De Soto to Spindle­top: How oil birthed mod­ern Hous­ton

The Lu­cas gusher sprang from a hunch by one-armed wild­cat­ter with a wild past

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HOUSTON THE CITY THAT COULD - By Jor­dan Blum

In his reckless youth, Pat­tillo Hig­gins shot up an AfricanAmer­i­can church and killed a sher­iff’s deputy. Later in life, af­ter find­ing Jesus, he mar­ried his adopted teenage daugh­ter.

In be­tween, the one-armed spec­u­la­tor helped launch the Texas en­ergy boom 115 years ago with his stead­fast be­lief that an epic gusher lay be­neath Spindle­top Hill near Beau­mont.

Hig­gins, ar­guably the fa­ther of the Texas oil rush, is just one of a long list of risk-takers who helped trans­form Hous­ton from a bur­geon­ing tim­ber and port town into the en­ergy cap­i­tal of the world, home to thou­sands of com­pa­nies that find, pro­duce, re­fine and trans­port fu­els that drive the global econ­omy.

“Spindle­top is the birth­place of the mod­ern oil in­dus­try,” said Tyler Priest, a for­mer University of Hous­ton en­ergy his­to­rian now at the University of Iowa. “It’s kind of hard to un­der­state the im­por­tance in Hous­ton and Texas.”

The his­tory of oil in Texas, how­ever, starts long be­fore Hig­gins and Spindle­top, reach­ing back to the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors. Some his­to­ri­ans trace the ini­tial U.S. oil dis­cov­ery to the Texas Gulf Coast in 1543, when the sur­vivors of the Her­nando de Soto ex­pe­di­tion were forced ashore be­tween the Sabine Pass and Galve­ston while flee­ing to Mex­ico City. They found oil seep­ages sim­i­lar to as­phalt that they used to re­pair the bot­toms of their boats en route to the Span­ish colony.

Ori­gins of Texas oil

In the 1700s, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and Euro­pean set­tlers saw oily sub­stances mak­ing their way to the sur­face in places such as Sour Lake and Saratoga in nearby Hardin County. A rudi­men­tary re­sort area even sprung up in the mid-19th cen­tury at Sour Lake, where it was be­lieved the sul­phurous wa­ter had medic­i­nal pur­poses. “They trav­eled from far and wide to heal bat­tle wounds and skin dis­eases,” C.A. Warner wrote about Sour Lake in his 1939 book, “Texas Oil & Gas Since 1543.”

As thou­sands sought cures at the Sour Lake re­sort, the 1859 Drake well dis­cov­ery in Penn­syl­va­nia sparked the na­tion’s first rush for oil, which, in the days be­fore elec­tric lights, was re­fined into kerosene for mil­lions of Amer­i­can lamps. In Texas, how­ever, ex­ten­sive oil ex­plo­ration had to wait un­til af­ter the Civil War.

The first suc­cess­ful oil well in Texas is cred­ited to Lyne “Ly­nis” Bar­ret who grew up near Nacog­doches in East Texas and for years saw signs of oil in the spring wa­ter near his child­hood home. His ex­plo­ration ef­forts were cut off by the Civil War.

Af­ter serv­ing as a cap­tain in the Con­fed­er­ate Army, he re­turned home and used a rudi­men­tary form of ro­tary drilling in 1866 to com­plete a well that pro­duced about 10 bar­rels of oil a day. But in­vestors’ eyes were fo­cused on Penn­syl­va­nia and Bar­ret ran out of money. Decades later, af­ter re­turn­ing to the mer­can­tile busi­ness, he watched oth­ers get rich by pump­ing oil in the same area.

The next Texas mile­stone came in 1894 in Cor­si­cana, where the town was drilling for wa­ter and found oil mix­ing in with its po­ten­tial drink­ing-wa­ter sup­ply. The dis­cov­ery quickly turned into Texas’ first mini-oil boom. Cor­si­cana brought in Penn­syl­va­nia oil vet­eran Joseph Cul­li­nan, who had worked at John D. Rock­e­feller’s Stan­dard Oil, to con­struct Texas’ first fullscale re­fin­ery. His com­pany later be­came part of the Mag­no­lia Pe­tro­leum Corp. and, even­tu­ally, Mo­bil Oil.

More than a fool’s folly

At the turn of the cen­tury, Hous­ton was still a small city of 45,000, but grow­ing into a cen­ter of cot­ton, tim­ber, and fi­nance con­nected to the rapidly in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing na­tion by rail­road.

“Hous­ton was al­ways go­ing to be the ma­jor city (in the re­gion),” said Joe Pratt, an oil his­to­rian at University of Hous­ton. “Then, Spindle­top and all those oil dis­cov­er­ies just spurred that growth.”

In Beau­mont, Patillo Hig­gins had de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for pulling pranks and ha­rass­ing African-Amer­i­cans, ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans.

In 1881, when Hig­gins was 17, police re­sponded af­ter he and friends shot into a church with peo­ple inside. Hig­gins shot and killed a deputy city mar­shal. In the gun­fight, Hig­gins took a bul­let in the arm, which was am­pu­tated, from the dy­ing mar­shal.

He pleaded self-de­fense at his trial, ar­gu­ing he couldn’t tell it was a deputy in the dark, and was ac­quit­ted. He found God four years later at a Bap­tist re­vival meet­ing, be­com­ing a tee­to­taler and Sun­day school teacher.

“Hig­gins was a real Texas bad boy and prankster,” said Ellen Rien­stra, a his­to­rian who co-au­thored “Spindle­top: The Sleep­ing Giant” about the ori­gins of the Texas oil in­dus­try. “But, not long af­ter, he found the Lord and be­came as adamant a Chris­tian as he’d been a bad boy be­fore.”

Hig­gins went into brick-mak­ing and trekked to Penn­syl­va­nia to re­search its man­u­fac­tur­ing plants. While there, he also

ex­am­ined the type of ge­o­log­i­cal ar­eas where oil was found and be­came con­vinced that crude lurked be­neath the sul­furous Spindle­top Hill near Beau­mont. Hig­gins formed Gla­dys City Oil com­pany in 1892 to prove his theory, but the drilling ef­forts at Spindle­top were de­feated by quick­sand that kept col­laps­ing the wells.

In 1899, Hig­gins placed a trade jour­nal ad to find a drilling part­ner. It caught the eye of An­thony Lu­cas, a Croa­t­ian­born min­ing en­gi­neer who was ex­plor­ing salt mines in Louisiana and had the­o­rized that oil and salt de­posits were ge­o­graph­i­cally linked along the Gulf Coast.

Lu­cas joined Hig­gins, but they still failed to strike oil. Fresh out of fund­ing, Lu­cas made a last-ditch pitch to Pitts­burgh oil fi­nanciers James Guffy and John Ga­ley, who de­cided to back him. There was one catch, though. Hig­gins was out of the deal.

The new part­ners hired Al and Curt Hamill, who had drilled wells in Cor­si­cana. The broth­ers in­jected mud into the well as they drilled, sta­bi­liz­ing it as they ex­plored deeper and deeper. Then, on Jan. 10, 1901, af­ter reach­ing 1,160 feet, they stopped to change drilling bits. Mo­ments later, at 10:30 a.m., the well broke loose and the Lu­cas gusher was born, spew­ing about 800,000 bar­rels of oil over nine days be­fore the well was capped.

“There’s a scale that we’d never seen — that pho­to­graph of oil gush­ing over the derrick for al­most 10 days,” Pratt said. “It was pretty stun­ning com­pared to any­where else through­out the world.” Big news

The dis­cov­ery re­ver­ber­ated around the world and thou­sands of peo­ple flocked to Beau­mont, in­clud­ing Cul­li­nan, who formed the Texas Fuel Com­pany, which later be­came Tex­aco, and other founders of early pe­tro­leum giants such as Hum­ble Oil, Gulf Oil and Sun Oil. Pro­duc­tion quickly moved to Hous­ton, where com­pa­nies could find fi­nanc­ing to ex­plore new fields and rail­roads to move crude to re­finer­ies and fuel to cus­tomers.

The tim­ing for the city was im­pec­ca­ble. With mass pro­duc­tion of au­to­mo­biles un­der­way, the preva­lence of Texas oil and Henry Ford’s gaso­line-pow­ered Model T “sealed the deal” for gaso­line as the source of trans­porta­tion power, in­stead of elec­tric­ity or steam, Pratt said.

Among those who had raced to Spindle­top was a Hous­ton Post ed­i­tor and re­porter, Mar­cel­lus Foster, who went to cover the story of the gusher. He quickly made money off his own Spindle­top in­vest­ment and used it to found the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle, which first pub­lished on Oct. 14, 1901.

As for Hig­gins, he struck oil on ad­ja­cent Spindle­top land and car­ried a rep­u­ta­tion as a mav­er­ick wild­cat­ter for much of his life. It was Hig­gins’ un­shak­able be­lief in Spindle­top that made Texas syn­ony­mous with oil. And with­out oil, Pratt said. “Hous­ton would’ve been a pros­per­ous, mid-sized cot­ton town.”

Texas En­ergy Mu­seum

Cour­tesy / Paul Fo­er­ster

On Jan. 10, 1901, oil was struck at Spindle­top, cre­at­ing the largest gusher the world had seen and ush­er­ing in the pe­tro­leum age. Spindle­top oil field in 1902.

Texas En­ergy Mu­seum via San An­to­nio Ex­press-News

Texas En­ergy Mu­seum via San An­to­nio Ex­press-News

Patillo Hig­gins was a self-taught ge­ol­o­gist from Beau­mont. An oil well fire burns at Spindle­top in 1902.

Texas En­ergy Mu­seum

Der­ricks sprang up all over Spindle­top Hill af­ter the 1901 gusher.

Tyrell Historical Li­brary

Curt, left, and Al­fred Hamill were drillers at the Lu­cas Gusher. They en­joyed leg­endary sta­tus af­ter Spindle­top.

Texas En­ergy Mu­seum

An­thony F. Lu­cas leased the land from Patillo Hig­gins.

Tyrell Historical Li­brary

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