Spindletop, Texas

The famous Lucas Gusher, 1901

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photo courtesy of the American Petroleum Institue

The modern oil industry was born on a hill in southeastern Texas. This hill was formed by a giant underground dome of salt as it moved slowly towards the surface. As it crept, it pushed the earth that was in its path higher and higher. This dome was known by several names, but the one that stuck was "Spindletop". Through the later half of the 19th century, Pennsylvania had been the most oil-productive state in the country. All that changed on January 10th, 1901.

Native American Indians in the area had been aware of oil seeps for centuries, and used this tar they found at the surface to treat a variety of ailments. Some would even drink the stuff in hopes that it could cure digestive problems. In 1543, Spanish explorers discovered that black, sticky tar found washed up on the beaches along the Texas coast could be used to waterproof their boots.

In the late 1800's, Texas had produced minor amounts of oil, starting with a well in 1866 drilled by Lyne T. Barret near the east Texas town of Nacogdoches. This field, known as "Oil Springs", was finally exploited again in 1888, when a crew of drillers from Pennsylvania had a well come in at 250 - 300 barels per day. This find attracted other oil companies, and it would only be a matter of time before the huge, untapped potential of the underground reservoirs was discovered.

Corsicana was really the first big producing field in eastern Texas. This field, like so many others in the early days of oil, was discovered when local businessmen drilled deep wells looking for water, not oil. Amazingly, the first drillers in this area perceived the oil zones they reached as annoying nuisances, and often drilled past these zones to get to the water they were seeking. H.G.Damon and Ralph Beaton had a bit more foresight, and formed the Corsicana Oil Development Company. They brought in famed Pennsylvania oilman John Galey, and the team drilled marginally successful oil wells in Corsicana in 1896. These wells, however, all flowed at 25 barrels per day or less, and Galey and his partner, James Guffey, sold their interest in the company and headed back east, convinced that there was little future in Texas oil. Locals, however, proved them wrong, and by the end of the year 1900, more than 2 million barrels of oil had been produced in the Corsicana field alone. This was not large by Pennsylvania standards, but it certainly pointed towards the possibilities of something bigger.

Spindletop's Boiler Avenue, 1903

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photo courtesy of the American Petroleum Institute

Patillo Higgins, a one-armed mechanic and self-taught geologist, was one of the few at the time who believed that, in the future, modern industry would switch from coal to oil. But where to get all that oil? He believed it lay beneath his feet at Spindletop. He had a feeling that drilling a well on top of this salt dome (and others like it) would produce oil, and lots of it. In an attempt to turn his dream into a reality, Higgins organized the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company in 1892. Years of frustration followed, with most members of the petroleum and geologic communities proclaiming Higgins's ideas to be silly nonsense. Nearing the end of his rope, Higgins ran an advertisement in a local newspaper, and one man, Captain Anthony F. Lucas, replied.

Captain Lucas, unlike his predecessor in Pennsylvania, "Colonel" Edwin Drake, was a real Captain, having served in the Austrian Navy. Lucas had training as an engineer and experience as a salt miner in Louisiana. But his first wells drilled for Higgins were failures, and the money ran out. The Texas press, as well as the local geologists, had been very skeptical of Higgins for years, and no one in the area believed that a salt dome structure could produce oil. So, Lucas turned to Guffey and Galey, who had left the area 3 years earlier, unconvinced of the potential of Texas oil. Something made them change their minds, and in 1900, John Galey returned to Beaumont, Texas to survey the area. He picked the spot, and the drilling began on October 27, 1900. (....more)

Learn about the geology of the Spindletop Field


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