Gusher At Spindletop

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The men stood close, ready to pull Al out in case of fire or in case he should be overcome by gas. As fatigue set in, he had to come out for air, some work intervals lasting only two or three minutes; but finally he succeeded in cutting the collar in two and springing it enough to get it off. Then, in spite of the rain of oil, he dressed the threads perfectly.

When the pipe was ready, they took the floor boards off. Then they buried two four-by-twelve timbers and bolted them to the legs of the derrick. They bolted the steel rails to the timbers. Then they built a carriage arrangement and bolted it to the rails. With the fittings, the valves and the “T,” and the connections, it looked like a crate. It was actually the beginning of what was later called the “Christmas tree,” a set of pipes and valves for reducing internal pressure in a well. All parts were solidly bolted to the derrick; if the carriage were dislodged by the pressure, the whole derrick would go.

Their equipment was ready, but the well was still throwing rocks—rocks that went up as high as a man could see and then came down in a spray of oil and sand.

“We’d better not shut that in today,” Jim said. “One of those rocks might damage our valve—might knock it off.”

Again they settled down to fearful watching and waiting. A spark might set it off, the well would be lost, and there would be little hope of escape for three oil-soaked men.

On January 20 they watched as they had watched every day. In the middle of the morning Jim came out.

“Well, boys,” he asked, “how’s it been acting?”

“No rocks this morning,” they assured him.

He watched with them until after eleven.

“Well, let’s shut her in,” he said.

The brothers looked at each other. The most dangerous moment had arrived. Al was the first to speak.

“Curt, I’ll work the carriage. You turn the valve there, will you?”

With chain tongs Al pulled the unwieldy carriage until the valve was directly over the pipe. Then Curt rushed in, lowered the valve over the pipe, and screwed it tight. One moment there was a hissing roar—the next, silence. The well was shut off. But Curt had fallen to the ground, overcome by gas. They dragged him to fresh air and revived him.

The flow finally stopped. They pounded rope between the six-inch and eight-inch pipes, poured cement in over the rope, and finally covered the valve with a mound of dirt, to protect the well from fire.

It was fortunate they did. A few days later a spark from a locomotive set fire to the lake of oil that stretched between the well and the railroad tracks, three-fourths of a mile away. This time there was no chance to fight the fire. The flames leapt fast; the smoke was overpowering. Men worked feverishly to drag their equipment out of the path.

The fire started about noon. By middle of the afternoon it was burning along the entire side of the lake bounded by the tracks. If the wind changed, flames would sweep across the whole of Spindletop.

A man on horseback (some said it was McFaddin trying to save his pasture) set fire to the other side of the lake. Smoke boiled up and shut out the sun. The two walls of flame rushed toward each other. When they were close, with only a deep alley between, explosions began to shake the earth. The walls would meet, throw sheets of oil into the air, and then recede under the impact of explosions that shook Beaumont, four miles away.

Smoke rolled over the city and turned day into night. Then a rain storm came and washed soot down upon the town. Houses stained orange before were now turned black. Again people, frightened by this great unknown force, held prayer meetings and prepared themselves for the end of time.

But the fire passed, and the well was safe. Its stored-up power became both the symbol and the incentive of a new century.