December 12, 2012
Walter Benona Sharp was born on Dec. 12, 1870, in Tipton County, Tenn., north of Memphis. His mother died when he was eight, and his father moved the family to Texas. It proved to be a good decision as Sharp became an icon of the oil business.
Like many young men at the time, Sharp was on his own by the time he was 16, and a couple of years later, he was working as a water well driller near Dallas. With his experience in drilling, most early oil well drillers started with water wells, he headed to Beaumont, Tex., in 1893. He contracted to drill in the salt dome formation called Spindletop Hill Gladys City Oil and Gas Manufacturing Company. By the time his shaft 418 feet, the expense of drilling through the soft, quick sand exhausted his savings, about $3,000. The location he drilled was only 30 yards from the spot where the big gusher later came in.
Eight years later that location paid off with the largest gusher in the U.S., the Lucas gusher, which hit at 1,139 feet. The discovery lead to the oil boom that transformed Texas from a rural one to the resource rich producer we know today. The Spindletop find in southeastern Texas spurred a rapid expansion of oil development across the state.
Sharp’s failure in 1893 left him penniless, and, rather than ask for help, he walked from Beaumont back to Dallas, 300 miles. Where he raised enough money to return to east Texas and drill shallow wells. In 1895, he made a small discovery of oil in the Sour Lake area north of Spindletop, and in 1896, he built a small refinery to process his oil.
Sharp was one the first drillers in Corsicana, where he developed a method of drilling with fluid mud to prevent the drill shaft from collapsing, the problem that bankrupted him at Spindletop. He perfected the drilling method, and the improvements lead to the deep drilling success at Spindletop. Sharp brought his brother, James, into the business while in Corsicana, and also became lifelong friends with J. S. Cullinan.
Sharp missed the 1901 Lucas gusher by a few weeks, and he arrived in Beaumont without enough capital to acquire his own lease. He convinced a Dallas friend, Ed Prather, to join him in Beaumont. The two built a business trading oil leases and doing contract oil drilling. Prather and Sharp joined with Howard Hughes to form Moonshine Company. Sharp was one of the founding partners, with Cullinan, Thomas Donoghue and Arnold Schlaet, of the Texas Fuel Company, later known as Texaco (now a part of Chevron).
In 1905, Sharp organized Producers Company, which became a production subsidiary of Texas Company, and he drilled a large find in Sour Lake. That discovery became Texas Company’s first big producer, and allowed the company to expand. Sharp had a knack for finding oil, though sometimes the drilling was difficult.
In 1907, after Hughes and Sharp were stymied by hard rock in drilling attempts they knew a different drill bit was needed. Hughes formed a company, funded by Sharp and Cullinan, that developed the Hughes-Sharp Rock Bit. The Sharp-Hughes Tool Company became a primary supplier of oil field tools. When Sharp died on Nov. 28, 1912, his widow, Estelle, sold Hughes the shares she inherited. Howard Hughes Jr. inherited the company when his father died in 1924.
Sharp had three children with Estelle, including Dudley Crawford Sharp, who was Secretary of the Air Force under President Dwight Eisenhower.