Oilman Johnny-on-the-Spot at Spindletop
“Buckskin Joe” Cullinan arrived at Spindletop on Jan. 11, 1901, less than 24 hours after the eruption of the Lucas gusher, ready to bet his bottom dollar that the bonanza would spark the biggest oil boom ever. The son of Irish immigrants was born in Pennsylvania on New Year’s Eve 1860 just a few miles from the first producing well on the North American continent. Going to work for Standard Oil as a 22 year old roughneck, he climbed to the top rung of the corporate ladder in a fast-paced 15 years. Cullinan received an unusual letter in 1897 from the mayor of Corsicana, Texas. A fortune in black gold lay beneath his sleepy community, the civic leader claimed, but no one had the money or the know-how to retrieve the fossil fuel. Could the oil executive come take a look? On a cross-country trip later that year, Cullinan stopped at Corsicana mainly to satisfy his curiosity. A guided tour of the countryside convinced the self-educated geologist of the petroleum potential, and he promptly canceled his West Coast vacation. In no time flat, the Pennsylvanian secured the financing for the first pipeline and refining operation in Lone Star history, which he named the J.S. Cullinan Company. His exploratory wells soon struck pay dirt transforming Corsicana into an honest-to-goodness boomtown. But before enthusiastic investors could become bona fide millionaires, their Yankee benefactor had to figure out what to do with all that crude -- a monumental challenge in the horse-and-buggy era. Cullinan cleverly solved the problem and opened up two brand-new markets by extolling the virtues of oil as a locomotive fuel and dust-settling agent for dirt roads. To Cullinan’s surprise, his former associates at Standard Oil did not recognize the potential of the Spindletop discovery in 1901. Firmly convinced their loss would be his gain, he built a storage tank, bought up every drop of cheap crude he could get his hands on and sat back to wait for the price to rise. Reckless drilling practices, as well as outright sabotage, often sent sections of the Spindletop field up in flames. During an especially dangerous blaze, Cullinan asked a district judge to grant him broad emergency powers to fight the fire. The hard-nosed oilman read the order issued by the obliging magistrate and snorted, “This is not enough!” “What more do you need?” the bewildered judge inquired. “I want the authority to kill a man if such is necessary in the discharge of my duty,” replied Cullinan. The order was amended on the spot giving Buckskin Joe the power of life and death at Spindletop. When word spread that he could legally shoot troublemakers on sight, arsonists and assorted wrongdoers quickly cleared out. Cullinan and a number of oilfield entrepreneurs merged with eastern money lenders in 1902 to form the Texas Company. Cullinan served as president of Texaco for 11 years, and his relocation of the company headquarters to Houston in 1905 guaranteed the inevitable emergence of the Bayou City as the oil capital of the world. Horrified by the wasteful methods of early producers, Cullinan lobbied for federal regulation of the oil industry and even went so far as to advocate price-fixing by the government. He ultimately changed his mind, however, and ended up telling Washington in no uncertain terms to keep its bureaucratic nose out of the oil business. Buckskin Joe was fiercely proud of his Emerald Isle heritage. Every St. Patrick’s Day he hoisted the Irish national flag over his home in Houston. For years he also flew the Jolly Roger atop his office building in the downtown business district. The prominent display of the notorious skull and crossbones puzzled passersby and became a local conversation piece. Did the banner suggest that Cullinan saw himself as a petroleum pirate? On the contrary, the New Deal critic once remarked, the Jolly Roger served “as a warning to the privilege and oppression within and without the law, the latter including witch burners, fanatics and the like who fail to realize that liberty is a right and not a privilege.” While visiting San Francisco in March 1937, the oil tycoon was shaken from his slumber by a mild earthquake. Fearing a repeat of the natural disaster that reduced the city to smoking rubble three decades earlier, he fled his hotel room wearing only a pair of thin pajamas. Buckskin Joe Cullinan caught cold in the chilly night air. He stubbornly ignored the minor ailment until it developed into a severe case of pneumonia. By the time he finally sought treatment, there was nothing the doctors could do, and the petroleum pioneer passed away in a California hospital.
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