- Historic Sites
Gusher At Spindletop
The story of the first great Texas oil well, which ushered in a new century and a new age, as remembered by participants
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
At this point Higgins brought in Captain A. F. Lucas, an Austrian mining engineer who had been prospecting lor sulphur in Louisiana. Lucas drilled another well. It was a lailuie, but he did manage to extract some crude oil—enough to fill a small vial—and took it east in search of more financial backing. (His capital exhausted, Higgins had been forced to drop out, though he still owned land at Spindletop.)
In Pittsburgh Lucas interested J. M. Guffey and John H. Galey, both experienced in the oil fields of Pennsylvania. In September, 1900, Lucas was back in Texas, at Corsicana; it was he who had contracted with the Hamill brothers to drill the test well at Spindletop.
The Hamills had arrived in Beaumont with their drilling equipment about October 1. Lucas had met them and taken them to the location, where they saw a six-inch pipe extending above ground—all that remained of the earlier attempts to find oil. Lucas lighted a match and dropped it into the pipe. There was a puff. A flame shot up and died away.
Convinced of the presence of natural gas, the Hamills hauled their rotary drill and boiler to Spindletop. With their own hands they unloaded a carload of pipe, hauled it to the location, and stacked it on a crude pipe rack.
In Corsicana there had been derrick builders, but here in Beaumont they could not find one. There was not even a carpenter who would undertake the job. There was nothing to do but build it themselves. They trampled down marsh grass that grew high as fences, stirring up swarms of mosquitoes that made life almost unbearable. The timber was green, wet, unsized, and would not fit the derrick pattern they had brought with them. In a kind of desperation they laid the timber out on the ground and made a new-pattern, much as a woman cuts out a pattern for an apron.
After ten days they had a derrick 84 feet high, rough in appearance but strong and sturdy. In it they installed their Chapman rotary drill. Then they dug a slush pit sixteen by thirty by three feet and lined it with red Beaumont clay. Finally they began digging a water well to supply the boiler; twenty feet down they struck a good How of water that bubbled with gas.
On an October morning they started drilling, using a twelve-inch bit. As the bit dug down, they forced water into the hole, and the fishtails worked up a sludge that was pumped out into the slush pit. As they bore downward, they hit, successively, formations of water sand, hard sand, and gumbo; having no geologist to advise them, they had to experiment to get through each one. The work was time-consuming; more than six weeks had passed and they were far behind schedule.
But finally they got through them all. Then, at something over 600 feet, gas suddenly blew water out of the hole and damaged the drill. Sharp sand shot out as if from a blast furnace, damaging the machinery. The men waited while the gas blew itself out; then they repaired the rig and began drilling again.
Worried that another blowout might destroy their equipment, they decided to keep the rotary and pump going day and night. That meant going on eighteen-hour “towers” (as oil men called tours of duty).
One night about midnight Al came on to find that Peck had made hardly any headway at all. He took over and thumped along until about three in the morning, when the rotary began to turn with ease. Daylight showed oil in bubbles in iridescent slicks on the slush pit.
When Curt came, Al showed him the oil and sent him lor Captain Lucas. Lucas smelled and tasted the oil and then wired for John Galey. He was convinced the well was ready to be brought in and wanted Galey to share the excitement.
When Galey finally arrived he examined the oil on the slush pit.
“You might bail it,” he told Al.
They put on a bailer made of perforated pipe wrapped in a bed sheet, a device that strained out sand and mud. The sample they brought up showed a little flow of oil.
“Try it again,” Galey ordered.
When they went in again, the pipe stopped 300 feet from the bottom. They tried several times but could get no deeper.
Galey soon saw there was no use trying to bring the well in at that depth. He had them rig up a string of two-inch pipe and wash the bottom of the well out with clean water.
It was near Christmas time. Anyone could see that the men were near exhaustion.
“I’ll tell you what to do,” Galey told them. “You try to pull that pipe. Can’t do anything with it the way it is. Set the six-inch through that and go down and see if there’s anything below. When you get that done, shut down for Christmas.”
They followed Galey’s orders and on December 24 set the six-inch to a depth of 920 feet.
That is how the drilling operation stood when they returned on the morning of January 1, 1901.
All of New Year’s Day Al held the lever of the rotary and watched the slowly turning drill pipe sink into the earth. Again they were on eightcen-hour towers, constantly lacing the danger of a gas blowout. At 1,020 feet Al hit a crevice, or what he took to be a crevice, in the rock. Il he turned the bit in one direction, it would go down five or six inches farther than if he turned it in the other. If he turned it a quarter revolution more, it would start to back up. Baffled, he called Curt and Peck.