A giant 1901 Texas oilfield discovery came as automobiles brought demand for gasoline.
On January 10, 1901, the “Lucas Gusher” on a small hill in Texas revealed the Spindletop oilfield, which would soon produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.
Although the great Galveston hurricane of 1899 (still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history) brought misery to much of southeastern Texas, as the 20th century dawned, an oil discovery three miles south of Beaumont launched the modern oil and natural gas industry.
“Dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher,’ the oil discovery on Spindletop Hill changed the economy of Texas and helped to usher in the petroleum age,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum.
Drilled by Curt Hamill, Capt. Anthony Lucas, and two experienced Pennsylvania oilmen, the well erupted oil for nine days before it could be brought under control with the technology of the time.
Beaumont’s oil museum, dedicated at Lamar University in 1976, preserves the giant field’s history with hundreds of indoor and outdoor exhibits — including a 16-building replica of Gladys City and a 100-foot derrick that can gush a column of water for two minutes.
Museum tours led by volunteer docents explain how drilling at a geologic salt dome created an oil boom far exceeding America’s first oil discovery in 1859 in Pennsylvania. The discovery at Spindletop Hill in Texas arrived at a key time for the U.S. petroleum industry.
As consumers replaced their kerosene lamps in favor of electricity, they would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product, gasoline for their automobiles (the first U.S. auto show took place in New York City two months before the Spindletop gusher).
Also known as the “Lucas Gusher” after Captain Anthony F. Lucas, a mining engineer “who drilled on a hill,” the oilfield produced 3.59 million barrels in its first year and an incredible 17.4 million barrels the next. The discovery near the southeastern Texas Gulf Coast defied all predictions.
In addition to advancing petroleum geology (see Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology), the Spindletop field’s oil production would help end John D. Rockefeller’s eastern monopolies in transportation and refining.
In 1936 — fifteen years after Lucas died — the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (founded in 1871) began awarding its Anthony F. Lucas Medal. The medal has been awarded to recognize “distinguished achievements in improving the technique and practice of finding and producing petroleum.”
Prophet of Spindletop
Spindletop created the modern oil and natural gas industry, changed the future of American industry and transportation – and brought many new oilfield technologies.
The discovery well’s story – which popularizes rotary drilling technology – begins more than a decade earlier when the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company is formed by Patillo Higgins. Higgins, a one-armed mechanic and self-taught geologist, is one of the few at the time who believes U.S. industries will soon switch fuels from coal to oil.
Higgins is convinced that the “Big Hill” four miles south of Beaumont has oil — despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. Through the latter half of the 19th century, Pennsylvania remained the most oil-productive state in the country as new technologies for increasing oil production, including “shooting” wells with explosives.
Texas had produced only minor amounts of oil, starting in 1866 with the first Lone Star oil well drilled by Lyne Taliaferro Barret near the East Texas town of Nacogdoches.
Formed over millions of years, the hill near Beaumont resulted from a massive underground dome of salt that eventually moved nearer the surface. Higgins believed drilling a well on top of this salt dome would produce oil, but Texas newspapers and the state’s geologists scorned him (learn more in Prophet of Spindletop).
Nobody believed a salt dome structure would be productive, especially after the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company drilled unsuccessful wells on Spindletop in 1893, 1895 and 1896. Higgins would leave his own venture — but he hired a Croatian mining engineer before he left.
“Lucas Gusher” of 1901
Anthony Lucas (Antun Lucic, born in 1855). Lucas studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, served as a captain in the Austrian navy, and had been a salt miner in Louisiana.
I went to Beaumont, Texas, about seventy miles west of Lafayette. There I was attracted by an elevation, then known locally as Big Hill, although this hill amounted merely to a mound rising only twelve feet above the level of the prairie. This mound attracted my attention on account of its contour, which indicated possibilities for an incipient dome below, and because at the apex of it there were exudations of sulphuretted hydrogen gas. — Capt. Lucas quote from Interviews with Mining Engineers by Thomas Arthur Rickard, 1922.
Lucas contacted famed Pennsylvania oilman John Galey and his partner James Guffey, who had drilled marginally successful wells in nearby Corsicana in 1896. Galey and Guffey had returned to Pennsylvania convinced that there was little future in Texas oil. Galey would have a change of heart.
Galey, who had left the Beaumont area three years earlier, returned to Beaumont, Texas, to survey the area. He picked a spot at Spindletop Hill, and the drilling began on October 27, 1900.
The well proved difficult at the very beginning. With little hard rock at the surface, the drillers had to find ways to drill through several hundred feet of sand, which made the hole prone to caving. To help solve this problem, one of Lucas’s drillers, Curt Hamill, came up with a solution revolutionary at the time, according to the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI).
Instead of pumping water down the hole to flush out the cuttings produced by the action of the drill, Hamill used mud. This helped not only in retrieving the well’s cuttings, but equally important, it was learned that the mud stuck to the sides of the hole and kept it from caving in. Drilling mud has been used in almost every well worldwide ever since.
The “Lucas Gusher” would erupt more than 150 feet into the air after reaching a depth of 1,139 feet. It began flowing at an astounding 100,000 barrels per day. Another petroleum geologic milestone: the well was the first significant discovery of prolific salt dome structures along the Gulf Coast (and offshore).
Given the limited technology, the Lucas well could not brought under control for nine days, losing an estimated 850,000 barrels of oil. A new device — now called a “Christmas Tree” — was invented on the spot to control the flow of oil. Effective technology for preventing blowouts would be invented at a Humble, Texas, workshop and patented in 1926.
The Spindletop field will soon produce more oil in one day than all the rest of the world’s oilfields combined. In its first year alone Spindletop produced 3.59 million barrels of oil — climbing to 17.4 million by its second year. The huge amount of oil causes prices to drop from $2 to less than 25 cents a barrel. Texaco, Gulf, Mobile, Humble and Sun oil companies can trace their roots to the Big Hill.
As fishtail drilling bits gave way to the coned, rotary rock bit and other “making hole” technologies. These Texas petroleum engineering advances would lead the way in helping other oil producing states like California increase production. The movers and shakers of the oil industry in the early 1900s converged on Houston and Tulsa. Both would become known as energy energy capitals worldwide.
The Spindletop discovery affected the entire world, according to Michel T. Halbouty (1909-2004), a highly respected Houston oil producer and historian who in 1952 co-authored Spindletop: the True Story of the Oil Discovery that Changed the World.
“It revived the industrial revolution, which had been dead for a while. It caused the United States to become a world power. It revolutionized transportation through the automobile industry,” Halbouty explained. “It started the Liquid Fuel Age, the greatest age in the history of the world.”
In addition to the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont tells the story of the Spindletop discovery — and today’s role of the petroleum industry in America’s economic development. Learn more about the importance of geologic salt domes in Offshore Petroleum History.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/spindletop-launches-modern-oil-industry. Last Updated: January 7, 2022. Original Published Date: December 31, 2009.