Richard Melson

December 2005

Tampico Oil & The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


Interior of pump house at Tampico oil refinery, Mexico,c 1913.

With the discovery of oil in about 1900 by English and American geologists, the rapid development of the petroleum industry in the city of Tampico, Mexico, began. The great Tampico oil boom occurred between 1910 and 1925 with the huge oil fields providing a vital source of fuel for the British Navy during the First World War.

The city prospered while much of the rest of Mexico was in revolutionary turmoil and it today rivals Veracruz as Mexico's most important seaport. British and American oil companies continued to exploit Mexico’s oil reserves until 1938, when the Government of Lazaro Cardenas nationalised the Mexican oil industry.

Oil gusher at Potrero, Mexico, 1911.

A gusher is an oil well from which the oil flows out under pressure without needing to be pumped. The amount of oil ejected can be prodigious.

Mexico has very extensive oil reserves. Initially these resources were exploited by British and American oil companies, but in 1938, as we've seen, the Government of Lazaro Cardenas nationalised the Mexican oil industry.

The movie, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) is set in Tampico, Mexico in 1925.

Tampico is officially considered a seaport due to its maritime trade; oil boom in the early 1900s helped the city become world known; in 1921 the first commercial flight between Mexico and the United States; and an interesting fact, the opening of the first Coca-Cola bottling industry in Mexico.

The great Tampico oil boom lasted from 1910-1925 and the movie shows how "Dobbs" (Bogart) and friends are cheated by the organizer of the oil derrick construction crew.

They soon go propecting for gold after their oil debacle.

The author of the 1927 novel, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" ("Der Schatz der Sierra Madre"), B. Traven, was a German Communist who fled to Mexico from Germany after the German Revolution of 1919 and authored many books on Mexico, such as the six-volume "Caroba Cycle" about the 1910-1912 Mexican Revolution.

The average American moviegoer or DVD/VHS renter who views the Bogart film would have no sense that the story is set in a real Tampico oil boom and real Mexican turmoil.

The assassination of Zapata in 1919 thus takes place six years before the oil and gold manias of Mexico, 1925, depicted in the John Huston film, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Tampico Oil & Movie

December 4, 2005