Texas: Beaumont

This town is the site of the Lucas Gusher at Spindletop on January 10, 1901, making Beaumont the birthplace of the Texas oil industry. It features the Lucas Gusher Monument, dedicated on January 10, 1951, and now designated a National Historic Landmark.

Site Office

Beaumont Convention and Visitors’ Bureau

801 Main Street #100

Beaumont, TX 77701-3548

ph.: (409) 880-3749

Beaumont traces its roots back to the settlement started by Noah and Nancy Tevis on the banks of the Neches River around 1825. The settlement of Tevis Bluff soon became a fur trading center for the area. In 1835, Henry Millard bought fifty acres from Noah Tevis and began planning the community of Beaumont. According to one account, the town was named for his wife, Mary Warren Beaumont. According to another account, Beaumont was the name of a pioneer family in the area. A third version indicates that the name derived from the French words “beautiful hill” and referred to Big Hill (now known as Spindletop), to the southeast of town.

The town was formally established on December 16, 1838, and became the seat of what is today Jefferson County. By 1840 Beaumont’s major industry was lumber. The market for lumber grew significantly as the South began rebuilding after the U.S. Civil War. Four sawmills were built between 1876 and 1878, and within twenty years these mills had an average daily output of 200,000 feet. Beaumont’s other major industry was rice. Local cultivation of the crop had begun as early as the 1840’s, and with advances in irrigation toward the end of the century, the harvests grew rapidly. A large rice mill was opened in 1892, and by 1900 nearly six thousand acres were being cultivated.

Discovery of Oil

The town’s population was then eighty-five hundred, and it probably would have remained at that level had oil not been discovered a year later. The story of the Texas oil industry began with a one-armed mechanic, brick maker, and Sunday school teacher named Patillo Higgins. During business trips associated with his brick plant, Higgins first came into contact with oil drilling. His knowledge of geology was limited to what he had picked up through reading and during his travels, but he soon became convinced that the Gulf coast contained large oil deposits. Higgins quit the brick business and took up real estate.

While leading a Sunday school outing to Big Hill, Higgins found what he had been looking for: five springs, eight feet deep, with multicolored water and gas bubbling to the surface. Based on what he had taught himself of geology, he believed that Big Hill was sitting on a huge pool of oil. Higgins began looking for ways to acquire land on the site, and in 1892 he lined up several local investors to form the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company (named for one of the girls from the Sunday school outing). The company acquired more than 2,500 acres and began drilling. Unfortunately, little was known at this time of the drilling techniques needed for the Gulf coast’s soft strata, and the wells they drilled proved failures.

His funds exhausted, Higgins began searching for new capital to continue. The civic leaders in Beaumont had given up on him–some even said he was insane–and such notable contemporary geologists as William Kennedy had declared that there was no oil to be found anywhere on the Gulf coast, let alone in Beaumont. Ultimately, Higgins resorted to placing an advertisement in a manufacturing journal.

The advertisement was seen by Anthony F. Lucas, an engineer who supervised the drilling operations at several Louisiana salt mines. He had frequently found oil in these salt domes, and he felt that the dome beneath Big Hill might also cover such deposits. In June, 1899, Lucas put $31,150 into the operation and became the major investor; Higgins was left with only a 10 percent share.

Difficulties of Drilling

Lucas’s initial drilling attempts were promising. Traces of gas and oil were discovered, but he had to stop at 575 feet due to gas pressure that was too great for his light equipment. By this time, however, he had run out of funds and was unable to purchase heavy equipment he needed. Lucas sought backing from Standard Oil but was turned away empty-handed. Finally, Professor William Battle Phillips of the University of Texas heard of the attempts to drill for oil on Big Hill. Phillips became the country’s first leading geologist to approve of the project, and his influence won Lucas a hearing with the nation’s premier wildcatters: the Pittsburgh partnership of James McClurg Guffey and John H. Galey.

Guffey was a flamboyant promoter and businessman; Galey was a wildcatter so skilled at locating drilling sites that some said he could smell oil. Together they were responsible for the successful wells at Corsicana, Texas, in 1896. They knew there was oil on the Gulf coast and agreed to drill three 1,200-foot wells for Lucas. As part of the financing agreement, however, Lucas’s share was cut to a mere one-eighth. Higgins retained his thirty-three-acre holding on Spindletop, but he was cut out of the new deal altogether. (Higgins eventually sued the others and reached a settlement out of court.)

To drill the well, Galey contacted Jim Hamill, who had pioneered rotary drilling techniques at Corsicana. Hamill, along with his brothers Curt and Al, came to Beaumont and began drilling on October 27, 1900. The drill site that Galey had chosen was not far from the bubbling springs seen by Patillo Higgins on the Sunday school picnic. Galey promised “the biggest oil well this side of Baku” (the oil-rich city on the Caspian Sea).

Adoption of the Name “Spindletop”

By this time, Big Hill was known as Spindletop. Once again, there are several explanations for the name: It derived either from a pine tree that had grown like an inverted top; from the effect of heat waves on the hill, which made the trees look from a distance as if they were spinning; or from the bare masts of schooners visible above the trees of a nearby spring.

In early December, the Hamills had drilled to 870 feet and found the first traces of oil. Soon thereafter, however, they encountered problems with sand washing up through the pipe and were ready to abandon the well. According to one source, Lucas’s wife personally persuaded Galey to continue drilling. By January, 1901, Al Hamill, along with his brother Curt and fellow driller Peck Byrd, were manning the rig twenty-four hours a day. At 10:00 a.m. on January 10, while they were running a new drill bit into the well, mud began pumping furiously out of the hole. Seven hundred feet of pipe suddenly shot out, smashing through the top of the derrick and breaking apart in midair. Curt Hamill, who was standing atop the derrick, was lucky to have escaped with his life. With mud blinding his eyes and six tons of pipe falling all around him, he somehow hurried down a ladder and scrambled for safety with the other men.

When the mud and rocks stopped shooting from the well, gas briefly flowed out, and then all was quiet. The men ventured back to assess the damage. According to Al Hamill,

Naturally we were all disgusted. We started shoveling away the mud–when, without warning, a lot of heavy mud shot out of the well with the report of a cannon. It was followed for a short time with gas, then oil showed up in head flows. In a very short time oil was going up through the top of the derrick and rocks were being shot hundreds of feet into the air. Within a very few minutes the oil was holding a steady flow at more than twice the height of the derrick.

They immediately sent for Lucas. As Lucas approached the drill site, he became so excited that he jumped out of his horse-drawn buggy and ran up to the well, shouting “Al! Al! What is it?” When he learned it was oil, Lucas hugged Al Hamill and exclaimed “Thank God, thank God!”

An Unstoppable Gusher

Oil was flowing from the gusher at an estimated rate of 70,000 to 100,000 barrels per day. The Hamills were unprepared for such a flow–they had no tanks to hold the oil and no way to shut it off. It was ten days before they were finally able to cap the well, working from plans drawn by Peck Byrd on a brown paper bag. In the meantime, up to 800,000 barrels of oil had soaked into the ground surrounding Spindletop. A minor fire broke out on January 12, and a more serious one erupted a month later. Sulfuric gas fumes from the oil spray stained all the houses in Beaumont.

The town soon had plenty of money for repainting. News of the well spread quickly throughout the country and the world. Within two days a thousand people had descended on the town. In a few months, the town’s population went from eighty-five hundred to fifty thousand. All these people wanted land for drilling, and the price of real estate skyrocketed. Land that had once sold for $10 an acre now went for up to $900,000. Many of the land deals were fraudulent, and the area soon became known as “Swindletop.” According to one witness, so much money changed hands that the town’s sole bank was overwhelmed: “They just shipped money in there by the sackfuls. Got where the bank wouldn’t accept any deposits, because they had it piled up in sacks around the lobby.”

A writer from Harper’s Weekly reported that Beaumont had been transformed into “the dirtiest, noisiest, busiest, and most interesting town on the continent to-day.” Crime was rampant. The town averaged two or three murders a night, and sixteen men were found one morning floating in the Neches River with their throats cut. The police chief advised citizens who traveled at night to walk in the middle of the street and carry a gun: “An’ tote’em in your hands, not on your hips, so everybody can see you’re loaded.” Prostitutes were ubiquitous; according to historian Daniel Yergin, the police began holding public hearings in which “each woman’s fine was announced, and the man who paid it could keep her for twenty-four hours.”

Competition for Control

Because Texas politicians were openly hostile toward Standard Oil, the giant company was largely kept out of open deals at Spindletop. This cleared the way for other oil companies. James Hogg, the former governor of Texas, together with Joe Cullinan, a leading figure in the Corsicana oil industry, and John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates, a New York businessman who reputedly would bet on anything, formed the Texas Fuel Company, later known as Texaco, to tap Spindletop’s riches. The Sun Oil Company, of Pennsylvania, also invested in Beaumont. Standard Oil itself made several secret investments in the region, including the creation of the Magnolia Petroleum Company, a predecessor of Mobil Oil.

Meanwhile, Guffey entered into a contract with Sir Marcus Samuel, the head of Shell Transport and Trading Company in Britain. Upon reading of the Lucas Gusher, Samuel immediately saw the opportunity to beat out his chief competitor, Standard Oil, and to achieve his dream of converting the shipping industry from coal to petroleum fuel. In June, 1901, Samuel agreed to buy half of Guffey’s annual production at twenty-five cents a barrel. The deal was to last for twenty-one years and include a minimum of 14.7 million barrels. As the output from Spindletop in 1902 was 17,420,949 barrels, there seemed little danger of supply falling short.

By 1902, however, there were 285 wells on Spindletop. Mineral rights in the United States were at this time governed by the “law of capture,” by which oil belonged to whoever owned the drilling site. If several wells were tapping the same oil deposit, it became crucial for each owner to pump as much and as fast as possible. This they did at Spindletop, with disastrous results. Not understanding the importance of maintaining gas pressure to extract the oil, they overproduced; by 1903 the site was becoming depleted. At the same time, Guffey was still under contract with Shell to deliver his quota. Guffey had already bought out partners Galey and Lucas, and he now turned to the Mellon family, who had originally backed his efforts. The Mellons renegotiated the deal with Shell and took over Guffey’s company, creating Gulf Oil. Shell’s financial difficulties led it into a merger with Royal Dutch Petroleum in 1906.

Bust and Boom

With the boom at Spindletop over, Beaumont became a ghost town. Lucas visited in 1904 and commented “The cow was milked too hard, and moreover, she was not milked intelligently.” The Beaumont lumber industry, which had experienced a boom with the demand for derricks and housing, soon slumped. The rice industry continued to grow, however. In 1908 the Neches River was dredged for shipping, and in 1916 a canal was completed to the Gulf of Mexico. Beaumont soon became a major port. The waterways were widened and extended repeatedly over the next twenty years.

In November, 1925, Spindletop shocked the oil industry for a second time. New technology allowed deeper drilling, and a large oil pool was discovered on the flanks of the salt dome. This time production was more carefully managed, and the new pool went on to surpass the first. More than seventy-five million barrels had been produced by 1935. When the owners of the field sold out to Standard Oil in August of that year, they were paid $41.6 million in cash, at that time the third-largest private cash transaction in U.S. history. The site continued as a productive oil field until the 1950’s, when it was cleared for sulfur mining.

Modern Beaumont

Today, Beaumont is home to more than 114,000 citizens and continues as a center for the oil, lumber, agriculture, chemical, and mining industries. Visitors to the city can stop at the John Jay French Museum to gain an understanding of life in the town during the mid-nineteenth century. The opulent lifestyle of the early Texas oil elite has been preserved in the McFaddin-Ward House. The Lucas Gusher Monument, a fifty-eight-foot granite obelisk on the site of Lucas’s well, was dedicated on January 10, 1951, and has since been designated a National Historic Landmark. A reconstruction of the Gladys City Boomtown was dedicated on January 10, 1976.

The significance of the Lucas Gusher cannot be overstated. It created the Texas oil boom and quite literally fueled the growth of nearby Houston. More important, it ushered in what historian Daniel Yergin has called the “hydrocarbon society.” Prior to Spindletop, oil was used mainly to produce kerosene for illumination. Gasoline was a mere byproduct, little valued by refineries. The crude from Spindletop was of too poor a quality to produce kerosene. It therefore was used for heating and to power engines. By the fall of 1901, the massive oil glut in Texas had driven the price down to three cents a barrel, offering huge incentives for industry to convert to oil for fuel. The cheap oil also spurred the popularity of automobiles with internal combustion engines, forever changing the way people lived, worked, and traveled.

For Further Information

  • Dooley-Awbrey, Betty, and Claude Dooley, and the Texas Historical Commission. Why Stop? A Guide to Texas Historical Roadside Markers. 4th ed. Houston: Lone Star Books, 1999. A guide to the historical markers and legends of Texas.
  • Hansen, Harry. Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State. Rev. ed. New York: Hastings House, 1969. Originally compiled by the Federal Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the state of Texas. A good general history of the early days of Beaumont.
  • Moore, Judy. Texas Guide. 2d ed. New York: Open Road, 2000. A guidebook which includes maps.
  • Presley, James. A Saga of Wealth: The Rise of the Texas Oilmen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. A more detailed description of the events leading up to the discovery of the Lucas Gusher.
  • Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. The standard popular history of the oil industry. Its treatment of the oil companies that sprung up in Beaumont is particularly insightful.