Spindletop: The Gusher That Launched The Oil Industry

Jan 25, 2021 0 comments

Although the modern oil industry is said to have begun with the drilling of the first oil well by Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania, it was the discovery of oil at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas, that pushed the world into the age of crude oil. The exact date when this happened is January 10, 1901.

That day, an enormous geyser of oil exploded from a drilling site at Spindletop Hill coating the landscape with a thick slimy mess for hundreds of feet. Nobody had seen a gusher so powerful and so plentiful before. Soon a booming oil industry grew around Beaumont, and America’s oil production tripled overnight. Petroleum that was previously used only as a lubricant and in place of kerosene in lamps became the main fuel source for trains and ship, and new inventions such as automobiles and airplanes.

Lucas gusher of Spindletop Hill

The Lucas gusher of Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, blowing thousand of barrels of oil in the air on January 1901.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Texas had a rural economy revolving around agriculture, cattle ranching and lumber. Oil production was insignificant, representing just one percent of the total national output. However, the fact that there was a substantial reserve of oil somewhere beneath Texas was apparent. People knew about oil in the area for hundreds of years. In the mid-16th century, the Spanish used oil from seeps near Sabine Pass for caulking their ships. Settlers near Nacogdoches used seeping oil as lubricants before 1800. The first attempt at drilling was made just after the Civil War at a place called Sour Lake. In the later years, numerous discoveries were made in east and central Texas, especially at Corsicana in 1896.

In the early 1890s, Patillo Higgins, a one-armed mechanic and lumber merchant became convinced that there was oil to be found under a hill called Spindletop near the town of Beaumont in southeast Texas. Higgins had noticed gas bubbling up from numerous little springs on the hill, which he tried to light and they immediately caught fire. He even bought a book on geology and taught himself everything he needed to know about oil formation and exploration. In 1892, he organized the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company, and tried unsuccessfully to drill, until he ran out of money. Higgins pleaded for funds, but geologists declared that there was no oil under Spindletop, and that Higgins was a fool and so was anybody who invested in Higgin’s stupid dream. Higgin's responded by siphoning a couple of gallons of gas from the hill and burning it in a lamp at his home. But people only ridiculed him.

Patillo Higgins (L) and Captain Anthony F. Lucas

Patillo Higgins (L) and Captain Anthony F. Lucas (R)

In a last act of desperation, Higgins placed an advertisement in a magazine seeking a partner. Only one man replied—he was Captain Anthony F. Lucas, an experienced geologist who knew a lot about salt domes, which Spindletop was one.

Lucas stuck a deal with Higgins, leasing the track of land from the latter and commenced his own drilling operation. But when Lucas too ran out of money, he approached John Galey and James Guffey, the country’s most successful wildcatters. Galey and Guffey agreed to help finance the drilling, but Lucas would get only one-eight of the share. Higgins, on the other hand, would get nothing, unless Lucas split his own share.

Galey, who had an uncanny ability to find oil, went to inspect the hill one morning accompanied by Lucas’s wife (Lucas being out of town), drove a stake on the ground next to a bubbling little spring and declared to Mrs. Lucas, “Tell that Captain of yours to start that first well right here. And tell him that I know he is going to hit the biggest oil well this side of Baku”

 John Galey and James Guffey

John Galey (L) and James Guffey (R)

Drilling began in the autumn of 1900. The drillers fought their way through hundreds of feet of quicksand that had frustrated all previous efforts. At around 870 feet, just as Higgins had predicted and Galey had confirmed, oil began to show, but this oil-sand layer was too soft and fine, and the technology was not refined enough to recover oil from such a slush. The drillers decided to continue drilling, and at approximately 1,100 feet, they struck an enormous pocket of oil. At first, mud began to bubble with great force from the well. In a matter of seconds, the immense pressure within the well shot the 6-ton drill pipe out of the ground and up through the derrick, knocking off the top. Then there was silence. The drillers, who had scattered away for their lives, approached the well gingerly to find the derrick in a terrible mess, with debris and mud six inches deep on the derrick floor. As they started to clean the mud away, the well began to rumble and mud began to erupt again in a deafening roar, followed by gas and finally green, heavy oil. The geyser of oil blew over 150 feet up in the air, twice the height of the derrick itself.

Spindletop gusher

The historic Lucas oil well gusher at Spindletop, Beaumont, Texas, 1901. Photo: University of Texas Arlington Libraries

For the next nine days the well flowed at a unprecedented rate of 100,000 barrels a day, far more than any oil producing well in America. As a matter of fact, the Spindletop gusher was producing more oil than all of the oil wells in the United States combined. Nobody had seen anything like this before, except perhaps in Baku, in Azerbaijan.

When news of the discovery flashed across the nation, there was a mad scramble for leases. Land prices rose exponentially. Land that sold for $10 an acre went for as much as $900,000. By June there were a dozen successful oil wells on Spindletop, and by the end of 1902, there were over 200 wells jammed on the hilltop owned by at least a hundred different companies, many of them drilling on postage-stamp-sized sites. While many of these companies went bust before the year was over, others managed to gain a strong foothold over the oil market and went on to become major corporates with a global presence. These companies include, Texas Company (later Texaco), Gulf Oil Corporation, Sun Oil Company, Magnolia Petroleum Company, and Humble (later Exxon), to name a few.

Spindletop Oil Field

Spindletop Oil Field in 1902. Photo: Texas Energy Museum

The town of Beaumont itself swelled from 10,000 to more than 50,000 in a matter of months. Nearly one-third of these were living in tents on the hill. Surrounding the hill, many shacks, saloons, gambling houses and whorehouses sprang up to serve the various needs of the rowdy population. According to one estimate, Beaumont drank half of all whiskey consumed in Texas in those early months.

In its first year, Spindletop produced more than 3.5 million barrels of oil; 17.4 million on its second year. Spindletop utterly destroyed the monopoly held by John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, as the center of the oil industry shifted from Pennsylvania and Appalachia to Texas. Spindletop’s oil also ushered in the new era of fuel oil. However, this was not by design but rather the unintended consequence of the fact that Texas oil was of such poor quality that it could not be made into kerosene. So it primarily went for heat, power and locomotion. Crude oil became so abundant and cheap, that a host of industries converted from coal to oil overnight, including the Santa Fe Railroad and steamship companies.

Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher

“Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher”, a painting by local artist Arion Arion, commissioned by Higgins’s partner George Washington Carroll. It depicts a lady wearing Grecian drapery reclining on a cloud bank and gazing at a gushing oil well. The painting now hangs in the Tyrell Historical Library, in Beaumont. Photo: Jeff Wilson/Texas Monthly

In the years that followed, Spindletop’s success was repeated many times over in the southeast, along the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. But Spindletop itself couldn’t keep up the momentum for long. Over production caused the underground pressure to give out, and production on Spindletop plummeted to only 10,000 barrels per day. Eventually, the locus of American production moved away from Texas to Oklahoma, where a string of oil discoveries were made, beginning in 1901 and culminating in the discovery of the Glenn Pool Oil Reserve in 1905. By 1906, Oklahoma was producing over half of the region’s total production.

In the late 1920s, Spindletop experienced a second boom when another oil reserve was discovered at deeper depths. In 1927, Spindletop produced its all-time annual high of 21 million barrels. Within five years, 60 million barrels had been produced. Spindletop continued to be profitable until about 1936. From the 1950s to about 1975, Spindletop produced sulphur.

A replica of the Spindletop gusher

A crowd watches the replica Lucas gusher right off Highway 69 in Beaumont, Texas, blowing water hundreds of feet into the sky at the same rate oil blew in on that famous day in January of 1901. Photo: Beaumont CVB

To commemorate the importance of the development of Spindletop oilfield, a pink granite monument was erected in 1941 near the site of the Lucas gusher. But decades of extraction of oil and suplhur caused the ground to subside, and the monument was moved to the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum at the Lamar University campus at Beaumont, about 1.5 miles south. The museum features a replica of the oil derrick Lucas used to drill at Spindletop that gushes out water from time to time, recreating the historic event of January 10, 1901.

The actual site of the gusher is marked by a flagpole flying the Texas flag.

A replica of the Spindletop gusher

The replica Lucas gusher in Beaumont, Texas. Photo: Mike Towber/Flickr

A replica of the Spindletop gusher

The gusher in action. Photo: Michael Reed/Flickr

# Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
# Gusher signals start of U.S. oil industry, History.com
# Spindletop History, Lamar University
# Wikipedia


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