An early manuscript geological map reflecting the search for oil in the Marathon Basin of West Texas

N[icholas] L[loyd] Taliaferro and F[rank] S[amuel] Hudson, Geologic Map of the Marathon Basin. Field notes in Sept. and Oct. 1919.
Pen and colored pencil on wove paper, 17 ½”h x 23 ½”w at sheet edge. Minor soiling, doodles in red and black ink along lower edge, and small losses at lower-left and –right corners.

A finely-rendered geological map of the Marathon Basin in Brewster County, Texas, from the early years of West Texas oil exploration.

Oil exploration in West Texas was at a feverish pitch during the years 1919-21, particularly in the Permian Basin and the adjoining Marathon Basin. Exploratory drilling in both areas began in 1920, but with different results. Oil reserves were first documented in the Permian in 1920 and proved to be the richest ever discovered in the United States; in 2015, it accounted for 30% of oil production in the United States. By contrast, despite some promising signs—a “favorable showing of oil” at the Hargus Well and “some gas… found near the bottom of the Skinner Ranch boring”—the Marathon’s complex geology meant that for many decades little commercially-viable oil was found there. (Burke King, p. 129) This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, however, and a 2003 paper describes it as “developing into a prolific hydrocarbon producing area in its own right.” (Barden and Franklin, p. 10)

I am no geologist, but the Marathon Basin is a portion of the Marathon Uplift, which is in turn a section of the vast Ouchita Thrust Belt, “the result of the progressive collision of the South American and North American plates during the late Paleozoic,” some 250-350 million years ago (Hickman et al., p. 900) The Marathon Basin formed when areas of the Uplift eroded, exposing strata below.

The map offered here depicts a roughly 30-by-10 mile area of the Marathon, bounded to the northwest by the low peaks of the Glass Mountains and beyond that by the green-shaded Permian. Colored shading indicates the various exposed strata of the Basin, with symbols indicating faults as well as the angle and directionality of folding in the strata. Superimposed on this is the rather thin human landscape of roads, a railroad linking the towns of Marathon and Lenox, ranches, exploratory wells, and individual homes.

It is not known what firm commissioned this geological study, but the map bears the names of two distinguished American geologists. N. L. Taliaferro was likely Nicholas Lloyd Taliaferro, born in Augusta, Kentucky in 1890. After graduating with a BS from UC-Berkeley in 1913, he bounced around several jobs, including stints at Standard Oil (during which he traveled widely in China and the Phillipines) and the U.S. Bureau of Mines. In 1918 he returned to Berkeley and joined the faculty; after receiving his PhD in 1920, he left for several years to work as a field geologist, including a job as Senior Geologist at Ventura Consolidated Oilfields. He then returned to the University, where he worked until his retirement in 1958. He died in a 1961 car accident.

Taliaferro’s colleague Frank Samuel Hudson was born in Marysville, California, also in 1890. His career paralleled for a time that of Taliaferro: He graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1912 with a B.S. in mining engineering, like Taliaferro worked for a time in China and the Phillipines (perhaps for Standard Oil?), then received his PhD from Berkeley in 1920. During his long career he held jobs at the Ventura Consolidated Oilfields, the Shell Oil Company of California, and the Yuba Consolidated Goldfields, holding a number of senior positions along the way. He died in 1977.

Chris Barden and Wes Franklin, “Longfellow Ranch Geological Report[:] West Texas Overthrust[:] Pecos County, Texas,” updated edition, prepared for Longfellow Exploration Partners Limited, ca. 2003. Philip Burke King, “The Geology of the Glass Mountains, Texas: Part I[:] Descriptive Geology,” in The University of Texas Bulletin, no. 3038 (Oct 8, 1930). Howell Williams, R. M. Kleinpell, and E. H. Wisser, “Nicholas Lloyd Taliaferro (1890-1961)” on the web site of the University of California-Berkeley. Corddell Durrell and E. F. Davis, “Frank Samuel Hudson (1890-1967),” in AAPG Bulletin, Sept. 1969.

Offered in partnership with Henry Taliaferro.