- 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 sunup the curious again lined the fence. Pattillo Higgins rode his horse close and sat watching the fulfillment of his dream. Though he no longer held slock in the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company, he had valuable land near the well, more than enough to establish him in the oil business.
About ten that morning the well blew wild again, with a mighty roar of gas that heaved rocks high into the air. Those who had come to watch were rewarded. After the well had cleaned itself of rocks and shale, it settled down to a steady flow that spouted above the top of the derrick.
There being no tankage in the Beaumont area, they had to let the oil bubble out on the ground. Captain Lucas had some levees thrown up to contain it until he could get cypress tanks built. The railroad men protected their tracks with an embankment. Oil flowed over fields intended for rice farms and collected in a draw near the railroad.
During the day Jim Hamill arrived from Corsicana, and, for the first time since the well blew in, Curt and Peck went home to clean up. They took off their oil-soaked clothes and rubbed their bodies dry with gunny sacks. Then they scrubbed off the remaining oil with lye soap and water as hot as they could stand it.
Sunday morning broke clear and cold. A heavy frost coated the crass. Curt and Peck were on duty. Al having gone home to sleep. By midmorning some five or six hundred people were milling about in the pasture. Curt and Peck, in their slicker suits, took turns working around the well and keeping people away.
Then they saw a man come riding on horseback across the pasture, with a Negro boy mounted behind him. Just when they reached the oily area the boy lighted a pipe and dropped the match into the grass. Flames burst up and black smoke began to rise. A stampede toward Beaumont began, in a wild rush of horses and buggies and running men.
Curt went running toward the fire, with Peck close behind. They took oft their slicker coats and beat at the flames. When their coats were burned up, they took off their denim jumpers, and then their shirts. Still the fire spread, nearer and nearer the well. Some ol the stampeded men returned.
“Bring me some boards,” Curt shouted.
The men brought boards from McFaddin’s barn, fifty or more of them. Curt and Peck threw them on the line of flame nearest the well. Gradually they brought the fire under control, but not until more than an acre of grass had burned over.
By the time Al arrived, alerted by the smoke, the fire was out. He looked at Curt and Peck. They were out of breath and their faces were black with oil smoke. Al looked at the blackened patch.
“If it had ever got to the well,” he said, “I don’t know what we’d have done with it.”
This fire put fear into them: the well had to be shut off. But how? Great pressure was needed to cap the well; it had to be supplied by human muscle, and the work was perilous because a single spark might trigger a tremendous explosion.
Stories of the wild well had appeared in newspapers across the country. Telegrams began to arrive from as far away as San Francisco, with offers to shut off the well. Estimates for the job ranged up to $10,000. A man who claimed to be a hydraulic engineer appeared at Spindletop with a telegram from John Galey, authorizing him to shut off the well. He studied the gushing oil and then turned to Al and said, “You can certainly have the job if you want it. I wouldn’t shut it off if they gave me the well, lease, and everything belonging to it. It’s too dangerous.”
Galey himself arrived soon afterward, and Al took him to the well. Elated, Galey estimated the flow to be between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels a day. Ruefully they looked at the wasted oil which had run over the flat land and been washed down the bayou by heavy rains. They talked immediately about capping the well.
Galey turned to Jim and said, “Well, you boys drilled the well. What do you think about shutting it in?”
“Well, Mr. Galey, I think we can do it.”
“All right, go to it.”
All that night the Hamill brothers and Captain Lucas worked on plans lor capping the well. Early next morning Jim arranged for heavy timbers and clamps to be delivered. Al swiped two steel rails from the Southern Pacific Railroad.
During the drilling they had put a collar on the ten-inch pipe to protect the threads when they set the eight-inch pipe inside. While driving the pipe through the first sand the collar had become welded to the pipe. It had to be cut off and the threads re-dressed before the shutoff could be started.
Al, the only one of the three Hamills who was unmarried, volunteered to cut the protector off. He went to Beaumont and got a pair of goggles, the kind he had used on the farm when threshing grain. These he taped to his face to keep oil and gas out of his eyes. Then he went in with a hacksaw and diamond points. He straddled the pipe all afternoon, working away carefully and patiently, with oil raining down on him and running of! his slicker suit and hat.
J. S. Cullinan, later a founder of the Texas Company and considered the lather of the Texas oil industry, had arrived a few days before, and now he and Jim Hamill stood watching.
“Now, Jim,” Cullinan warned, “you watch that kid. He’s in great danger. If he hits a spark there, why, he just—it’d be impossible to get him out.”