Jim Bradshaw: First big oil discovery was big news
Oil fever struck the Louisiana prairies with a vengeance in the summer of 1902, when the Southern Number Four well showed, in the words of the Jennings Daily Record, that it “now appears that a gusher can be secured … just as often as a hole is put into the ground at the proper depth.”
That optimistic claim was made on June 2, 1902, not long after the first well in south Louisiana had been drilled in the Evangeline Field near Jennings.
Southern Number Four had “proved a hundred foot gusher,” which was not as impressive as the nearby Southern Number Three had been, but was still spectacular enough to draw crowds to watch it spew ─ and to catch the eye of speculators as far away as California.
Daily Record headlines for the first weeks of June give some idea of the excitement: "Oil Magnates in Jennings" (June 3), "Oil Refinery For Our City" (June 6), "More Gushers In Soon" (June 10), "Visitors From Pacific State Pay Jennings a Visit" (June 11), "Expecting A Gusher" (June 16).
Speculators went crazy. Land next to the Southern wells sold for $10,000 an acre ($300,000 in today’s money), according to the news reports.
A 45-acre parcel about a quarter of a mile away went for $800 an acre (in 1902 dollars), and “all of the real estate men [were saying] there is a big demand for oil land.”
Even residential lots in town jumped 15% in price.
And that was just part of it all. On June 2, the Record reported that “Jennings is now crowded with people who are interested one way or another of getting hold of a ‘ground floor’ oil proposition.”
A special car carrying “high officials in the Southern Pacific railway” came to town. They were investigating the idea of building a spur to the oil fields to haul tourists in and take oil out.
The Record’s editors worried that Crowley or Iota might try to grab those trains, and argued that “there is no doubt that Jennings is the only practical point from which to build.”
James W. Swayne, “the millionaire manager” of a syndicate that developed much of the Spindletop Field in Beaumont, showed up and began buying land with the idea, the newspaper speculated, of putting down six wells “as a start.”
The Heywood brothers, who also made a pile at Spindletop, were drilling their Jennings No. 2 well and promised big things from it.
Directors of the Mamou Prairie Oil & Mineral Company were small fish by comparison, but they laid out big plans when they met at the MacFarland House hotel on June 10.
They said they had “great faith in the future and believe that in a short time they will be the owners of some first-class producing wells.” Directors of the Pelican Oil Co. said they hoped to produce a gusher within days and were ordering lumber for three more derricks.
Even Hollis Bros. & Leben, the local jewelers, saw a new opportunity.
Shoppers hurrying to their store could become the proud owners of a sterling silver Jennings Oil Gusher Souvenir Spoon.
All of that took place in just a single month, and the craziness didn’t end with the turn of the calendar to July.
If anything, it turned up a notch on the last day of June, when the headlines read: "Jennings No. 2 Is A Gusher ─ Shoots Stream of Oil Fifty Feet Above the Derrick."
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.