1973: NEDERLAND'S DIAMOND JUBILEE AND SMITHS BLUFF REFINERY'S GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
By Mrs. Marie Rienstra Fleming
The year 1973 has been a banner year for anniversaries, indeed a year for celebrations!
Nederland, Texas, is now seventy-five years old, and the Unocal refinery at Smith's Bluff, formerly Pure Oil Company, came into existence fifty years ago. The city and the refinery have grown to maturity together, and each has been extremely good and vital to the other, each nurturing the other.
The Smith's Bluff Refinery and the City of Nederland, Texas, seemed destined by some stroke of fate to come together at the same location because, according to some sources, both of them almost missed being situated in the exact location where each is today. The story is told that Arthur Stilwell, president of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, instructed his general land agent, Jacques Tutein-Nolthenius, to purchase right-of-way in the most direct line possible to build the railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. This would have brought the railroad through Lake Charles, and on to Cameron, at the mouth of the Calcasieu River, in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. Several persons who owned the land in Cameron Parish stubbornly refused to sell to the agent, and, although a main line was built to Lake Charles, the railroad was rerouted from Dequincy, La. into Texas and on to Port Arthur. Had this not happened, the Dutch colony in Nederland would have come into being in Cameron Parish, Louisiana.
The Smiths Bluff Refinery had a similar story at its beginning. When Pure Oil Company was looking for land on the Neches River to locate their refinery, they encountered negotiation difficulties with Mrs. Flora Staffen, a farm widow who owned more than 300 acres of land on the river. After Pure Oil land agents made three unsuccessful attempts to buy her property, each time increasing their offer from $250 to $500 an acre, the agents gave up and were preparing to seek a site in Houston. Two men, A. L. Brooks and Rev. Warner Hassler, began contacting business men in the area, telling them what an opportunity would be lost to Jefferson County if something were not done immediately. Within a few hours, enough money was raised to buy Mrs. Staffen a Studebaker car. This was the extra inducement she was asking, in addition to the $500 an acre offered for the land. The deal was then closed, and preparation for the building of the refinery was set in motion.
(Ed.'s Note: With the author's permission, the editor cannot resist confirming both of these stories because he is so close to the stories through kinship. The editor's mother, who was Mrs. Jane Staffen by her first marriage, was the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Flora Staffen, who owned the land where Unocal is today. Again, the editor's mother, who was Mrs. Jane Block by her second marriage, was living in Cameron Parish, Louisiana when the Kansas City Southern Railroad was laying trackage south from Shreveport, La. in 1894-1895. Jacques Tutein-Nolthenius, a Dutchman sent over by the Amsterdam bankers to hold a number of railroad positions, was vice president of the roadroad's financial subsidiary, the Missouri, Kansas, Texas Trust Company, as well as an early trustee of Port Arthur Land Company, who signed Nederland's earliest deed records. In 1895, he was also general land agent of Kansas City Southern Railroad, who rode horseback a few miles ahead of the track-builders, buying up right-of-way. After buying up land all the way to Lake Charles, he started south into Cameron Parish, Louisiana, only to be told to "keep his iron horses out of Cameron Parish." Jane Block's maternal uncle, Phineas Smith, was a cattleman and Cameron Parish clerk of court, and her paternal uncle, John W. Sweeney, was also a cattleman and sheriff of Cameron Parish. They and others did not want the locomotives scaring their cattle. In the face of so much opposition, Tutein-Nolthenius turned westward and came to Texas. Believe it or not, a major source of Nederland and Kansas City Southern Railroad history is written in Dutch and is unknown in the United States. Nolthenius returned to Holland and published his journal in Haarlem in 1902, titled Nieuwe Wereld: Indrukken en Aanteekeningen Tijdens Eene Reis Door De Vereenigde Staten Van Noord Amerika.)
Nederland's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated throughout the year of 1973. The principal celebration, however, took place March 14 through 18 of 1973. Never have the citizenry of Nederland been so festive, so enthusiastic or as totally involved. After months of planning and preparation, the celebration unfolded with great fanfare, beautiful weather, and events so varied that there was something to appeal to everyone.
A giant fireworks display on the Wednesday night of that week set the mood for the fun days ahead. On Thursday night, a pageant highlighting the history of Nederland was presented. On Friday night, an oldtimers' dinner was held, honoring those who had lived in Nederland for fifty years or more. Tex Ritter, of the County Music Hall of Fame and a former resident of Nederland, was Master of Ceremonies. Many residents of yesteryear returned to Nederland to renew old friendships. Some came from as far away as California, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Also among those in attendance for this occasion was Mrs. Russel L. Vernor, the widow of the longtime first superintendent of Pure Oil Company's Smiths Bluff Refinery.
Saturday was the day of the celebration's big street parade! The float which carried the twenty-three princesses, one of whom was crowned queen that night, was furnished by Union Oil Company of California (successor to Pure Oil Company). Their beautifully-designed entry was elegant in every respect, especially in it simplicity, and the float "walked off" with the first prize for parade entries.
Many events filled up the several days of celebration. There were also a street dance, a downtown carnival, a flea market, many concession stands, art shows, a fashion show, outdoor boat show, horse show, and an exhibition of the Silver Eagles, America's only military helicopter drill team.
The coronation pageant was held on Saturday night, followed by the Queen's Ball. Lovely Kristi Beach was crowned Queen of the Diamond Jubilee, having been chosen from a field of twenty-three princesses. Kristi is the daughter of Roger C. Beach and Mrs. Elaine Beach. Mr. Beach is superintendent of refinery operations at Smith's Bluff Refinery.
In 1898, seventy-five years ago, Nederland was little more than an idea or plan, with only a handful of buildings along present-day Boston as proof of that plan. The first deed for a land purchase in Nederland was executed on July 17, 1897, for eighty acres of land at $10 an acre, sold to George Rienstra, who became the first settler in Nederland. Rienstra was joined in the next twelve months by many additional immigrants from Holland. The original idea was to make Nederland a Dutch colony; however, while many Dutch were coming to the town, there were also many people moving to the area from other parts of Texas and especially from the Mid-central States. Beginning in 1897, the Kansas City Southern Railroad ran free excursion trains from Kansas City, carrying prospective land buyers to Port Arthur and Nederland, and many early Nederland settlers, such as Ed Rockhill and S. R. Carter, arrived via that means.
The influence of the eruption of the Lucas gusher at Spindletop was quickly felt by Nederland as well as all of Jefferson County. Spindletop loosed a horde of 'boomers' and roughnecks into Nederland to patronize the saloons and live at the Orange Hotel, and although their presence did provide additional flow of cash money in town, their way of life soon came into cultural conflict with that of the Dutch immigrants and rice farmers of Nederland, threatening its very stability. In those early days of the 1900s, Nederland resembled a small western town not unlike the "old wild west" of the movie screens. The streets were little more than cow trails, with rivers of mud constantly paddled by the wagon wheels and horse shoes, and in dry weather, there were deep chug holes and dust in the dirt roads. Three open saloons, street brawls, and even murders were the order of the day, which eventually led to local option in 1909 to drive the saloon element out of town. Mosquitoes also were a major problem to both human and animal habitation. In the rice fields, women wore old newspapers wrapped around their limbs, even under ankle-length skirts. Smudge or smoke pots were often used to drive off mosquitoes and provide much needed relief for livestock.
Many Dutch as well as native settlers became discouraged and moved elsewhere or back to Holland. The depression of 1906 and the collapse of the rice market spawned their migration elsewhere. Some of the Dutch who moved away came back, discovering that life in Nederland was better than life where they had moved to. Great admiration, respect, and credit is due to those who had the courage and determination to stay and overcome the hardships and adversities encountered in those early days.
Culminating several years of planning, the Chamber of Commerce, with the assistance of the entire community, erected a Dutch Windmill Museum in 1969. The blueprints were obtained in Holland, and the construction of it duplicated an authentic Dutch windmill as may be found in The Netherlands. The windmill is dedicated to all those who have contributed to the building and betterment of our community.
Today (1973) the City of Nederland has a population in excess of 17,500. Nederland is primarily a residential community; however, almost any type of commodity or service is readily available within its boundaries. The church, school, and city facilities are beautiful, modern, and functional enough to meet the needs of most every aspiring resident. The present mayor of Nederland (1973) is Tom E. Lee, Jr., who is supervisor of the grease plant at Smiths Bluff Refinery.
In celebrating the fifty years of history of Smiths Bluff Refinery, it seems fitting to return to the beginning and present a thumb-nail sketch of events leading up to the present sophisticated plant now in operation. Before any consideration was even given to refining operations there, Pure Oil Company bought a one-quarter interest in Colonel Albert Humphreys' Mexia, Powell, and Currie, Texas oil fields, and together they built a shipping terminal at Smiths Bluff in 1921. This site was chosen for a refinery in 1923 because it was the highest point along the Gulf Coast that had available river transportation---fourteen feet above sea level.
On April 5, 1923, the first stake was driven to mark the layout, and the first ground was broken for the foundations of the new refinery stills. R. L. Vernor and J. H. "Jim" Heslar were in charge of construction. Vernor became the first plant superintendent and Heslar became a maintenance foreman. Six hundred men were employed on the construction of the 15,000 barrel a day refinery. This represented the first significant payroll that Nederland enjoyed, and is still the source of income for over three hundred Nederland families. (Ed.'s Note: All refining operations at Smiths Bluff ceased in 1989 and 1990. Only a handful of caretakers remain employed there in 1991.)
In early December of 1923, three months ahead of schedule, the first fires were stoked under the "shell stills." At that time, the refinery consisted of the warehouse, machine shop, office, laboratory, boiler house, water reservoir, eight 1,000-barrel shell stills, tube stills Nos. 1, 2, and 3, twenty-six "cross-cracking" or cross-distillation stills, compressor house, pump house, agitators, and a large battery of working and storage tanks for crude and refined products.
This was the beginning of the plant, and most of the afore-named stills were declared obsolete and were torn down by the mid-1930s. Around 1936-1937, the first modern stills, the Lummus CHP-1 and CHP-2 units, were built, followed by the polymerization, or "poly plant," in 1940, and the 225-foot TCC "cat cracker" (thermofor catalytic cracking unit) in 1942. Between 1945 and 1953, Lummus, M. W. Kellogg Co and the R. Parsons Company, all of them refining unit builders, were almost in semi-permanent residence at Smiths Bluff, while building the modern units in use there today. In 1956, the catalytic reforming unit, utilitizing a platinum-type catalyst, was completed to round out the refinery's high-octane modernization program. Employment reached its peak in 1949 when 1,040 permanent employees were on the plant payroll. In subsequent years, the modern grease and lubricant units and the packaging plant were built on the river end of the refinery until eventually more than 1,000 forms of oils and greases could be produced in the ultra-modern facilities. The daily refining capacity is about 110,000 barrels. It is a rare day when no tank or barge is docked at Union Oil's modern shipping terminal on the Neches River.
Other than R. L. Vernor, four other men have served in the plant superintendent's capacity up until 1973, as follows: Jack Allen, Clif W. Cooper, Glenn Burk, and Robert A. Campbell.
It is impossible to name all of those who have contributed so much to the growth and success of Smiths Bluff Refinery during the fifty year span. Even as their influence was felt throughout the refinery, it likewise carried over and spread out in the community. Many from the ranks of both labor and management have made great contributions to the growth and development of Nederland.
Congratulations to Nederland on its seventy-five years of progress and growth, fifty years of which have been shared with Smiths Bluff Refinery, which also has made a marked contribution to the success and economy of the City of Nederland and Nederland School District. To Queen Kristi Beach----have a very happy reign for the next twenty-five years--Marie Rienstra (Mrs. Jack) Fleming