Prophet of Spindletop
Self-taught geologist Patillo Higgins became known as the “Prophet of Spindletop” a decade after founding his Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company in 1892. He was instrumental in discovering the world-famous Spindletop oilfield at Beaumont, Texas.
“Pattillo Higgins believed that oil lay beneath his feet at Spindletop,” reported the Gladys City Chronicles. “He had a feeling that drilling a well on top of this salt dome (and others like it) would produce oil, and lots of it.”
Higgins was convinced that an area known as “Big Hill” – Spindletop – four miles south of Beaumont, had oil, despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary.
As geologists would soon learn, salt domes are surrounded by oil, and one of the largest was Spindletop Hill, south of Beaumont, notes a local museum.
At age 29, Higgins established one of the earliest of all Texas oil companies – the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company – with three partners on August 24, 1892. He believed the future energy industry would change from coal to oil.
Higgins had noticed oil seeps and gas flares on the hill while taking his Sunday school class on picnics. To get the necessary backing to drill, he approached George W. Carroll, George W. O’Brien, and J.F. Lanier.
Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company leased 2,700 acres in Jefferson County. Their plan was to find oil and use it to develop a model industrial city, which Higgins carefully mapped.
“It was Higgins’ dream to make Gladys City, named for his favorite Sunday school student, Gladys Bingham, a perfect industrial city based on manufacturing and the production of oil,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum.
Although the company drilled wells on Spindletop Hill in 1893, 1895 and 1896 – all were dry holes.
“By 1896, industry experts and Beaumont residents believed Spindletop was worthless and that Higgins was something of a fool,” notes the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). Still believing in hill’s potential, Higgins advertised in search of geologists and engineers.
Anthony Lucas, a Croatian-American mining engineer and an expert on salt-dome formations, responded to one of the advertisements and traveled to Beaumont, TSHA adds. “With the assistance of Higgins, Lucas negotiated a lease on June 20, 1899, with Gladys City to drill on Spindletop.”
However, a series of drilling problems stopped the attempt at a depth of 575 feet, according to historian Robert Wooster. This failure exhausted the last of the partners’ finances.
Lucas contacted experienced drillers John Galey and James Guffey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Guffey, who controlled newly raised funds (investors included Andrew Mellon), excluded Higgins from the new venture.
Lucas brought in the famous gusher on January 10, 1901. His 1,140-foot-deep well on Spindletop Hill flowed uncontrolled for nine days at about 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
Soon known as the “Lucas Gusher,” the new oilfield produced almost 3.6 million barrels in its first year alone. As drilling companies proliferated and drilled wells, the field produced 17.4 million barrels the following year.
Spindletop also brought the first extensive use of rotary drilling technology, replacing many cable-tool rigs. Further, “Christmas trees” of valves to control oil wells became commonplace in the industry after the Lucas Gusher.
Although Higgins had left the company, he wisely retained some leases at Spindletop field. He subsequently formed the Higgins Oil and Fuel Company and then the Higgins Wonder Oil Company, which drilled actively in Chambers, Wilson, Bexar, and Gonzales counties, Texas, in 1916-1918.
Although Lucas received much of the credit, it was Higgins’ determination that Beaumont’s old “Big Hill” or “Sour Hill Mound” would yield oil and his relentless pursuit of it ultimately changed American energy history.
“Call him a dreamer, a visionary, a pioneer or ‘the millionaire’ – the life and exploits of oilman Patillo Higgins are the stuff of legend,” notes the museum of the man who would drill many successful wells before passing away in 1955.
“Besides his ability to locate oil throughout south Texas, Higgins, in the early days of exploration at Spindletop, oversaw the planning for an ‘industrial Utopia’ called Gladys City,” the museum concludes.
Visitors to the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum at Lamar University in Beaumont explore 15 replica buildings filled with objects from the early 20th century depicting life during the oil boom. The Spindletop field will produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined. Texaco, Gulf, Mobile and Sun Oil will trace their roots to Patillo Higgins’ confidence in the Big Hill.
Learn more in Spindletop lauches Modern Petroleum Industry.
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