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Fate intervened in Confederate hero’s search for black gold

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday July 24, 1999.

NEDERLAND -- Almost every East Texas student has heard stories of Dick Dowling, the boyish-looking Confederate lieutenant, who with his 42 Irish cannoneers defeated an invasion force of 5,000 Federals at Sabine Pass in Sept. 1863. Had fate willed otherwise, however, Dowling might also have been known as Texas’ first oil entrepreneur.

As any old "wildcatter" might verify, the search for oil seems equally programmed by fate or luck as much as it is by the data of geologists.

Dowling likely heard about petroleum at Sabine Lake while he was stationed at For Griffin at Sabine Pass. Before 1800 the Bedais Indians visited the Sour Lake springs to obtain paraffin wax and petroleum, used to soften rawhide. Confederate soldiers told him of the dry lake mud that burned easily in fireplaces, and how escaping gas burned with a blue flame whenever ignited. And before the Civil War one of the export items at Sabine Pass was hundreds of barrels of tart Sour Lake water, sold for a variety of illnesses.

Frank Tolbert, Dowling’s biographer believed that Dowling and two Houston friends, John Fennerty and John Riordan, organized at Houston in 1866 the first company in Texas dedicated to oil drilling. Fennerty had been an oil driller in Pennsylvania. However, the idea of drilling for oil in 1866 was touted as an activity for fools and dreamers; consequently no one wanted his name connected with it.

In July, 1866, Flake’s Bulletin, a Galveston newspaper, noted that: "...Three reliable gentlemen visited our city... and informed us... concerning the existence of petroleum... near Neches River..." Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 22, 1867, observed that:

"...Mr. Mulligan... sank a well near Sour Lake... from which a jet of gas and oil was thrown a distance of 60 feet above the surface. The well is 95 feet deep. After 200 barrels of oil mixed with mud ran out, the hole in the tubing stopped up..."

"...The 3 proprietors of the oil lands in that locality are in this city and are now ready to receive propositions from companies who wish to bore for oil..."

Nearly 40 years later a news article (Galv. Daily News, July 19, 1903) revealed that, according to an old abstract, late in 1866 the entire Jackson league (4,428 acres) at Sour Lake was leased for oil drilling purposes by R. W. "Dick" Dowling of Houston and John W. Fennerty of Pennsylvania. And that fact is also verified in Vol. D, pages 469-471 of Hardin County Deed Records.

However, whatever Dowling and Fennerty’s plans were in Feb. 1867 for oil drilling at Sour Lake, they never did materialize. Seemingly fate intervened, and during the summer of 1867, when Texas’ worst yellow fever epidemic killed 1,900 people in Harris County, Dick Dowling and John Fennerty (perhaps Riordan also) were among its victims.

Between 1878 and 1898, B. T. Kavanaugh, W. A. Savage, and W. B. Sharp drilled for oil intermittently at Sour Lake, but with only minimal success. One of Savage’s early cable rigs in Hardin County used a pine tree cut off 15 feet above ground for a "Samson post" and a "walking beam large enough to raise a locomotive." However successful production there had to await March 7, 1902, when the Atlantic and Pacific gusher blew in, spouting 5,000 barrels daily.

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