major oil discovery a few years earlier would be dwarfed by the strike in the southeast corner of the state.
Spindletop produced or enlarged companies such as Gulf Oil, Texaco and Humble, and storage facilities, refineries and oil field equipment companies grew quickly in nearby communities to take advantage of the prosperous oilfield. In fact, Houston would not be the Energy Capital of the World without the industry-shattering strike at Spindletop.
Once Spidletop stopped gushing oil, the tent cities, con artists, chiselers, and prostitutes split. Beaumont got a lot less crowded, but still had a population double its pre-boom size. Now, oil derricks populated every corner of Texas, and new boomtowns exploded west of Fort Worth in 1918 and in Mexia, 100 miles south of Fort Worth, in 1913. In some cases, small communities like Desdemona benefited when at the town banded together hoping to strike it big. There was an anything-goes wildness to the day for Texans in oil country. Sadly, after all the oil was sucked up, many of these boomtowns went bust, leaving little or nothing behind.
With the arrival of the automobile, oil now had a market, which would drive all sorts of research into the technology needed to find it and extract it. And newer uses for oil and petroleum-based projects kept the wild speculation going, speculation that still drives the oil industry in Texas and beyond.