Everyone who is from or has visited Southeast Texas has inevitably ended up on one of our beaches. If you are not from the area and are looking for clear blue transparent water in which to frolic in the heat of summer, you might want to go to Florida, or further south to Padre Island, because our part of the Gulf of Mexico is murky at best, due to the Mississippi River’s outflow.
While walking on our beaches, you will frequently find a multitude of waste that has been ejected by the Gulf. Some people see the beautiful shells that have washed ashore, while others see bits of a black rubbery substance known as tar balls.
Back in 2010, at the height of the British Petroleum fiasco/disaster, many national news stations scanned our beaches for signs of an expansion of the ongoing doom. One day someone found a tar ball on one of the beaches. “Oil has made it to Texas shores!” a correspondent blurted over the airwaves.
The unsuspecting public would later find out that the tar ball was not from the BP spill but rather a natural occurrence. We, of course, already knew better. Tar balls have been a sight on our beaches since the beginning of time. Indeed, long before man trolled the area in search of oil, the Gulf had been releasing its own patches of black gold. But in early Southeast Texas history, some found more than tar balls.
Just off the coast, south of Sabine Pass, lay a patch of the Gulf that was different from the rest. On some maps it was perceived to be an island, but in reality, no land or reefs were apparent. What was apparent however, was the sludgy blackness on the water. This small space in the Gulf (one mile by four miles) existed for hundreds of years. Many a captain sailed his ship into it as a safe haven from the storms. (With the raging seas, the thick layer of oil seemed to keep the waters calm and the vessel safe.)
This surely would have been a sight to see in the 17th, 18th, or 1900s—or even today. Unlike the Deepwater Horizon spill, which seemed to expand as time went on, this patch remained intact and confined to its small area. I could not begin to speculate why this occurred, so we’ll leave that to other more qualified people to answer one day. Today though, it remains a mystery.
With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in Beaumont in 1901, just a mere 50 miles from the pond, Southeast Texas began its journey into a whole new market, which to this day is still the No. 1 industry in the area. Over the years, oil was routinely pumped out of the ground to the delight of many. But by 1910, a strange thing had happened. The ever-present oil pond began to dissipate, and by 1911, it was gone.
Looking at the facts, I can only assume that the oil pond was part of the Spindletop oilfield, and that years of oil extraction had lowered the pressure of the leak in the Gulf. Whatever the reason, the oil pond left yet another mark on our local history, of which few have ever heard.