Texas’ First Oilfield Has Brought Gusher of Lawsuits, Too
BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) _ Three workers were lifting sections of drilling pipe out of a well in 1901 when the hole erupted in the biggest oil gusher America had ever seen.
The Spindletop field spawned the Texas oil industry, but it produced another kind of gusher, too - a stream of legal claims from people who believe they are heirs to Texas’ first oil fortune.
Two cousins, James Clark of Cincinnati and Dan Profitt of Elsmere, Ky., are the latest claimants. They have filed suit in federal court contending they have a document that shows they and an undetermined number of others are Spindletop heirs.
Clark and Profitt base their claim on a 1931 deed filed in Dallas County granting a one-eighth interest in the east Texas field to a man named James Meadors, their lawyer, Richard Ferris of Pittsburgh, says
″They are the administrators of the estate,″ Ferris says. ″There are other heirs who haven’t been finally determined.″
The two do not say what amount of money they are owed.
Ferris says he and his clients ″spent many, many hours woring with deed records, birth certificates and doctors’ records″ to support their claim. The case is pending before U.S. Magistrate Earl Hines.
Clark says he and Profitt are Meadors’ nephews. He says Meadors got his interest in the field from a Dallas oilman named Ephriam Garonzik, who had in turn gotten his interest from Anthony Lucas, a driller who struck the first gusher at Spindletop.
Profitt and Clark had a similar claim thrown out of court in 1982. Dallas attorney Morris Harrell, who represents Standard Oil Co. (Indiana), Mobil Corp. and Phillips Petroleum Co., contends the new suit is no different from the first.
″A mere shuffling of parties does not constitute a new case,″ Harrell says. ″You cannot camouflage this. It’s the same deed, the same parties and the same claims.″
Claims of heirship to Spindletop wealth are nothing new.
R.L. Barnes, who has worked in the Jefferson County clerk’s office since 1947 and has been the county clerk since 1976, says his office has received so many inquiries about the field he has turned to a photocopying machine for help.
″We’ve got a form letter that we’ve been using for years and years,″ Barnes says. ″We sign it and send it.″
The office has mailed between 3,000 and 4,000 of the letters, Barnes says.
It gives information about Pelham Humphrey or Humphries, who was given a grant from the Mexican government in 1835.
″It also shows that he sold the land,″ Barnes says. ″The lettter says we don’t know where he died and have no record of administration of his estate.″
Barnes is skeptical of the notion that anyone has been cheated of money from the Spindletop field. And it is no secret that he has tired of dealing with people who think they have been.
″They get the idea that somewhere around this courthouse, there’s a vault and there’s just millions of dollars waiting for them to show up and say they’re an heir,″ Barnes says.
John Harris, assistant city editor of the Beaumont Enterprise, says his paper has been getting about a call a week recently from people who think they are owed money from the field.
″It seems to be just one of those snowballing kinds of rumors ...,″ Harris says.
David Hartman, curator of the Spindletop Museum at Lamar University, says he also has heard from his share of prospective heirs, many of whom say they have been notified by mail they should have shares of the fortune.
″I’ve received calls from people who say, ‘I’ve received a letter from these people who say I am part of the Spindletop oilfield fortune.’ What can you tell me about it?″ Hartman says.
Claiming shares of Spindletop is becoming a tradition. Hartman has a list of names of people suing for part ownership in 1939. The names run on for 15 single-spaced legal-size pages.
″It occurred to me that we’re looking at the birth of an American myth - that all this money is being denied to its rightful heirs,″ he says. ″It’s like the lost gold mines of the American West. It is just a batch of nonsense.″
Spindletop was the first big oil discovery in the United States. It was brought about by a partnership formed by Patillo Higgins, who operated a brick kiln in Orange.
Higgins was chiefly interested in oil to fuel his brick kiln, Hartman says. Wood did not burn hot enough or provide an even temperature.
Higgins had read enough about the infant oil production industry in Pennsylvania to know that exploration crews considered several signs optimistic. Among them were sulphurous waters, flammable gases and oil seeps.
Hartman says Higgins realized those three things were present in abundance in the Spindletop field, where he had produced jets of gas by poking his cane into the ground.
A series of drilling attempts ended in thunderous success Jan. 10, 1901.
″It blew 100,000 barrels a day,″ Hartman says of the first well, the Lucas Gusher. ″Wells were typically brought in by letting them blow out, which they generally did in two to three days. This gusher blew for three days and started to blow harder than ever.″
Workers finally controlled the flow and saved the excess behind an earthen dike. The boom began. Later that year, wooden derricks were built so close together workers could step from one to the other.
The field produced 17.4 million barrels of oil in 1902 - 94 percent of the Texas’ production that year - and made Beaumont a boomtown that grew from 9,000 people in early 1901 to 50,000 by that summer.
The field prouced nearly 26 million barrels of oil in its first five years, but by 1906 it was considered dead, Hartman says. Far more controlled production followed in the 1920s.
Today the field has only a handful of operating wells.