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The first "over water" oil well

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
In the early l900s, 27-year-old Walter B. Pyron, of Blossom, Texas, a production foreman for Guffy Oil Company, noticed gas bubbles rising from Caddo Lake. He and other Guffy employees rowed across the lake, lighting strings of the bubbles.

Confident that oil and gas lay beneath the lake, Pyron wrote to his superiors recommending that 8,000 acres of lake bottom be leased at an auction being held by the federal government at Mooringsport, Louisiana, near Ferry Lake, the Louisiana side of Caddo Lake.

He told them he was sure his men were capable of drilling and completing a well in the lake, using crude tools and wood timbers.

On the day of the auction, Pyron had no reply, but he went to Mooringsport for the auction.

Fifteen minutes before the auction he still had no answer, but Pyron found a crank-style telephone and talked to his superiors at Gulf Oil Corporation--the successor of Guffy Petroleum Company--in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. They were dubious, but Pyron was persistent, and time was passing.

A minute and a half before noon--the time set for the bidding--Pyron won Gulf's approval and raced to the auction site. He was just in time and bid the lake bottom for $30,000 down and $70,000 in royalty agreements.

Seldom has an oil property been obtained for so little money at an auction sale. The problem of drilling over water had stumped other bidders, but not Pyron.

In early May, 1911, after months of hard work and battles with mosquitoes, alligators and moccasins, the Ferry Lake No. 1 was drilled to a depth of 2,185 and began producing 450 barrels of oil a day.

The oil was piped to tank farms on the shore and then transferred to a system of gathering pipelines.

In Pyron's days, offshore wells were called "over water" wells and a special platform had to be built on Ferry Lake. A crew felled cypress trees on the shore and drove the trunks into the lake for pilings for the platform. A slush pit was also made of wood.

To support the drilling platform, the crew assembled a floating pile driver, three tugboats, ten barges and 36 small boats, bringing them to the lake by way of the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi River and the Red River.

One storm scattered the equipment and crews so thoroughly that it took weeks to reassemble them. Altogether, it was two years from the day of the auction to the time drilling began on the lake.

Tempers flared so much on the project that one driller quit on the spot, dived into the lake and swam to shore, preferring the snakes and alligators to his tough crew boss.

Watching his driller churn the water, the boss calmed down and went after the driller in a boat. When he reached the man, the boss spoke in a calmer voice, but said: "All right, now go into town, get some dry clothes, and hurry back. We've lost too damned much time."

While Pyron's achievement is recognized by a historical marker erected in 1994 at Mooringsport, it has never had the wider recognition it deserves. Some historians feel the first offshore wells were in California, but they were actually drilled on the shore and slanted into the Pacific Ocean.

Pyron went on to become a vice-president of Gulf and was instrumental in the discovery and development of Kuwait's oil field. He also served as a brigadier general during World War II.

He died in 1951 and is buried at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
All Things Historical >
October 30, 2006 Column
Syndicated in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Published with permission
Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman of Lufkin is a former president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.
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