This Week in Texas History

Image Credit: Wildcatter L.T. “Tol” Barret drilled the first oil well in Texas 36 years before the first major oil discovery gushed out at Spindletop (above) in Beaumont, roughly 130 miles south of Oil Springs. — Courtesy Library of Congress —

This week in Texas, 1866, The Melrose Petroleum Oil Company, organized by Lyne Taliaferro “Tol” Barret, achieved its first oil producing well.  

A Virginia native, Barret’s family moved to East Texas in the 1840s. It’s said that growing up on his Nacogdoches County plantation, little “Tol” played in the oily waters of what was called Oil Springs, located near Nacogdoches, likely witnessing how early settlers and Cherokees took the oily patches on the water to use for medicine or to grease wagon wheels. 

He first became interested in the oil industry before the Civil War. In 1859, the 26-year-old Barret began to wonder if Oil Springs might be suitable for drilling. After all, in August that year Edwin Drake successfully brought in the nation’s first commercial oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. “The great excitement of this age is oil,” Barret wrote a friend shortly after the Civil War had ended. “This region of Texas will be wild upon the subject in a few months.”  

Barret contracted with Lucy W. Skillern to lease 279 acres near Oil Springs on December 15, 1859, but the war stopped his preparations. Exempted from military service, Barret served as a Confederate quartermaster captain until the war ended in 1865.  

In October 1865, Barret organized the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company, aided financially by local businessmen John Earle, John Flint, Charles Hamilton and Benjamin Hollingsworth. He then assembled a small crew and began drilling. On Sept. 12, 1866, at a depth of 106 feet, he brought in Texas’ first producing oil well.  Barret wrote a Nacogdoches friend that he had found “earth adhering to the auger perfectly saturated with oil.” Samples were forwarded to the Department of Emigration in New York, which declared the oil “superior in all its properties.”  

On the advice of oilmen in Shreveport, Barret went to New York and Pennsylvania to examine equipment before purchase. There he met John F. Carll, a civil engineer, and on March 1, 1867, Barret and others made financial obligations to Carll, who had agreed to run tests and assist in the development of the property. The first well produced about ten barrels a day, but the low price of oil and the political unrest accompanying Reconstruction made the development of the field unfeasible. Barret suffered extensive financial losses; impatient investors wanted to sell their interest in the company causing Barret to return to a mercantile firm he opened in the nearby community of Melrose. Despite encouragement by Carll in 1868, when oil prices went up again, the field was never developed. Later he saw the field developed with an oil boom in 1887 at what became known as Oil City.  

Barret died in 1913. Though he received little acclaim during his lifetime, in 1966 memorial markers were dedicated at his grave in Melrose and at Stephen F. Austin State University to mark the 100th anniversary of the drilling of the first producing oil well in Texas. 

To note an interesting fact: Oil was first detected in Texas in July of 1543 when Spanish explorer Luis de Moscoso of the DeSoto expedition saw oil floating on the water in the Galveston Bay in an area between High Island and the Sabine Pass, near Port Arthur, Texas. 

Sources: https://www.tshaonline.org/texas-day-by-day/entry/1139