Feature: Spindletop: 100 Years Later
Professional Surveyor Magazine - July/August 2000
Nedra Foster, LS
The time was January 1901 and men were flocking into Beaumont, Texas by the minute to see this new phenomenon that had come to pass at 10:30 a.m. on January 10th. The people on site could not begin to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the discovery, but the trains were spilling out men willing to swap their souls to get in on the ground floor of the activity. The local farmers who had been eking out a living from their land were suddenly being offered sums of money beyond their wildest imaginations for that same land. Nowhere else on earth had such a sight been seen outside of Russia.
Men on a Mission
The saga leading up to the blowing in of this momentous well is a long and interesting one beginning with Pattillo Higgins, and his recognition of the potential exhibited in the geology of the area known as Big Hill, located in the marshes four miles south of Beaumont. He spent a decade of his life immersed in an effort to convince people to invest in a vision for their local area. He was not able to garner the local support that he hoped for; in fact he became an object of ridicule for his single-minded pursuit of oil on Big Hill. George Washington Carroll and Captain George Washington O'Brien were among the very few Beaumont residents who had faith in Higgins' scheme, and even the patience and pocketbooks of these two men were stretched thin at times. In spite of failed attempts and bitter disappointments, he doggedly retained his belief that oil was to be found in massive quantities beneath the hill. Through an advertisement placed in a manufacturing journal, Higgins was brought together with Captain Anthony F. Lucas, and history was in the making. Captain Lucas gained the backing of the famous wildcat team of James McClurg Guffey and John H. Galey. In preparation for their first drilling attempt, Mr. Galey placed the stakes in the ground on the south side of the hill and the north edge of the McFaddin-Kyle Wiess land, and on the edge of a hog wallow with three rough-hewn boxes full of sulphur water. Had Mr. Galey picked a spot just fifty feet further to the south, their well would have been a duster. And on such the fortunes of men spin!
The drilling of a well in this geological formation would require ingenuity and resourcefulness. The Hamill brothers, whose astute reputation preceded them, were therefore brought in from the Corsicana fields to complete the project. They began their endeavor by building their derrick from scratch even though they had never built one before this time. The well was spudded in on October 27th. After constant trials and tribulations, on January 9th the Hamill brothers reached a depth of 1,020 feet, when the bit stopped yet again in a rock crevice. They tried rotating the pipe but jerked the rotary chain to pieces. They had to order a new fishtail bit and rotary chains which arrived on the morning of the 10th.
The Initial Blast
After attaching the new fishtail bit, they began lowering the drill stem back into the hole. When they reached about 700 feet, mud began to bubble up over the rotary table. Then the mud began to spurt high up the derrick. As the drillers ran for safety, six tons of four-inch pipe came shooting through the derrick, knocking off the crown block. As the pipe broke off in sections, it was falling around the camp like giant pick up sticks. Then everything was suddenly quiet. The drillers cautiously returned to the derrick floor and began evaluating the shambles around them. It was all standing a foot deep in mud, muck, and water, with the pipe scattered and twisted everywhere. As they stood cussing the situation roundly, there was a sudden roar beneath them. Then again the flow of mud started up through the hole, followed by a terrific column of gas. As the crew scrambled for safety once more, the flow changed to a solid stream of oil, green and heavy. The oil was shooting more than a hundred feet above the top of the derrick, and continued to do so for the next nine days until it was capped off by more of the Hamill brothers' oil field ingenuity, in designing perhaps the first "Christmas tree" valve assembly. The well was flowing an unbelievable 100,000 barrels a day, although the estimates reported to the world were, for the most part, far more conservative than the actual quantities. Folks could simply not comprehend the magnitude of what they were witnessing.
Not a Solitary Gusher
Within hours the news was telegraphed to the world, and the world responded. Deals were being made anywhere and everywhere. People were buying rights and turning around to sell those same rights within hours for double and triple the money. Human interest stories sprang forth surrounding the effect of the gusher on the simple lives of the citizens of Beaumont. A few months after being fired from his job as a millwright, Lige Adams purchased a 10 acre farm for $200. This farm was providentially located half a mile north of the gusher. David R. Beatty, a Galveston railroad man and real estate promoter who had spent time in the oil fields of Corsicana, immediately recognized the potential surrounding the Lucas gusher. He had jumped the first available train for Beaumont with $20 in his pocket and quickly leased the land from Adams for $10, 1/8 of any oil produced, and a promise to sign Mr. Adams on as crew cook. On March 26th the famous and colorful drilling team of the Sturm brothers brought in a gusher on the Adams' farm which silenced the naysayers who had been predicting that the Lucas gusher was a one time, one place phenomenon and would not be repeated. In fact, a map by L. J. Kopke, civil engineer, detailing the wells as drilled in Spindletop Field through October 27, 1902, indicates that by April 18th, seven had been brought in, every one a gusher.
Lucas Gusher Takes the Lead
At the end of 1900, Standard Oil Company directly controlled 48,000,000 of the 58,000,000 barrels of petroleum produced annually in this country. The Lucas gusher changed this monopoly dramatically and permanently. The Lucas gusher alone was capable of producing as much oil as 37,000 eastern wells, six times as much oil as California, twice as much as Pennsylvania (the leading oil state), and at least half of the nation's total output. With six additional wells, those figures could be multiplied until Spindletop's dominance became apparent to even those most difficult to convince. Spindletop could produce more oil in one day than the rest of the fields of the world combined, including Russia. Production from Spindletop at the end of 1901 was 3,593,113 barrels; in 1902 the field produced 17,420,949 barrels.
History Reveals Exact Location
And so a century has passed! The Spindletop 2001 Commission has planned a year's worth of events in commemoration of the gusher. Governor George W. Bush is serving as honorary chairman of the Commission with former Beaumont mayor Evelyn Lord taking the lead as the hands-on, working chairman. In conjunction with the centennial celebration, the members of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors Chapter No. 6 are relocating the original oil well. Since the rules and regulations surrounding today's oil industry were non-existent in 1901, precise information about the early days of the boom must be pieced together. There has been some controversy through the years concerning the exact location of the gusher. Before surveyors do any work in the field, the record must be thoroughly researched and all available history sought out. The research in this project led to the survey archives of BP Amoco Corporation, private survey collections, and public records. The circa 1901-02 map by L. J. Kopke was a valuable resource. Interestingly, as one enters the second floor Spindletop exhibit at Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont, there is a photograph which depicts a sidewalk scene with a business sign visible, that reads " L. J. Kopke, Civil Engineer."
Another valuable map is one entitled "McFaddin, Wiess and Kyle Land Co. Subdivision of the Pelham Humphrey League" by Wm. H. Leckie and drawn by W. D. Twichell, a land surveyor with an excellent reputation. This map is dated May 21, 1901 and was filed for record on December 21, 1901. This map and the Kopke map have the Lucas gusher spotted in the same place.
In the collection of Surveyor W. F. Daniell's field books, an entry from May 1940 shows the location of Lucas Gusher as pointed out by Scott W. Myers. Mr. Daniell was staking a 100 foot square with the location as pointed out centered. Since the Lucas Gusher Monument was erected in July 1941, Mr. Daniell was obviously doing the survey work in preparation for the erection of the monument. For the fifty year celebration of the oil patch, Scott Myers served as secretary for the Lucas Gusher Monument Association. He also had mineral interests in the close vicinity of the gusher. The book Spindletop – Where Oil Became an Industry 1901-1951 includes a picture taken in 1941 at the dedication of the monument, which now resides on the grounds of Gladys City Museum. The photo shows Scott W. Myers, Patillo Higgins, Al Hamill, and Marion E. Brock, treasurer of the Lucas Gusher Monument Association, sitting on the base of the monument. Higgins and Hamill would, of course, be the ultimate authorities as to the actual location.
The survey archives of BP Amoco (formerly Stanolind Oil Company) in Houston were fruitful in containing the record of perpetuation of the survey evidence as found all through the years. When all of the available evidence (old and new) was layered together, the results were amazing. The location of the monument as tied in by Stanolind crews and the gusher location as spotted by Kopke and Twichell were within four feet of each other. So that piece of controversy was settled, but it was certainly not the first bit of discord arising from the Spindletop Oil Field.
A Question of Ownership
The ownership of the Pelham Humphries League has been questioned in the courts more than a few times. The original Guffey and Galey Lucas No. 1 is located in this Mexican land grant of 4,428.4 acres. Under the 1825 colonization law of the State of Coahuila y Texas, public land was offered to individuals, including foreigners, who wanted to settle in the state. A person desiring land in the new colonies could obtain a character certificate from the local alcalde and then present this to the agent and request a land grant. A petition would then be issued by the commissioner, empresario or land granting authority, and the process would advance to picking the location and surveying out the land. A character certificate was issued to William Humphries on September 27, 1834 by Benjamin Lindsey, Alcalde. On the same day a petition was issued by Jorge Antonio Nixon, commissioner for the state of Coahuila y Texas, to Humphries for a grant in the colony of Lorenzo de Zavala. This document is signed by Humphries with an "X" being the "cruz de Pelham Humphries." The thing that makes this an interesting and enlightening document is that the name at the top of the document shows a change made from Pelham to William.
Close study of the original documents in the Texas General Land Office strongly suggests that the original grantee was William, not Pelham. With only one or two easily explained exceptions, the many petitions presented to Commissioner Nixon at San Augustine between September 20-25, 1834 have accompanying documents known as character certificates. The Land Office records include a character certificate for William but none for Pelham. A scrivener's error in transcribing the name from the character certificate to the petition is the likely source of the ensuing confusion. As a result of the error, on October 6, 1835, an affidavit was sworn before the primary judge of San Augustine noting the mistaken insertion of the name Pelham in place of William in the Humphries title, and on that date William Humphries appointed William English as his agent, to change the name in the original title in Nacogdoches. William English was the natural choice, having already served, in exchange for half of the grant, as Humphries' agent to obtain the title. The evidence from the available documents, plus the fact that William Humphries later obtained only one labor from the Republic of Texas, indicates that he had already received a league from the Mexican authorities [the Republic offered one league (4,428.4 acres) and one labor (177.1 acres) to settlers who had emigrated prior to March 2, 1836], points to William as the original grantee. The evidence, however, has not convinced the purported heirs of Pelham Humphries, who formed an association with the intent of proving that he did exist, that the grant had been made to him, and that they were the successors to any benefits accruing from these facts. Like an early day Elvis Presley, there have been sightings and reports of Pelham's presence in many places: South Carolina, Tennessee, Oregon, shootouts in Nacogdoches and/or California, and perhaps even a sojourn in Mexico followed by return to Texas with a new idea. Anytime huge sums of money emanate from a tract of land, lawsuits concerning the rightful ownership of that land seem to follow closely behind. This has surely been true of the land in and around the Spindletop Oil Field. The Pelham Humphries heirs had been in court seven times concerning this ownership prior to their last attempt in 1989 before Judge Howell Cobb of the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1990 Judge Cobb issued a final summary judgment against the Humphries heirs which revealed his exasperation with the marathon litigation. "This court desperately desires that the ghost of Pelham Humphries will no longer haunt the halls of the United States court system. The Pelham Humphries litigation is over…rest in peace."
Even though today we have a more organized and civil façade in the petroleum industry, one does not have to scratch too deeply to find the same sort of entrepreneurial spirit with oil flowing in its veins, as existed in the first oil patches.
Nedra Foster last wrote for the magazine about surveying in the Big Thicket in East Texas in the April 1997 issue. She has worked for Shine & Johnston in Silsbee, Texas since 1981. In addition to her regular Texas RPLS license, she recently passed the Texas Licensed State Land Surveyor (LSLS) examination, which allows her to survey unpatented public domain and the boundary between state and private lands along navigable rivers. She joins the 55 people to make this achievement and is the only woman with this license.
Note: All historical photos courtesy of the Texas Energy Museum.
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