Gusher At Spindletop

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Texas, as everyone knows, is synonymous with oil. But how many know, at least in any detail, the story of the fabulous strike which ushered in the age of the Lone Star billionaire?

The history of Texas oil really begins on a dramatic morning in January, 1901, when the Lucas gusher, afterward world-famous as Spindletop, was brought in near Beaumont. (The name Spindletop is said to be derived from a tree in the vicinity shaped like an inverted cone.)

Beaumont in January of 1901 was an obscure and unpromising lumber and rice market. But then the Lucas gusher was brought in, four miles south of the town, and overnight Beaumont became a mecca. Adventurers flocked from far and near. Every Texan began to dream of a fortune under his ranch, farm, or town lot; and many of the dreams came true: within two years Texas’ oil production increased, twentyfold.

The remarkable narrative winch appears here was obtained by Dr. William A. Owens, novelist and scholar in English literature, who took to Texas the methods of the Columbia University Oral History Project. It is the first account of Spindlelop to be derived direct from the lips of the three observers best qualified to tell it: Pattillo Higgins, since dead, who had faith that oil was to be found at Spindletop, but whose money ran out before he could prove it: and the Hamill brothers, Curt find Al (also now dead), who were at work on the drill the day a 160-foot geyser of oil suddenly leaped into the Texas sky.

Tuesday, January 1, 1901. First day of the first year ol a new century.

Early in the morning three men in a buckboard were driving slowly across the Texas coastal plain south of Beaumont. Their destination was a prairie mound called Spindletop, where a rough wood derrick rose above the marsh grass. They were intent on the job ahead of them only as a job. Not one of them imagined the impact it would have on the new century.

The men were Allen W. Hamill, his brother Curt, and Will “Peck” Byrd. They were the entire crew of an outfit engaged to drill an oil well at Spindletop, the well that turned out to be the first gusher in American oil history.

Al Hamill, 24, tall and slender, was a partner with his brother Jim in the Haniill Brothers Contracting Company. Jim Hamill, after getting a start drilling artesian wells at Waco, had moved on to the Corsicana oil field near Dallas, where a small boom had begun after the discovery of oil by two enterprising Pennsylvanians in 1897. There Al joined him; they formed a partnership and offered Curt a job as tool dresser. Curt, four years older than Al, was heavier ol build, with the strength of an ox and the tenacity of a bulldog. For the well at Spindletop they hired Peck Byrd as fireman and man of all work. They had begun drilling in October, but so far they had failed to strike oil.

Now, on New Year’s Day, the three of them bounced along the muddy track toward a well that seemed unlikely to pay the cost of drilling. They had shut down on December 24 so Al and Curt could spend Christmas in Corsicana. On their return, Curt had brought his wife and family and settled them in a shack not far from the well. Al and Peck boarded with them.

They came to the fence that marked Perry McFaddin’s tract, opened a gate, and drove through. McFaddin, having little faith in the prospect for oil, was planning to turn the tract into a large rice farm; beyond the derrick, within hollering distance, he had six carpenters at work building a rice barn.

The men came to the derrick, which jutted up from a wide expanse of gray prairie toward a wider expanse of gray sky. Al stopped the horses and ran his eyes over the derrick, bull wheel, and boiler. Everything seemed to be in order, ready lor them to get on with the job. Al, who was in charge, had contracted to drill down to 1,200 leet, when lie would receive payment in full, $2,400. For Curt and Peek, the job represented a living—$80 a month and lodging.

Al was eager to get started.

“Peck, fire her up. Curt, check the derrick.”

Peck filled the boiler from a water well and fired it with pine slabs. Curt climbed to the double board, forty feet up, and checked the pulleys and ropes of the draw works. From the floor of the derrick to the crown block—the pulley and rope which moved the bit up and down—the rig was ready to go.

With a heavy wrench AI tightened the ring clamps that fastened the rotary drill to the drill pipe and inspected the fishtail bit. With luck it would hold out lor another day or two of drilling. Then, standing at the driller’s place on the derrick floor, he got a signal from Peck, who had built up a head of steam. Al looked up at Curt, above him on the derrick.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

Al kicked in the clutch that set the rotary to its auger-like grinding and they settled down to the task.

Theirs was not the first attempt to find oil at Spindletop. For ten years Pattillo Higgins, a local man, had tried to harness the natural gas that bubbled in the five sour mineral wells at Spindletop. Managing, alter some difficulty, to obtain backing, Higgins proceeded to lay out a part of the prairie in a real-estate development, which he called Gladys City, and to bring a succession of drillers to Spindletop. As well after well Tailed, neoule almost lauyhed him out of town.