April 16, 1919, Humble Oil & Refining Co. engineers arrived in Baytown,
armed with boots and blueprints.
Those boots were made for walking in
soggy, muddy, marshy ground while blueprints were for a construction project envisioned
by Humble Oil president Ross S. Sterling and the company directors. What better
place to build an oil refinery, they decided, given the proximity to the Goose
Creek oil field, Houston Ship Channel and the corporate headquarters in Houston.
Another advantage would be extending railroad tracks from Goose
Creek to Baytown, making
the plant accessible by land as well as by water.
And besides all that,
the land was cheap, costing only $18 per acre.
As Walter Rundell Jr. wrote
in his book, “Early Texas Oil,” the site of the Baytown refinery seemed to be
But the location, albeit logical from a business/industrial
standpoint, posed overwhelming problems in getting started – literally, in getting
off the ground. Swamps had to be drained, trees had to be cleared and workers
would have to cope not only with the mud and quicksand but with mosquitoes, grasshoppers
Add Brahma cattle to the list of obstacles.
A local choice because mosquito bites didn’t bother their thick skin, Brahma cattle
came with the territory and continued to roam the grounds even after refinery
construction got well under way. On a number of occasions, their surprise appearances
terrified workers. Moooo…
No doubt the few people living in the area at
the time thought Humble Oil was crazy for trying to build a refinery there. Whoever
thought that one day the uninhabitable site would contain an oil refinery – the
biggest, in fact, in the United States.
thought it, and he, with the help of like thinkers on his board, made it happen.
July 1919, workers were ready to pour concrete and the following month, began
building storage tanks, digging sewer lines and pipelines and laying brick.
workers became difficult because oil field activity elsewhere in Texas had drained
the labor force. Also, the humid climate and boggy terrain in Baytown
turned off potential workers.
In other works, the company faced a labor
shortage on top of all of the other stumbling blocks.
Oil started hiring Mexicans and blacks who, because of their race, had been barred
from working in oil fields in Texas.
end of 1919 at least half of the laborers building the refinery were Mexican.
proceeded on schedule. By 1920 the machine shops were in operation and concrete
installations for the filter house, boiler house and crude stills were nearly
finished and atmospheric stills were going up.
On May 11, 1920, the first
oil was pumped into a still, a big cause for celebration that inspired the annual
tradition of Humble Day picnics for the employees and their families.
official completion of the refinery was celebrated on April 21, 1921, to coincide
with San Jacinto Day.
a matter of months, after the refinery went on stream, more than 1,000 men came
to work and brought their families. The population boom had begun.
on the name of the refinery, a community grew up in that vicinity and eventually
would become the largest unincorporated town in Texas. Baytown
remained so until consolidation with Pelly
and Goose Creek in
the late Forties.
Unlike the naming of the consolidated city, choosing
the refinery name never became an issue. Humble Oil leaders, when they learned
that a trading post on Black Duck Bay had been called Baytown in the mid-1800s,
decided they liked the sound of it. Besides, it fit. Baytown,
after all, is a town of bays.
The name of the company has changed through
the years -- from Humble to Enco to Exxon to ExxonMobil – but after nine decades,
the refinery name endures.
Wanda Orton Baytown
August 3, 2012 columns
Topics: Baytown | Goose
Creek | Pelly | Texas
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