On January 10, 1901, an enormous geyser of oil exploded from a drilling site at Spindletop Hill, a mound created by an underground salt deposit located near Beaumont in Jefferson County, southeastern Texas. Reaching a height of more than 150 feet and producing close to 100,000 barrels a day, the “gusher” was more powerful than any previously seen in the world. A booming oil industry soon grew up around the oil field at Spindletop, and many of the major oil companies in America, including Gulf Oil, Texaco and Exxon, can trace their origins there.
The Need for More Oil
By the mid-19th century, the tremendous effects of the Industrial Revolution had created a need for a cheaper and more convenient fossil fuel than coal; this need would be filled by petroleum. Edwin Drake drilled the first well specifically intended to extract oil in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, and by the end of the century, Pennsylvania had produced more oil than any other state.
As for Texas, Native Americans living in the region had known about the sticky black tar found in the earth there for centuries, and had long used it for medicinal purposes. By the end of the 19th century, several discoveries of oil had been made in the southeastern part of the state, including small fields near Nacogdoches and at Corsicana. In 1900, however, total Texas oil production was 863,000 barrels, a small fraction of the national total of 63 million.
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Spindletop Hill, south of Beamount in Jefferson County, was formed by an underground salt dome, which pushed the earth above it higher and higher as it grew. It was the mechanic and self-taught geologist Patillo Higgins who first suspected there might be oil lurking beneath Spindletop (and other similar salt domes). Higgins organized the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company in 1892 to look into the possibility, though his theory met with widespread skepticism from petroleum and geologic experts. Years later, Higgins ran a newspaper advertisement for fellow investors and got a response from the Austrian-born engineer Anthony F. Lucas, who shared Higgins’ view on the salt domes. When Lucas finally convinced leading Pennsylvania oilmen John Galey and James Guffey to finance a drilling operation, Higgins was completely excluded from the arrangement. (Higgins would later sue, and receive a comfortable profit from the Spindletop oil field.)
Drilling began at Spindletop in October 1900, and by early January 1901 they had reached a depth of some 1,020 feet after overcoming initial difficulties in drilling into the sandy ground. On January 10, mud began bubbling out of the hole. Workers soon fled as the mud came gushing out at high speed, followed by natural gas and then by oil. The Lucas Geyser, as it was called, reached a height of more than 150 feet, and was the most powerful that had ever been seen in the world. It was soon producing close to 100,000 barrels a day, more than all the other oil wells in America combined.
A Booming Industry
Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Spindletop oil field after the strike, transforming southeastern Texas from a sleepy backwater to a bustling boomtown within months. Spindletop in 1901 saw the earliest beginnings of the petroleum company that would become Gulf Oil Corporation (bought by Chevron Corporation in 1984). The oil strike at Spindletop also spawned the oil giants Texaco (founded as the Texas Fuel Company), Amoco and the Humble Oil Company (later Exxon Company USA).
In its first year, Spindletop produced more than 3.5 million barrels of oil; in its second, production rose to 17.4 million. In addition to driving the price of oil down and destroying the previous monopoly held by John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, Spindletop ushered in a new era in Texas-based industry, and was enormously influential in the state’s future development. New oil companies were formed, along with the refining and marketing organizations needed to support them, offering a host of new jobs and increased income for the state’s inhabitants. Meanwhile, thousands of new prospectors arrived in Texas, searching for their own fields of black gold.
Though the oil boom surrounding Spindletop had largely subsided by the beginning of World War I, its impact would last much longer. The abundance of oil found in Texas would fuel the expansion of the shipping and railroad industries, as well as the development of new innovations such as automobiles and airplanes. By the late 20th century, oil refining, chemicals and petrochemicals continued to dominate Texas industry, though electronics, aerospace and other high-tech fields had increased in importance.
A monument commemorating the importance of the Lucas Geyser was erected in 1941 at Spindletop Hill, but was later moved after the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company used the site for lucrative salt-brine extraction in the 1950s. Today, the pink granite monument resides at the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, on the Beaumont campus of Lamar University.