De Soto to Spindletop: How oil birthed modern Houston
The Lucas gusher sprang from a hunch by one-armed wildcatter with a wild past
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.”
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.
Patillo Higgins was a self-taught geologist from Beaumont. An oil well fire burns at Spindletop in 1902.
Derricks sprang up all over Spindletop Hill after the 1901 gusher.
Curt, left, and Alfred Hamill were drillers at the Lucas Gusher. They enjoyed legendary status after Spindletop.
Anthony F. Lucas leased the land from Patillo Higgins.