The Prophet of Spindletop

Pattillo Higgins
Wikipedia

Pattillo Higgins is one of those people who put Texas on the world oil map, and he rarely gets a mention. He had a bad reputation as a jokester and troublemaker as he grew up in Beaumont. Blacks often became his target. He was seventeen in 1880 when sheriff’s deputies tried to stop him from harassing blacks. When the fight ended, Higgins had killed a deputy and received a shot in his arm, which led to amputation. At his trial, he pled self-defense and won the case.

Five years later, Higgins became a born-again Baptist at a revival and gave up swearing, drinking, gambling, and smoking. He stopped working with the rough element in lumber camps and began to teach a little girls’ Sunday school class.

He opened his own brick-making business, which led to him investigating the use of gas to power his plant. Despite only four years of schooling, Higgins began an independent study of geologic formations around the country and became convinced that oil lay under Big Hill, a salt dome south of Beaumont that emitted a gas that smelled like Sulphur. He often took his Sunday school class on picnics to the hill and showed them how to punch cane poles into the hill and light the gas that escaped.

Although geologic experts did not believe that oil would be found along the Gulf Coast area, Higgins convinced George Carroll, a fellow Baptist, and two other men to join him in the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company. Higgins served as manager and selected the name “Gladys” in honor of a seven-year-old girl in his Sunday school class. He also planned a model town at the site of the future oil field, which he named Gladys City.

After drilling several dry holes, the experts and citizens of Beaumont decided that the Higgins was a fool and his plan was a failure. Undeterred, he ran an ad in journals throughout the country seeking a geologist. Anthony Lucas, a mining

Anthony Lucas
Wikipedia

engineer and an expert on salt-dome formations, was the only one to answer Higgins’ ad.

When the money ran out, Lucas went to Pennsylvania to secure financing from Andrew Mellon, son of T. Mellon the Pittsburg banking giant. The deal cut Higgins out of the business.

On January 10, 1901, a “geyser of oil” blew in on “Big Hill.” The discovery was called the “Lucas 1.” It spewed 800,000 barrels over one hundred feet above the well for nine days, before it could be capped. Spindletop was born and ushered in the petroleum age. Patillo Higgins finally gained respect from the community, but Anthony Lucas became the hero.

Lucas Gusher
Wikipedia

Patillo Higgins did not suffer in the deal. Six more gushers blew in before Higgins own well came in on April 18. The derrick floors, which measured seventeen feet across, were so close together that a man could walk a mile without stepping on solid ground.

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.

Throughout the years, he continued to support orphan girls, finally adopting fifteen-year-old Annie Jones in 1905 and marrying her three years later when he was forty-five. They had three children.

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 each year, visitors are invited to the Lucas Gusher Celebration. You may have noticed that Higgins’ name isn’t included in the event.

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PHILANTHROPIC MADAM

Mystery surrounds Miss Rita’s early life.  Raised in a prosperous, but unnamed Oregon family in the early 1900s, she left home to dance for a time for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before she joined the vaudeville circuit.  During her first, brief marriage, no one knows why she became a prostitute.

When the Great Depression forced the decline of vaudeville theatres, Miss Rita arrived in Beaumont, the oil city enjoying its second petroleum boom.  She probably knew about the vast wealth in the southeast Texas city from her tours with the vaudeville circuit and from Beaumont’s fame as the locale of Spindletop, the first big oil gusher in 1901 that led to the creation of industry giants like Gulf and Texaco.

Miss Rita rented facilities for her trade from Charles Ainsworth, but soon took a liking to his son Nathaniel.  The couple married and Miss Rita took early retirement.  After several years of financially establishing themselves in Beaumont, Rita and Nathaniel purchased Beaumont’s small Shamrock Hotel.

After Nathaniel died in 1946, Miss Rita sold the Shamrock, and purchased the Dixie Hotel in Beaumont’s thriving red light district. (The Dixie is the white building, second from right)  Employing her knowledge of the prostitution business, she tastefully decorated the Dixie and employed a group of attractive, well-mannered women.  Word spread quickly about her discreet, first-rate establishment.  Some reports claim private entrances allowed customers to enter undetected.

Despite ample competition, business thrived at the Dixie and Miss Rita used her increasing wealth and business sense to make large investments in local real estate.  She also raised her children and even sent her daughter away to a Catholic girl’s school.

Miss Rita became known in the community for her generosity.  She funded little-league teams, supported churches, and even sent a priest through seminary.  Some accounts say the police contacted her when people needed financial help after an accident or some other misfortune.  Miss Rita set aside the third floor of the Dixie for old men who had no place to live. While cheap local hotels charged a dollar a night, Miss Rita charged the men only seven dollars a month, which included their meals.

Finally in 1961, vice and corruption in the red light district reached such a level that a five-man committee conducted three-day televised hearings exposing the sale of liquor to minors, narcotics trafficking, and payoffs to city officials as well as prostitution.  The Dixie closed with all the other facilities.

An IRS investigation resulted in a $100,000 tax bill, forcing Miss Rita to sell all her property except her home and the Dixie.  Apparently she continued her prostitution business out of her home until 1976 when failing health forced her to sell the Dixie to the Gulf Sates Utilities Company who donated it to the Beaumont Heritage Society.

The philanthropic madam moved to Houston to live with her daughter and died in 1978.  Miss Rita’s position in Beaumont’s life earned her a story in a pictorial history of Beaumont. The attached painting “Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher,” by Aaron Arion, belongs to Beaumont’s Tyrell Historical Library.

THE POMPEIIAN VILLA

The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur is a replica of a first century Roman villa complete with the deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. Although it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas Historical Marker, its heyday symbolizes an era of surprising twists and turns.

The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition.  As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions.  Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast.  The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.

Stilwell “believed” his landlocked harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and be a much more profitable locale for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than shipping 1,400 miles to the East Coast.

A “hunch” also kept him from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston.  Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks.  Ocean-going vessels could reach the town that Stilwell modestly named Port Arthur through a freshly dug canal that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.

Three wealthy investors John W. Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. Tragically, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached the terminus.  Apparently Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.

The ambitious businessmen decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for summer cottages.  Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion.  Ellwood built the Pompeiian Villa for $50,000 and then sold it to Hopkins, who wanted the lavish villa for his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ wife and daughters arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas summers.  They refused to step from their carriage.

Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

On January 10, 1901, Sprindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur.  The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Sprindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.

The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the The Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand.  James Hopkins rented his beautiful Villa to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil.  Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for 10 percent of the stock in one of the new oil operations called the Texas Company.  Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years.  When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen.  Oil companies started up and went broke overnight.  Perhaps Craig had not developed his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.

SPINDLETOP

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.