OIL: The Greatest Gamblers

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Oil is the greatest single source of wealth in America for individual fortunes. At the same time, exploring for it is the greatest source of business failure, a fact to which wildcatters deliberately blind themselves. They disregard the unfulfilled dreams and broken lives that lie buried at the bottom of the staggering total of 300,000 dry holes drilled in America and think only of those who, despite every difficulty, persevered to success.

Thus writes Ruth Sheldon Knowles, 44, longtime (since 1937) U.S. oil consultant and wildcatter, in The Greatest Gamblers (McGraw-Hill; $6), out last week to mark the centennial of U.S. oil. Her message: the U.S. has grown to power in oil because of a few uncommon » men, who were armed only with faith, hope and their own by-guess-and-by-God oil-finding theories.

The man-making, man-eating industry began in 1859 when Edwin L. Drake, a sickly, bearded failure of a man in a stovepipe hat, brought in the nation's first commercial oil well near Titusville, Pa. Though Discoverer Drake wound up virtually penniless and forgotten, his find opened the scramble for oil across the land.

In Drake's wake came Captain Anthony F. Lucas, an Austrian immigrant with a vague theory that oil is locked under salt domes. He started drilling near Beaumont, Texas and in 1901 struck Spindletop. Within weeks, oilmen there struck no less than six gushers that could produce more oil than the rest of the world combined. More money was lost than gained in the ensuing land rush, but Spindletop spouted 50 million bbl.. spawned three great oil-producing companies: Humble, Texas, Sun.

Blind Lead the Blind. Oil fever sent men searching in the unlikeliest places on the unlikeliest leads. A miner in California, Edward Doheny, sniffed oil when he spotted an ice wagon loaded with tar jolting along a Los Angeles street before the century's turn; he rustled up another prospecting pal, Charles Canfield, and with pick and shovel they dug a 4-ft. by 6-ft. shaft 165 ft. down into the nearby tar pits, struck a field that was to flow more than 70 million bbl., lead to the discovery of another 6 billion bbl. in the San Joaquin valley and the production of hundreds of millions for Canfield and Doheny.

The greatest wildcatter of all, Mike Ben-edum (TIME, Oct. 7, 1957), and his partner Joe Trees in 1904 found an arrow carved in a rock in West Virginia, heard a tale that it pointed to treasure buried by pirates years before, sighted along it and drilled a 3,000-bbl.-a-day producer. In the same state, hearing of a blind farmer's vision of oil spouting over his maple tree, they drilled on the spot, found a 300-bbl.-a-day well. In Illinois, following the directions of a blind judge who had developed his own theory on oil finding, they drilled near Robinson, started the heaviest land rush since Texas, and enriched themselves by $8,000,000. In West Texas in 1924, when up-and-down Benedum was close to going broke, he drilled in the shade of a rig that had been blessed in the name of Saint Rita, saint of the impossible. The impossible area was a desert of dunes and cactus, 50 miles from water. On his ninth try there, he struck it; oil came roaring in at 5,000 bbl. a day.

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