A deeper look at Spindletop and the day that forever changed Texas

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A deeper look at Spindletop and the day that forever changed Texas

Forty years to the day after a geyser of oil changed the course of Texas history, an obelisk of pink granite was placed on a mound of earth southwest of Beaumont.

Etched into the granite were these lines: “On this spot on the the tenth day of the Twentieth Century a new era of civilization began.”

Nearly eight decades after that 1941 dedication — and 117 years after the discovery of oil at Spindletop — it’s hard to say it better.

The Spindletop oil field. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Last year, I shared the basics of the Spindletop story, and it proved to be surprisingly popular. I joked with my boss that there was probably a local Austin band in the ‘80s called Spindletop and folks who clicked on the link were disappointed to find a history blog instead. 

But just in case Central Texas is hungry for more historical data, here are 10 more facts I found in an article by Boyce House in a July 1946 issue of “The Southwestern Historical Quarterly.”

  1. In the centuries before drilling at Spindletop, oil seeped out into the Gulf of Mexico in the vicinity of Sabine Pass. This “oil pond” had vanished by 1902, though some geologists say the timing was coincidental and not related to the drilling.

  2. As far back as 1890, a local man named Patillo Higgins insisted there was oil under “the Hill” (more on that next). He even predicted “gushers” at a time when Texas was producing 48 barrels of oil a year.

  3. “The Hill” … because Spindletop was not actually Spindletop. That name belonged to another hill that was about a mile and a half east of the oil field. The location where oil was discovered was simply known as “the hill” or “the big hill.” Once it became noteworthy, it needed a better name and the more evocative one was quickly appropriated.

  4. Yes, there was oil production in Texas before Spindletop — on a much smaller scale. Oil and tar had been collected from seepages for centuries, but the first step toward oil industry began in Angelina County and Nacogdoches County in 1859. Disrupted by the Civil War, the first operating well in Texas was completed in 1866. It managed about 10 barrels a day.

  5. Higgins actually began drilling at Spindletop, creating the “Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company.” There was no Gladys City — it was named after Gladys Bingham, a member of a Sunday School class that Higgins taught.

  6. By the turn of the century Capt. Anthony Francis Lucas had taken over efforts on the well and pushed through, even as he approached poverty. From Boyce: “No provisions had been made for the captains living expenses, and during the winter of 1900, the articles of furniture in his home were sold one by one.”

  7. When the well did come in, Boyce writes, some people fled in terror and a minister “delivered an indignant serman: the Almighty did not intend that His creation should be disturbed this way.”

  8. The resulting field of oil derricks that came in became a spectacle. Special trains came in from nearby cities and “wells were permitted to flow into the air to entertain the thousands of Sunday visitors.”

  9. Did Beaumont become a boom town? You bet. “Lines in front of cafes were a block long; grocery stores never closed; in fact, night and day meant little, for men would set out at midnight with lanterns to search for ‘gas bumps’ and indications of oil.”

  10. Some didn’t handle their newfound fortunes well. Boyce tells the story of a printer who bought a lease and resold it the same day for a profit of $30,000. He then “put on a celebration in which nearly all of the printers in town joined; with a band, they went from bar to bar, drinking wine until the entire $30,000 was gone.”

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