100 years ago a self-taught Texas geologist named Pattillo
Higgins had a vision of the future.
Standing on a low, grassy hill a few miles
south of his hometown, he foresaw a great inland port city
in southeast Texas, bustling with the commerce of shipping,
cattle, agriculture, timber, bricks and factories of all
The catalyst for Higgins' dream was the same
one that has fueled many a dream since, a gut-clenching
inner certainty that he knew where oil in quantities previously
unknown and unimagined could be discovered.
Admittedly, it wasn't a mainstream idea.
Industry and modern transportation ran almost
completely on coal. Oil was used only for lighting and lubrication.
Higgins, however, could see the vast advantages
of oil over other energy sources and believed it would revolutionize
American industry -- so he tried for years to interest others
in the prospect, and he even organized a company and purchased
But when it came to drilling a well...
His business partners were only half committed
to the idea.
Formally trained geologists, steeped in the
prejudices of their time, dismissed his ideas as impossible
Both the feasibility of the venture he proposed
and his personal honesty were questioned in his hometown
And when he finally convinced his backers
to hire a drilling crew, the technology of the day proved
By 1898, financial difficulties finally had
forced him to relinquish most of his interest in the hill,
and his dream of a model industrial center for the South
began to fade. His one consolation was that he had been
able to find one other man, Capt. Anthony F. Lucas, who
believed in the hill as much as he did.
Lucas, an experienced mining engineer, met
with many of the same problems that Higgins had, and by
late 1900 his personal funds were almost depleted as well.
But he had been able to secure the services of capable drilling
contractors, the Hamill brothers of Corsicana, Texas, and
on the morning of Jan. 10, 1901, the little hill south of
Beaumont began to tremble, and mud bubbled up over the rotary
A low rumbling sound came from underground,
and then, with a force that shot six tons of four-inch pipe
out over the top of the derrick, knocking off the crown
block, the Lucas Gusher roared in and Spindletop, history's
most famous oil field, was born.
A six-inch stream of green-black oil spouted
more than 100 feet over the top of the derrick, spilling
by later estimates over 100,000 barrels of oil per day.
That one well was producing more oil than all the other
wells in the United States combined.
Probably no more than a handful there recognized
that the events in that little corner of Texas marked a
significant turning point in world history.
Former AAPG President Michel T. Halbouty,
a native of Beaumont, recorded the story of the great oil
field in 1951, when he and boyhood friend James A. Clark,
now deceased, co-authored the book Spindletop to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the landmark discovery. The book's
foreword summarized the impact that Higgins, Lucas and the
army of wildcatters that rose up out of Spindletop had on
the oil industry, the nation and the world:
"There and then America was blessed with
the supply of energy and the incentive to move up from a
secondary position in world affairs to that of undisputed
"Before Spindletop oil was used for lamps
and lubrication. The famous Lucas gusher changed that. It
started the liquid fuel age, which brought forth the automobile,
the airplane, the network of highways, improved railroad
and marine transportation, the era of mass production and
untold comforts and conveniences."
The Legacy Continues
For years, Halbouty has been proud to proclaim
how the legacy of those days continues. Analogies can be
drawn between then and now, but sharp disparities also exist.
"There was a tremendous amount of money made
because of Spindletop," he said, "but more was lost. Eighty
million dollars were invested in it, but only $50 million
came out. That was because of all the wild speculation that
went on, with absolutely no controls whatsoever. There was
"But there was an awful lot besides money
that came out of Spindletop," Halbouty said. "It was the
beginning of several companies that became the giants of
the industry -- The Texas Co., Gulf Oil, Cities Service,
and really, Humble Oil Co., a forerunner of Exxon USA. Then
there were some very important smaller companies, like Pan
American and Amoco, that got their start, too."
Independents also came into their own with
the vindication of the theory of salt domes forming traps
Scientific method began to replace "creekology"
and other antiquated misconceptions on how to find oil.
Prior to the discovery, Higgins talked with one geologist
who believed an underground vein of oil drained out of the
Rocky Mountains and pooled in a great oil lake in Texas.
Another geologist condemned his efforts,
saying oil could be found only in proximity to hard rock.
In every way, on both the personal as well
as the global level, the world was never the same after