I must have tugged on his coattails.
Actually, I don’t really remember how it all came about. But at the 1951 Spindletop 50th anniversary celebration in Beaumont, Texas, I, a 10-year-old schoolgirl, somehow found myself talking to Allen William “Al” Hamill, one of the drillers of the famed Lucas Gusher – the well brought in 50 years before, January 10, 1901, on the low mound just south of town that came to be known as Spindletop Hill.
On that cold January day in Beaumont, the well had come in at a time and in a world that knew no oil gushers – except for the occasional vague news mention about giant wells in Russia, unnoticed or only half-believed by most Americans.
A “big” well in the eastern oil regions, or even in the lone small oil field at Corsicana in Texas, produced 50 barrels a day. But the Lucas Gusher spewed forth 70,000-100,000 barrels of oil a day in the nine days before they invented a way to cap it (with a device the Hamill brothers invented on the spot – a primitive precursor of the Christmas tree valve assembly).
It was this well – the Lucas Gusher – that first gave the world the idea that oil might be available in unlimited quantities.
Its roaring column of oil produced twice as much oil per day as all the wells in Pennsylvania. It heralded the birth of the Spindletop oil field, the first six gushers of which produced more oil per day than all the other fields in the world combined.
The sheer volume of oil produced at Spindletop pushed Russia out of the top spot in world production and gave the lead to the United States. And if that volume of oil was found at Spindletop, surely more lay hidden in other places nearby, there for the finding, and more fields were soon discovered in Texas – and beyond.
Three major oil companies were formed at Spindletop – Gulf Oil Corp., Humble Oil Co. and the Texas Co. (later Texaco) – and a fourth, Sun Oil Co., grew to major proportions in the wake of the discovery.
The global import of Spindletop would be brought home with the realization that in 1911, only 10 years after the advent of the Lucas Gusher, British Home Secretary Winston Churchill would convert British Navy ships to the use of petroleum-based fuel – all because of the abundance of Texas oil.
Quite simply, the advent of the Lucas Gusher changed the course of history.
Going Against the Grain
The well was brought in by Capt. Anthony Francis Lucas, an Austrian mining engineer who had observed the association of salt, sulfur, gas and oil while mining in the salt domes of Louisiana.
Lucas recognized Spindletop Hill as a salt dome and concurred with the arguments of Pattillo Higgins, a Beaumont resident with his own theories of oil under the hill.
Going contrary to the existing tenets of American geology, which held that the Gulf Coast was geologically too young to host the presence of oil, Lucas and Higgins made a first drilling attempt – but the well was destroyed by the enormous gas pressures under the hill.
Lucas, undaunted, secured the support of wildcatters John Galey and James M. Guffey and the financial backing of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Brothers. He also recruited the best drillers available: the Hamill brothers of Corsicana – Al, Curt and Jim.
The combination of these personalities, with their diverse gifts, ultimately ensured success.
And the rest, as they say, was history.
Bring In the Celebrities!
My personal link to Spindletop had begun almost before I can remember, when the mystique of the Lucas Gusher lay deep in the fabric of all our lives in Beaumont. The tale had been told regularly by all and sundry, and it had rapidly acquired the status of myth. It was never far from community consciousness.
On the 40th anniversary of the Gusher its original site, which had been lost in the subsequent scrambled fury of drilling, was located and commemorated by a towering obelisk of pink Texas granite.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary, Beaumont envisioned a giant celebration, and preliminary plans began more than two years in advance.
As the anniversary drew nearer, excitement ran high throughout southeast Texas. As a 10-year-old fifth-grader, I myself remember feeling it.
- We studied the story of the Gusher and its principal players in school.
- We painted its image in our art classes.
- We entered essay contests sponsored by the Spindletop Planning Commission.
- The town fathers in Beaumont and those in surrounding communities mapped out their parts in the festivities.
- Beaumont hairdressers fashioned their customers’ tresses into “Spindletop” hairdos, and a local ice-cream parlor featured “Lucas Gusher” sundaes – with an abundance of chocolate sauce cascading down the piled mounds of ice cream.
The week of the actual anniversary commenced with a broadcast of “We the People,” the national radio and television show of the Gulf Oil Corporation, featuring my personal Spindletop hero, Al Hamill, who recounted the tale of drilling the Lucas Gusher. Beaumont’s noted singing group, the Melody Maids, staged a “Spindletop Revue,” presenting music composed by the group’s director, Eloise Milam.
DuPont’s national radio show, “The Cavalcade of America,” broadcast from Beaumont in front of an enormous live audience, with entertainment figures Robert Cummings and Teresa Wright in the roles of Anthony Lucas and his wife, Caroline.
We attended or listened to every show or broadcast, viewed every exhibition, participated in every activity.
That week, Beaumont again stood at the center of national attention. Celebrities and dignitaries poured into town, among them Texas Gov. Allan Shivers, famed geophysicist Everette DeGolyer (who had been a personal friend of Anthony Lucas), and oilmen Glenn McCarthy and legendary geologist Michel Halbouty, the latter a native son of Beaumont.
A Moment In Time
The morning of Jan. 10, 1951, dawned clear and cold, much like that other January morning of 50 years before.
At 10:30 a.m., refinery whistles and automobile horns all over town blew to commemorate the hour the Gusher had blown in, and a formation of jet planes flew over downtown Beaumont and out over Spindletop Hill. David Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller (whose interests had, before the discovery, declined to invest in the Spindletop wildcat venture) spoke to a Rotary luncheon in Beaumont numbering 500.
The grand finale took place that afternoon with a huge “Parade of Progress” through downtown Beaumont. I vividly remember being delirious with excitement as an endless procession of the region’s finest bands marched proudly by, instruments glittering in the sunlight and gargantuan oil industry machines and equipment rolled past.
In addition to Cummings and Wright, three guests of honor led the parade: Anthony FitzGerald Lucas, the only son of the now-deceased captain; 89-year-old Pattillo Higgins, who had first harangued the Beaumont populace about oil on Spindletop Hill, smiling thinly at the vindication of his prophecy; and my hero, the gentlemanly Al Hamill, the driller of the well, still handsome and spry at age 75, smiling genially and waving to the crowds.
After the parade, we all repaired to the Exhibit Hall in the South Texas State Fairgrounds, where a mammoth portrait of Capt. Anthony Lucas presided benignly over exhibit after petroleum-related exhibit portraying the vast impact of Spindletop on the region and the modern world.
It was there that I spotted Al Hamill, talking to some of the many dignitaries who were waiting to catch a few words with him. Somehow, I managed the courage to approach him. He stooped to talk to me, treating me with the kindness and courtesy he would have accorded any peer – or for that matter, anyone.
And in that moment, in me, he made a conquest for life.
The Spindletop 50th anniversary celebration made it abundantly clear: That watershed event on Jan. 10, 1901, had made the world a different place.
Now, in the little more than a century since it exploded onto the world scene, petroleum and petrochemicals have permeated every aspect of our lives, from our methods of transportation to our most minute everyday needs.
And it all began with that moment on Spindletop Hill, when the world was allowed to imagine that it hosted a virtually unlimited supply of oil, there for the discovery.
The Memories Still Linger
The 100th anniversary of the Lucas Gusher was held Jan. 10, 2001, in Beaumont at Lamar University’s Spindletop-Gladys City Museum, just across the road from the old oil field.
At exactly 10:30 am, a towering plume of water gushed through an exact replica of the Hamills’ wooden derrick to commemorate that event of a century before, viewed by throngs of spectators and dignitaries, including former U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
A hundred years later, old Spindletop could still draw a crowd.
As for me, my personal mystique of Spindletop has always held strong – and in commemoration of its hundredth anniversary, my colleagues and I were accorded the privilege of writing the history of the discovery.
But my most vivid memory remains the kindness and modesty of one man, a celebrity, a man of the hour who took the time to talk to a 10-year-old pigtailed, freckle-faced girl who had the temerity to approach him.
I’ll carry that memory with me for the rest of my life.