Spindletop’s glory days were gone, or so it was believed.
That landmark discovery on Jan. 10, 1901 at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas had defied existing American geological thought and changed the course of history, but had faded into memory by the 1920s.
Action had moved on to other fields. The old hill lay dormant in the shifting Gulf winds, its ghosts whispering of past chaos, triumphs and tragedies. Abandoned derricks stood amid a few rundown houses and stores, stained wooden storage tanks and rusted equipment. “Donkeys” – pump jacks – and sucker rods creaked and groaned as they coaxed the last dregs of oil from the spent caprock.
The Former Prophets
The first to trumpet the presence of oil under Spindletop Hill had been Pattillo Higgins, the first prophet, a local gadfly who had been shouting it from Beaumont’s rooftops since the mid-1880s. But the actual discovery of the underground riches awaited the knowledge, capability and iron will of an Austrian mining engineer named Anthony Lucas, who brought in Spindletop’s discovery well, the storied Lucas Gusher.
The oil companies born at Spindletop – Gulf, Texaco and Humble – matured into global giants, and a fourth, Sun, grew from a modest Pennsylvania concern to assume its place among them. And in 1903, Standard Oil, that titan of the eastern oil regions that had refused an initial chance to drill at Spindletop, belatedly built a colossal refinery near the hill just as the market was rapidly beginning to expand.
As time went on, aftershocks from the Spindletop discovery spread around the world in ever-growing waves. In addition to confounding conventional geological beliefs, Spindletop wrought a vast, fundamental sea change in the budding oil industry, shifting its center to the southwest. By 1905, more than a quarter of the crude produced in the United States was pumped in Texas, transforming the state into an icon for Big Oil.
But by 1903, Spindletop itself became a pumper field. As Lucas had remarked sadly, “The cow was milked too hard; moreover, she was not milked intelligently.” Both Lucas and Higgins moved on to other horizons, but they made an important prophecy: they predicted that there was more oil under Spindletop Hill.
A Novel Hypothesis
The Lucas Gusher was drilled directly into the caprock of the Spindletop salt dome, but caprocks in other domes subsequently proved barren. Moreover, it was widely believed that no oil would be found on the flanks of domes, although, through the years, plenty of money, time and effort were expended in the search. Once again, however, oil would be discovered where conventional wisdom believed none existed. In a reprise of the former roles of Higgins and Lucas, two new visionaries with another radical theory, Marrs McLean and Frank Yount, proved it true, and on Nov. 13, 1925, history repeated itself at Spindletop.
Marrs McLean, the second prophet of Spindletop, had first come to Beaumont as a boy during the 1901 oil boom and had developed a fascination with Spindletop Hill. After finishing law school, he returned to southeast Texas to truck-farm on Bolivar Peninsula. He built and operated a small hotel at High Island, but soon returned to Beaumont to promote a theater. In 1908, tempted to enter the oil business, he took a small interest in a syndicate that drilled several wells on the flats near the Spindletop dome.
The wells proved to be small pumpers, but McLean’s “oil fever” grew into full-blown obsession. In 1910, he invested with a group that brought in a well at Vinton, La., off the caprock of the dome, which had proved barren. After a fruitless venture at the High Island salt dome, he learned the practical side of the oil business and enjoyed modest success as a drilling promoter. But from his observation of wells drilled on the flanks of other southeast Texas salt domes – Sour Lake, Vinton, Hull and Saratoga – he soon adopted a new theory: as a salt plug pushed upward through the Earth to form the domes, tilting the various strata, oil was trapped in pools that formed on the flanks of a dome.
Like Higgins before him, however, McLean ran against solid opposition in promoting his theory to oil experts locked into the old idea that oil would only be found beneath a salt dome’s caprock. But, he refused to budge from his mission, continuing to lease and buy land around the flanks of salt domes all over the Gulf Coast. In 1920, McLean began to lease acreage on the flanks of Spindletop Hill, but was rebuffed by one oil company after another. In desperation, he decided to risk every penny he had to finance his own effort to drill, in a location he chose on its south flank.
Yount-Lee Oil Company
Enter the counterpart of Anthony Lucas: McLean’s next-door neighbor in Beaumont, an independent oil operator named Miles Franklin “Frank” Yount, the guiding genius of the successful but largely unknown Yount-Lee Oil Company.
After a hard-scrabble childhood in Arkansas, Yount was forced to drop out of school at an early age to go to work on the family farm after his father’s death. During those years, he, like Higgins before him, developed an extraordinary capacity for self-education; such was his ability to absorb himself in a given subject that in a short time he could become an expert in any field he studied.
Yount eventually landed in Beaumont, where he made his living digging rice irrigation ditches. He began drilling water wells, but was lured by the siren call of oil, and at age 24 began his crusade to find it. He chartered his first oil company in 1909. As it happened, Yount, like McLean, believed that undiscovered oil lay on the flanks of salt domes, and in 1922, his newly formed company, Yount-Lee, drilled a major producer in the Hull oil field – the first significant flank well on the Gulf Coast. By that year, Yount-Lee was valued at $2 million.
‘Spindletop Has Come Back’
The story holds that Yount was walking home for lunch one day in Beaumont when he encountered McLean, who began telling Yount of his “flank” theory and his plan to drill at Spindletop. The men reached their respective homes and Yount wished McLean luck, but later that day, he showed up at McLean’s office.
“Marrs,” he is reputed to have asked plaintively, “I was wondering why you hadn’t offered your leases to me.”
McLean, in delighted shock, did so on the spot.
When Yount offered his services to McLean, it was the proverbial match made in heaven. After hammering out their agreement, the old friends-turned-new partners began to drill at McLean’s designated location on the south flank of Spindletop Hill.
The first well was a dry hole, but Yount, strongly guided by his own hunches and instincts, inexplicably declared that he was now certain that oil would be found on the flanks of the hill. In the fall of 1925, they spudded the second well, the McFaddin No. 2, located, like the first, on the southeast flank of the dome. On the evening of Nov. 13, 1925, they determined to make a flow test. Yount invited several friends and business associates, including McLean, to the well to “enjoy the party,” as he modestly put it.
To the surprise of everyone except Yount and McLean, the test came back a success, vindicating their faith in their theory of salt-dome flank production. Around eight o’clock that night, an announcement of their success was broadcast over the loudspeakers to the thousands of visitors who were attending that year’s South Texas State Fair: “Spindletop has come back,” the announcer declared. “Yount-Lee’s No. 2 McFaddin … came in … flowing an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day …” Stunned silence greeted the announcement, then a rising roar of acclaim. That night, Yount predicted that the flanks of Spindletop would produce 60 million barrels of oil.
This time, unlike in the 1901 discovery, no roaring column of oil blasted away the well’s drilling mechanism, sent pipe rocketing skyward, or scattered the crew; the McFaddin No. 2 came in under complete control. This time, there was no frenzy of land speculation and no accompanying pandemonium; McLean and Yount had already gained control over most of the tracts in the surrounding area. This time, the town of Beaumont gained a new skyline; much of the money stayed in town to foster a boost to the local economy. And this time, an established market for the oil was already in place; in the wake of the Lucas Gusher, the oil industry had become big business.
The second Spindletop field produced even more oil than the first. True to Yount’s prediction, the new field flowed over 59 million barrels of oil in the first five years of its existence; in eight years, the new field produced more oil than the caprock at Spindletop had produced in its entire existence. And the names of Marrs McLean and Frank Yount were indelibly emblazoned with those of their predecessors – Anthony Lucas, Pattillo Higgins, and the rest – in the firmament of oil history.