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Spindletop Blowout

1901 to 1929 – Oilfield hydraulic rotary drilling comes of age.

In the 1880s and 90s attempts were made, primarily with cable tools, to drill for oil in East Texas in the Corsicana/Nacogdoches area.  Using this method a small oilfield was discovered in Nacogdoches.  As we know, a number of water well drillers in East Texas and Louisiana were using the hydraulic rotary method for drilling, however, their intent was to produce a water well and they were disappointed when either oil or salt water were encountered.
 
The Hamill Brothers - Water well drillers.
 
The Hamill brothers, Jim, Curt and Al, had a very successful water well drilling company located in Corsicana.  Jim mainly ran the business while Curt, Al and their employee Peck Byrd did the drilling.   They were using the hydraulic rotary method using water without recirculating the cuttings/water slurry downhole.
 
There had been three attempts to find oil around the Spindletop hill using cable tool rigs.  These attempts could not get any deeper than about 400 feet due to the sand formations being drilled.  The sand formations at Spindletop were called “quicksand” as they quickly ran into the wellbore as it was drilled.   The Hamill brothers company were hired for the forth attempt on the recommendation one of the investors in Spindletop operation, John Galley.  The company Guffey and Galey supplied the drillpipe and the Hamells supplied “the derrick, drilling equipment, fuel and everything else.”  In October of 1900, the Hamills loaded their drilling equipment onto a train in Corsicana and went to Beaumont Texas to drill the Spindletop location.
 
The rotary rig reached a depth of about 640 feet when they encountered, as Curt named it, severe “heaving sand.”  In addition to the sand running into the hole, the water would be absorbed into the sand formation being drilled and disappear. They could go no deeper until they found a way to handle the sand problem.  Curt Hamell then had the idea to circulate muddy water through the hole.  Curt could rightly be said to be the world’s first “mud engineer.”
 
 Reverend John Chaney, a local farmer who hired out workers to in the area, developed a process to ensure a ready supply of muddy water.  He arrived at the well early in the morning with a mule team and a plow.  They plowed an area to contain the water to a depth of 10 inches and then pumped water from a nearby bayou into the pit.  To turn the muddy water into mud, they borrowed some cows from a nearby pasture and drove them into the pit.  They worked them for about four hours, using whips to keep them moving and some cattle dogs to keep them in the pit.
 
The first fit for purpose drilling mud was made.
 
With the success of Spindletop, hydraulic rotary drilling became more popular, especially in Texas, ​Louisiana and in California. The use of a mud-laden fluid was deemed to be essential for rotary drilling. Until the mid to late 1920s the fluid used was just dirt and water.  Improvements to the muds then occurred by using barite for weight control and bentonite for hole cleaning and suspension. The only other additive used was water.  In most areas of North America cable tool drilling was still the method of choice for oilwell drilling.  

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