(Image credit: Houston Chronicle)
The name Joseph Cullinan might not be that familiar to some Texans regarding the state’s oil boom, but he was involved in the development of several of the early large Texas oil fields and had significant interests in several companies that are major energy companies today.
Cullinan was born in 1860 in Pennsylvania, the eldest son among his Irish immigrant family’s eight children. He was always industrious and had begun to work in the new oilfields of Pennsylvania before he was 15 years old. At around age 22, he was hired to work for Standard Oil Company, first working for an affiliate, the National Transit Company of Oil City, Pennsylvania, and eventually rising to hold management positions there. He was eventually transferred to Ohio where he served as superintendent of the tank and natural gas department of Buckeye Pipeline Company. While in Ohio, he met and married Lucy Halm with whom he would have five children. His career continued to blossom with Standard Oil and he served as superintendent of Standard’s Southwest Pennsylvania Pipeline Company. He left the company at around age 35 to start his own tank building company known as Petroleum Iron Works. This company specialized in building steel storage tanks and steam boilers and was a profitable venture for Cullinan and his six investing partners.
Cullinan came to Texas around the time that the new field in Navarro County was just opening up. As in other parts of the state, the Corsicana field was found when drillers were searching for fresh water to supply the area. At first the leaders were disappointed in the discovery, but they soon recognized the potential of such a find. Cullinan had initially stopped in Navarro county on his way to California to scout out new oil ventures, but quickly began to find his place in the Texas prospect. His new company provided a two inch pipeline to the railroad, allowing him to begin buying and shipping out the Navarro County oil. He proposed to create a local refinery to eliminate the costly step of shipping the crude to Eastern facilities in order to get refined product back to Texas and formed J. S. Cullinan and Company to accomplish this. Construction took about a year. The refinery first produced kerosene and a small proportion of gasoline as he began to look for other uses for the product. Cullinan is credited for being one of the early oilmen to promote the use of oil to replace wood and coal in the locomotive industry and also the use of natural gas for municipal and residential lighting and heating. After various tests, local rail lines began converting to oil to power their locomotives.
Cullinan also had become aware of the sometimes shoddy practices in the oil field and played a major role in getting state conservation laws enacted. He knew from experience that dense oil well proximity, inadequate storage and improper plugging of spent wells all contributed to shorten the life of a field. Cullinan and other oilmen testified before the Texas House Committee on Mining and Minerals and shortly thereafter, Texas Governor Joseph Sayers signed the state’s first oil industry conservation statute. Though Cullinan thought it was inadequate in certain areas, he believed that it still was valuable legislation.
With the opening of the Spindletop Field around 1901, he relocated his operations to the Golden Triangle area inland from Beaumont. His new enterprise was called the Texas Fuel Company. His interests were later organized into the Texas Company, which eventually grew into the corporation known as Texaco. While in in the Spindletop area, he built a refinery and, along with other investors, greatly expanded his interests and holdings. The vast Sour Lake field was one of their discoveries. Though generally successful, the company experienced natural cyclical periods. He was not without his detractors, however. As a result of a proxy fight in 1913, Cullinan resigned as president of the Texas Company.
Cullinan was undaunted by this and proceeded to focus on the oil business in another location, purchasing in 1914 a one half interest in a 1,400 acre tract near the town of Humble in northern Harris county. His new company, Farmers Petroleum Company, was successful in bringing in producing wells. Farmers was later reorganized into two companies, Republic Production Company and American Pipeline Company.
Cullinan continued to expand into other areas of the state looking for producing oil properties until around 1929 when he turned over the company leadership to his son Craig. Having been settled in Houston, Joseph continued to expand his entrepreneurial endeavors and served as president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. In addition to his other interests such as promoting the development of the Houston Ship Channel and creating a rail line to serve the perimeter of the city, Cullinan remained active in the oil business.
He also was involved in numerous local philanthropic activities, giving support to the Houston Art Museum, the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Negro Hospital which he endowed in memory of his son John Halm Cullinan who passed away in 1920. He also served as chairman of the Mount Rushmore committee from 1928. He became acquainted with President Herbert Hoover, having served as director of the Food Administration during World War I. This entity was responsible for administering the supply of food for our troops overseas, American allies’ food reserves and for stabilizing wheat prices. After the war, it became involved in the reconstruction of Europe and became the American Relief Organization. Cullinan was on a trip to visit the former president in 1937 when he contracted pneumonia which contributed to his death at age 76. He is interred in the old Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.
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