Robert Chesebrough, inventor of Vaseline,, wasn�t the only dreamer that found himself wandering the Pennsylvania oil fields looking for opportunity. John D. Rockefeller looked around and decided that instead of drilling for oil, the people scurrying around Titusville were going to need someone to refine all of that oil. Soon, he was the richest man in the world.
Another dreamer was a one-armed jack-of-all-trades from Texas named Pattillo Higgins. He visited in the early 1880s and noticed the oil and gas seeping from the springs in the area. It reminded him of back home. He had seen something similar near Beaumont at a circular mound called Big Hill. If you are picturing in your mind�s eye a really big hill, your imagination is probably larger than the hill. Big Hill got the name because its elevation is about fifteen feet higher than the flat coastal plain surrounding it.
Locals had known for years that there was something out there around the hill. Spindletop Springs, about a mile from Big Hill, had become sort of a resort area. The �sour wells� produced some strange water. They would sink cypress boxes into the earth to fill them with the water. Some believed the waters had medicinal powers. They drank it and bathed in it. Some swore it killed fleas and dipped their dog in it. Traces of oil left a sheen on the water.
Higgins wasn�t the first person to believe that there was oil in East Texas. The problem was that the technology was not there yet to find and extract the oil. The oil that had been found in Pennsylvania and Ohio was near the surface and in small amounts.
Higgins had heard of a huge gushing oil well in Russia that produced tens of thousands of barrels of oil every few hours. He was absolutely convinced he was going to find the same out at the Big Hill.
Pattillo Higgins, whose nickname was Bud, was involved in timber (the main industry in Beaumont at the time) and real estate. He taught Sunday school. He was a respected citizen, but he had not always been one.
As a teenager he was a fighter, bully and firebug. He lost his left arm in a shootout with a deputy.
Higgins and two of his buddies spent an evening terrorizing black residents with homemade torpedoes and slingshots.
When a deputy, William Patterson, tried to stop them there was a shoot out. Patterson died from two bullet wounds and Higgins lost his arm after infection set into his wounds. He was tried for murder, but was acquitted. It was said his acquittal had more to do that he was a local boy and the deputy was a �yankee� (from up north somewhere) than with his innocence.
It was now 1892 and he had turned his life around. His attention now was to get oil out of the Big Hill.
Professional geologists said there were no oil producing rocks in Texas. Higgins thought they were wrong. He was convinced that if drilling equipment could get down to a depth of about 1,000 feet, it would hit oil. More oil than anyone had ever seen.
On August 10, 1892, he formed the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company. He named the company after one of his Sunday school students, Gladys Bingham. He and his partners bought options on all of the acreage on the hill.
He tried and failed for seven years using several different drillers to find oil on Big Hill. He wasn�t able to drill any deeper than 400 feet. Running out of money, he withdrew from the company and sold off his holdings except for 33 acres on the top of the hill.
He placed an ad in a manufacturing magazine and only received one response. Captain Anthony Lucas was an Austrian mining engineer. He had found oil and sulfur while developing salt mines in the Louisiana salt domes. He answered the ad because he thought that Big Hill might be a salt dome and contain sulfur and oil deposits. He was mostly interested in the sulfur, which is a component of gunpowder and explosives and was in high demand at the time. Lucas leased the land and gave Pattillo Higgins a ten percent interest.
In 1899, Lucas started drilling with a light rotary rig. The device had been developed for water well drilling. Higgins thought the equipment was too light and said so. They drilled to 575 feet and retrieved a few gallons of heavy crude before the pipe collapsed from the gas pressure. Three more boreholes were attempted but failed.
Lucas was now running out of money and sought outside investors. He convinced two Pittsburgh oil prospectors, John H. Galey and his partner James M. Guffey who had successfully brought in the first Texas oil well near Corsicana.
They agreed to invest $300,000 if Lucas would lease all 15,000 acres of the land on and around Big Hill. Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon loaned Guffey the money. This was the beginning of Gulf Oil Corporation.
Lucas brought in the Hamill brothers to drill the fifth hole on Big Hill. They had made a name for themselves in the Corsicana, Texas oilfields which had struck big in 1894. The best wells there produced 50 barrels of oil a day and the field produced a thousand barrels a day. Al and Jim Hamill were originally from Pennsylvania and were recommended to Lucas by Guffey and Galey. They arrived in Beaumont in fall of 1900 and started drilling. They brought in a heavier drilling rig, but still encountered a number of difficulties with all of the different types of soils and rock formations they encountered. They had to create and develop many new techniques on the spot to solve the problems. Many of the techniques are still used, today. They were the first to use drilling mud.
Progress was slow. They spent weeks working long days and they often slept on the rig site.
In early January of 1901, the Hamills hit a gas pocket that started a short-lived blowout. Mud and water spewed over the top of the derrick. They hit a rock formation and had to stop and retool their machinery. They resumed drilling on January ninth.
On the tenth, Al Hamill got up early and went to the train station to pick up a fishtail bit, which was shaped like the tail end of a cast-iron mermaid. He ran into Pattillo Higgins on the way and they stopped and chatted. Higgins had not spent much time at the drill site. He had visited once or twice and had told Curt Hamill about a dream he had once had about derricks on the hill with fluid spewing high into the air. Now, his business dealings were concerned with timberland. They said goodbye and Higgins went on his way to take a look at a timber deal.
Curt Hamill in his book �We Drilled Spindletop,� gave his account of what happened on January 10, 1901:
�On the morning of Jan. 10 we broke through the hard rock into a crevice. Our pipe would go down perhaps two feet into this crevice, but we could not turn or rotate it. We decided that our bit was dull. We pulled the pipe out of the hole and put on a sharp bit.
�We started back down in the hole. I was on the scaffold board, up in the derrick. We had gone back into the hole about 700 feet when the well blew out.
�The first puff hit me and I was blinded by mud and oil. I went to the ladder to climb down,� wrote Hamill.
The rest of the crew jumped off the derrick and ran for their lives. They had cleared the derrick just in time. They looked back to see not only mud and large rocks flying over the top of the derrick, but pipe. All 700 feet of the pipe. Tons of pipe flying out of the hole like missiles in 20-foot sections and hurtling through the air.
The men looked around them and Peck Byrd said, �What are going to do with this damn thing, now?�
The answer soon came.
Curt Hamill recalled, �When the second puff, or blow came, my feet either slipped off the ladder or were kicked off by the volume of oil. I don�t really know how I reached the derrick floor. The oil seemed to fill the derrick. �The rest of the crew had run off the derrick floor, and I could hear them calling me to get off and get into the clear. �My eyes were full of oil and I couldn�t see, but the boys kept hollering at me. I got off the floor some way and made my way to them. �I pulled out my shirt tail and wiped the oil out of my eyes and off my face. I saw then that the pipe had blown completely out of the well and clear over the top of the derrick. It was scattered all over the ground. How I kept from getting hit by that pipe I'll never know. �But the thing that really caught my eye was a solid six-inch stream of oil shooting out of the well and rising more than 100 feet above the derrick.� The roar shook the countryside and the black geyser could be seen for miles. There was still a fire in the boiler, and oil was raining all over it. They rushed to grab buckets of water to douse the fire in order to prevent the whole thing from going up in flames.
Peck Byrd ran to the Lucas home and shouted �It looks like oil!�
Captain Lucas wasn't there. His wife Caroline got on the phone and found him at Mayer's store.
�Something awful has happened,� she shouted. �The well is spouting!�
Lucas drove his carriage to Big Hill like a wild man.
The word spread quickly throughout the town. Some climbed up to the cupola of the courthouse to see the view. Others leapt onto horses and buggies to rush out to Big Hill. By four o'clock there were over 1,000 people there gawking at the gigantic plume of oil and the slick black lake that was forming.
Higgins missed the whole thing.
It took nine days to cap the well, which was gushing at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day.
Within three months, five more gushers came in. These six well produced more oil in one day than the entire world production combined.
Word spread rapidly and thousands of people started pouring into Beaumont. The population of the area quadrupled in a month.
Land speculation boomed. Food, water and housing became a premium. A glass of water cost more than a barrel of oil.
Men slept in barber chairs, on pool tables or on cots in hotel lobbies. Kids would sell their place in line for the bathroom. Farmers would load up their wagons with sightseers and give them the grand tour at $10- $20 a head. Without any real science to predict where oil could be found, a local woman who claimed to be a psychic would tell you where to drill your well for $10. Another family claiming their son had something like x-ray vision and could look down into the ground and find oil rented out his services.
Money and crowds, especially crowds with money always attracts swindlers, card sharps and prostitutes. Much to the disgust of the citizens of Beaumont, they soon followed.
Millions of dollars exchanged hands hourly with deals being made on every street corner. The need for cash was so great that railroad cars full of silver dollars were constantly rolling into town.
More money was lost than was made. Some people started calling the area "Swindletop."
By the end of 1901, there were 140 gushers at Spindletop.
In the end, there was too much drilling and millions of barrels of oil were wasted. Ten years later, Spindletop had been pretty much milked dry.
But, what had happened at Spindletop had already changed the world. It proved what was possible and showed how to do it.
Most of the major oil companies can trace their beginnings at Spindletop: Texaco (Texas Company), Gulf, Exxon (Humble Oil), Mobil (Magnolia) and Sun.
Why did it happen?
Belief. Like all great discoveries and breakthroughs some "nuts" believed and persisted. They shrugged off ridicule and self-doubt and continued to believe.
Pattillo Higgins had been sarcastically nicknamed "the millionaire" because for nearly 20 years he had been talking about all of the money that would be made from the oil out of Big Hill. He almost missed out on all of the riches, though. Lucas' deal with Guffey and Galey had no provisions in it for Patillo Higgins. He had to sue and settled out of court.
Days before the blowout, Lucas was shunned by his neighbors. He risked everything, including hocking his furniture, to keep drilling. He had recently been denied credit for groceries.
Their belief changed everything. When the paths of these "nuts" crossed the paths of the "nuts" building automobiles and airplanes, the world suddenly became much smaller.