When I was a small child I thought all pickup trucks were painted gray and carried on the door a yellow decal with a red devil in the center. I also thought these trucks carried potted meat. As I grew older I found that neither impression was correct; the Union Sulphur Company simply shared its devil’s imp insignia with a well known potted meat producer.
The impression was easy to come by because I lived at Sulphur Mines, a self-contained community built on a dome rising up in Calcasieu Parish that was once called “the richest forty acres in the United States.”
I lived there in the late 1940s, long after the sulphur mining operations had closed down and the Union Sulphur Company became the Union Sulphur and Oil Company—and before a series of mergers that has now submerged its identity and made it part of a huge corporate conglomerate.
The incredible story of Sulphur Mines was nearing its end when I lived there in a company-owned cottage within walking distance of the long, wood frame corporate office where my dad worked as a petroleum engineer. Huge pumping plants that once brought molten sulphur to the surface were still there, as were acres of yellow-covered pits where the sulphur had been pumped to cool before shipment around the world.
The beginning of the story of how that sulphur got into those pits can be set on Christmas Day 1894, when a handful of men led by a chemist named Herman Frasch and a mining engineer named Jacques Toniette first attempted to melt the sulphur below ground and pump it up, rather than construct a mine to dig it out. Digging had been tried several times, and with fatal results.
The sulphur was discovered in 1850, when the Louisiana Petroleum and Coal Co. drilled unsuccessfully for oil. The well ran into the sulphur 500 feet below the surface, but there were layers of clay, gravel, and quicksand to go through to get to it, and then a layer of limestone.
The quicksand was the big trouble maker.
A French company organized in New Orleans tried to sink huge metal cylinders through it, but they sank out of sight as soon as they hit the sand. The American Sulphur Co. was next to try. That’s when Toniette got involved. He had been a blacksmith at a gold mine in Canada. His company was also unsuccessful. That effort was abandoned when five men digging at the bottom of a shaft were killed by hydrogen sulphide fumes.
That’s when Frasch got involved. He was a research chemist for Standard Oil Co. and knew about salt mines that pumped fresh water into a bed of salt and brought it back as brine. He thought he could mine sulphur the same way.
He knew that if he could apply enough pressure and heat, he could melt the mineral in the ground and then pump it to the surface. That was the experiment that began on Christmas Day 1894.
His method worked, but required a huge—costly—supply of coal to get water hot enough to melt the sulphur, and another huge investment in air compressors to put enough pressure into the wells to bring the heavy sulphur to the surface. The project all but died for lack of finances.
But when oil was discovered in January 1901 at the Spindletop Field just across the Sabine River from the sulphur dome, there was suddenly an abundant, cheap fuel close at hand.
Using that cheap fuel, the Union Sulphur Co. began to make money--lots of money.
For 11 years the company paid 100 percent dividends on every share of stock, not just once a year, but every single month—plus Christmas bonuses, extra dividends, and all of the taxes in Calcasieu Parish outside of Lake Charles.
When the sulphur mines ended production in 1924, nearly ten million tons of sulphur had been produced there. It took two years to ship the sulphur stockpiled on the ground. The company then turned its attention to producing the oil and gas that were discovered around the flanks of the sulphur dome.
That, too, eventually began to lag, and the company began to expand its oil and gas operations across southern Louisiana. The offices at Sulphur Mines were closed in the early 1950s and moved first to Lake Charles and then to Lafayette. The company maintained cottages there until about 1953 and kept a company store there until about the same time.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.