Patilla Higgins is one of those people that put Texas on the world oil map, and he rarely gets a mention. He came on the scene in the mid-1880s in a brawl with a local deputy marshal that cost Higgins his arm and the marshal his life. Since the scrape occurred after dark, a plea of self-defense got Higgins off the hook. I don’t know how.
Two years later, Higgins got born again at a Baptist revival and gave up forever associating with his wild crowd, swearing, drinking, gambling, and even smoking. Thanks to his new lifestyle, a fellow Baptist and wealthy lumberman, George Carroll, hired Higgins as a buyer of east Texas timberland.
Meantime Higgins began teaching Sunday school, and taking his class on picnics to “Big Hill,” a salt dome rising from the flat prairie land south of Beaumont in southeast Texas. For entertainment, he showed the kids how to punch cane poles into the hillside and light the gas that escaped.
Higgins only attended three or four years of school, but he read extensively and became convinced that despite the “experts’” claims to the contrary, oil lay in abundance under Big Hill. Eventually Higgins convinced Carroll and two others to form the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and hire Higgins as manager. Higgins selected the name “Gladys” in honor of a seven-year-old girl in his Sunday school class. Higgins held such a firm belief that oil waited to be discovered that he drew plans for a model industrial complex named Gladys City adjacent to the future oil field.
The drillers ignored Higgins’ insistence that oil lay at 1,000 to 1,100 feet, which was deep for those days, and they were ready to give up after four dry wells in a row. One man, Anthony Lucas, a mining engineer, continued to believe in Higgins’ theory. Lucas convinced Carroll and his partners to get financial backing from Dick and Andrew Mellon, sons of T. Mellon the Pittsburg banking giant. The $300,000 deal cut Higgins out of the business.
On January 10, 1901, what Anthony Lucas described as a “geyser of oil” blew in on Big Hill. Oil spewed 800,000 barrels over 100 feet above the well for nine days before it could be capped. Spindletop ushered in the petroleum age, and people stopped laughing at Patillo Higgins. In fact, he gained respect from the community. Anthony Lucas, however, became the hero.
Patillo Higgins did not tuck tail and run. He managed his own lease. Six more gushers blew in before April 18 when a well came in on Higgins’ land. Get-rich-quickers swarmed in from all over the world to make fortunes and lose them again overnight. The derrick floors, which measured seventeen feet across, sat so close together that a person could walk a mile without stepping on solid ground. In the wild scramble to get rich, overproduction caused a decline in two years, and by 1911 the area was a virtual ghost town.
In 1925 production began again at more than 2,500 feet on the south flank of the dome. Oil flowed easily at 5,000 barrels a day bringing another boom. This time speculators did not roar in. A handful of major oil companies controlled the flow. The petroleum industry had grown up.
It is said that Higgins sued Carroll and his partners for $4 million, and settled out of court “satisfied”. He continued as a wildcatter, making and losing fortunes until his death at 92. Some say he ended up one of the wealthiest men in Texas.
As for Gladys City, it developed as a boomtown of frame shanties, not the model city of Higgins’ dreams. Today, Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown, operated by Lamar University, offers a self-guided tour of the grounds and fifteen re-constructed buildings filled with objects from the oil boom era. On January 14 visitors are invited to the Lucas Gusher Celebration. If you clicked on the site, you may have noticed that Higgins’ name isn’t included.