The Prophet of Spindletop

Pattillo Higgins

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

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

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.

The First Oil Well in Texas

Everyone knows about Spindletop, the 1901 oil discovery that changed the world and thrust Texas into the big-time petroleum business. A few people know that in 1895 the city fathers of Corsicana hired an experienced Kansas drilling outfit to increase the town’s much-needed

Tol Barret,
Courtesy East Texas Research Center

water supply. To the chagrin of the politicians, they discovered oil instead and quickly abandoned the well. The story of Tol Barret, who brought in Texas’ first oil well in 1866, slipped under the radar.

Tol Barret House

Texas oilmen are known for strutting about in cowboy boots and living a lavish lifestyle, but Tol Barret doesn’t fit that mold. Even his home located five miles south of Nacogdoches on a pine tree plantation fails to meet the grand standards of the Texas wildcatters.

Barret arrived as a child in deep East Texas and grew up aware that oil seeped into water wells, that hogs wallowing on creek beds got slimy with oil, and he probably knew that a water well in a nearby county caught fire in 1848 and burned for a year—all signs to the self-educated young man that contrary to the opinion of “experts,” oil lay in those pine tree covered hills.

Geologists expected to find oil only on the east coast, and they were proven correct in 1859 when Northwest Pennsylvania produced the first well in the United States. Undeterred Barret leased a tract of land that same year, but lack of equipment and the Civil War interrupted his plan.

Barret Parlor

After serving in the Confederate Army, Barret came home, formed the Melrose Petroleum Oil Company with four other men, and renewed his lease. Mounting an auger that was eight feet long and eight inches in diameter on a tripod, he used a steam engine for drilling and a mule to pull the auger out of the hole. In that primitive fashion, he bored to 106 feet, where, in early fall of 1866 he struck oil. The first Texas oil well produced ten barrels a day.

Auger fastened to a pipe and rotated by a steam-driven cogwheel — the basic principle of rotary drilling.
Am. Oil & Gas Hist. Soc.

Barret rushed to Pennsylvania to secure financing and hired an experienced operator to begin the second well. Barret’s luck began to run out. Oil prices plummeted from $6.59 to $1.35 a barrel, the well didn’t come in as expected at eighty feet, and the driller shut down and headed home.

Meantime, Barret’s home burned and his in-laws gave him a house where he and his wife raised eleven children. Broke and unable to convince Pennsylvania oil operators of the merits of Texas petroleum, Barret gave up. He spent the remainder of his life managing his wife’s farms and a mercantile store in Melrose.

He lived until 1913, long enough to see that he had been correct. An oil boom hit the field in 1887 where Barret had drilled, and the granddaddy of them all, Spindletop, gushed in 1901. Texas, indeed, became the oil capital of the world.