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Spindle Top once isolated plague victims

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from the Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday January 9, 1999, p. 10A.

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NEDERLAND -- Most people are unaware that, long before there were geysers of oil there, Spindletop Hill was only a place to isolate plague victims.

In the spring of 1862, Capt. George W. O’Brien mustered at Beaumont Company E of Spaight’s Battalion, Confederate States Army. At that time the site became a tent city, called Camp Spindle Top, where Co. E was domiciled for training.

In Sept., 1862, a virulent yellow fever epidemic had already killed about 100 persons at Sabine Pass, and some well and recovering soldiers were evacuated to Camp Spindle Top. Some soldiers died and were buried there; others were furloughed to their home until the epidemic ended.

Beaumont posted guards at depots and other points to prevent possible infected travelers from entering the city, but yellow fever arrived in town anyway. During the ensuing weeks, 8 Beaumonters died of the plague, including Otto Ruff, Robert Hillebrandt and wife, Mrs. Sylvester Mansfield, Dr. George Hawley, and Alzinette Hillebrandt.

In 1866, and itinerant preacher and physician, Dr. B. T. Kavanaugh, dug and curbed five wells at Spindletop, each of a different taste and shade of blue or yellow. Kavanaugh planned to build a spa there, but after a few months, he abandoned his plan and moved to Sour Lake.

Between 1873-1878, yellow fever was again raging in Central Texas, as was small pox in Chambers County, and again Beaumont posted guards at several points, with apparent success, to keep infected travelers out of the city.

In May-June, 1883, small pox did arrive in Beaumont and the first wooden structure was built on the hill to house pest victims. The first known victim was Lizzie Zeek, who died at the pest house and was buried nearby.

In Dr. Powhattan Jordan’s small pox report of July 26, 1883, he reported that "...the burning of the bedding of the (Dr. J. A.) Gilder family and the pest house patients was a sanitary neccesity..." to prevent further spread of the disease.

Although no obituary of Dr. Gilder was found, there was also no further mention of the prominent Beaumont physician after the summer of 1883. Beaumont was fortunate at that time to escape a more deadly epidemic.

It was also reported that a part of the regimen for treating pox victims at the pest house was to salve their sores with splotches of petroleum, found floating in the springs, and make victims drink plenty of the tart waters from the wells.

During the 1890s Capt. George O’Brien, Beaumont’s Civil War hero, joined Pattillo Higgins and George W. Carroll to organize the Gladys City Oil and Manufacturing Company, which drilled unsuccessfully twice at Spindletop. It was also that company that brought Anthony Lucas and the first successful gusher to the hill.

It was about 1920 when a reporter began spelling Spindletop as one word, which has remained the correct spelling since then.

Beaumonters will always remember Spindletop Hill as the place "where oil became an industry." Lest we forget, the hill before 1900 had a much more sinister history.

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Copyright 1998-2024 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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