Discovery of the giant Texas oilfield in 1901 came as autos brought rising demand for gasoline.
The January 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas revealed the Spindletop oilfield, which would produce more oil in one day than the rest of the world’s oilfields combined.
Although the great Galveston hurricane of 1899 (still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history) brought misery to much of southeastern Texas, as the 20th century dawned, an oil discovery three miles south of Beaumont launched the modern oil and gas industry.
“Dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher,’ the oil discovery on Spindletop Hill changed the economy of Texas and helped to usher in the petroleum age,” explains the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. Drilled by Curt Hamill, Capt. Anthony Lucas, and two experienced Pennsylvania oilmen, the well erupted oil for nine days before it could be brought under control with the technology of the time. The museum at Lamar University today re-creates the historic gusher using water for about two minutes.
The Beaumont museum tells the story of the oil-producing salt dome three miles south that created an oil boom greatly exceeding America’s first oil discovery in 1859 in Pennsylvania.
Just as consumer demand for kerosene for lamps was declining in favor of electricity, Americans would soon want far more of another refined petroleum product: gasoline. Within a few decades, new oil companies will pump gasoline into automobiles from “filling stations” across the country.
Also known as the “Lucas Gusher” after Captain Anthony F. Lucas, a mining engineer who drilled on a hill, the oilfield produced 3.59 million barrels in its first year and an incredible 17.4 million barrels the next. The discovery near the southeastern Texas Gulf Coast defied predictions of other earth scientists. The massive surge in U.S. oil production also would help end John D. Rockefeller’s petroleum industry monopolies.
In 1936 — fifteen years after Lucas died — the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (founded in 1871) began awarding its Anthony F. Lucas Medal. The medal has been awarded to recognize “distinguished achievements in improving the technique and practice of finding and producing petroleum.”
Prophet of Spindletop
Spindletop created the modern oil and natural gas industry, changed the future of American industry and transportation – and brought many new oilfield technologies.
The discovery well’s story – which popularizes rotary drilling technology – begins more than a decade earlier when the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company is formed by Patillo Higgins. Higgins, a one-armed mechanic and self-taught geologist, is one of the few at the time who believes U.S. industries will soon switch fuels from coal to oil.
Higgins is convinced that the “Big Hill” four miles south of Beaumont has oil — despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. Through the latter half of the 19th century, Pennsylvania had been the most oil-productive state in the country, noted an article by the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI).
Texas had produced only minor amounts of oil, starting with the first Lone Star oil well in 1866 drilled by Lyne T. Barret near the East Texas town of Nacogdoches.
Formed over millions of years, the hill near Beaumont is the result of a giant underground dome of salt that eventually moved nearer the surface. Higgins had a feeling that drilling a well on top of this salt dome would produce oil. “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,” the PRI article explained.
The Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company drills wells on Spindletop in 1893, 1895 and 1896. All are dry holes. Higgins, who will leave the venture, hires a Croatian mining engineer before he goes. Learn more in Prophet of Spindletop.
“Lucas Gusher” of 1901
Anthony Lucas (Antun Lucic, born in 1855). Lucas has studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and served as a captain in the Austrian navy. He recently has been a salt miner in Louisiana.
I went to Beaumont, Texas, about seventy miles west of Lafayette. There I was attracted by an elevation, then known locally as Big Hill, although this hill amounted merely to a mound rising only twelve feet above the level of the prairie. This mound attracted my attention on account of its contour, which indicated possibilities for an incipient dome below, and because at the apex of it there were exudations of sulphuretted hydrogen gas. — Capt. Lucas quote from Interviews with Mining Engineers by Thomas Arthur Rickard, 1922.
Lucas contacts famed Pennsylvania oilman John Galey and his partner James Guffey, who had drilled marginally successful wells in nearby Corsicana in 1896. Galey and Guffey had returned to Pennsylvania, convinced that there was little future in Texas oil.
“Lucas turned to Guffey and Galey, who had left the area three years earlier,” the PRI article continued. “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.”
Drilling is difficult at first. “There is little in the way of rock at the surface in that part of the world. Instead, oil wildcatters had to drill through several hundred feet of sand,” the article noted. “This made the hole prone to cave in on them,” it added. “To help solve this problem, one of Lucas’s drillers, Curt Hamill, came up with a solution that was revolutionary at the time.”
Instead of pumping water down the hole to flush out the cuttings produced by the action of the drill, Hamill used mud. “This proved to help not only in retrieving the cuttings, but just as importantly, it was found that the mud stuck to the sides of the hole and kept it from caving in, explained the PRI article. “It was found there were more benefits, and drilling mud has been used in almost every well worldwide ever since.”
The “Lucas Gusher” would erupt more than 150 feet into the air after reaching a depth of 1,139 feet. It began flowing at an astounding 100,000 barrels per day. This was the first significant discovery of the prolific salt dome structures along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The well is not brought under control for nine days, losing an estimated 850,000 barrels of oil, and according to PRI, a new device — now called a “Christmas Tree” — was invented on the spot to control the flow of oil.
The Spindletop field will soon produce more oil in one day than all the rest of the world’s oilfields combined. In its first year alone Spindletop produced 3.59 million barrels of oil — climbing to 17.4 million by its second year. The huge amount of oil causes prices to drop from $2 to less than 25 cents a barrel. Texaco, Gulf, Mobile, Humble and Sun oil companies can trace their roots to the Big Hill.
“Technological advances engineered in Texas during this early period paved the way for other oil producing states like California to increase their production,” concludes Vintage Oil, a website that sells photographs. “Fishtail drilling bits gave way to the Hughes Tool rotary rock bit.” the site adds. “The movers and shakers of the oil industry converged on Houston in the early 1900s and the city still reigns today as the energy capital of the world.”
The Spindletop discovery “affected the entire world,” proclaims Michel T. Halbouty, a legendary Houston oilman who co-authored the 1952 book Spindletop: the True Story of the Oil Discovery That Changed the World. “It changed the way people would live all over the world,” Halbouty explained. “It revived the industrial revolution, which had been dead for a while. It caused the United States to become a world power. It revolutionized transportation through the automobile industry. It started the Liquid Fuel Age, the greatest age in the history of the world.”
Two Beaumont museums tell the story of the Spindletop discovery — and today’s role of the petroleum industry in America’s economic development. Read about salt domes in Offshore Petroleum History.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Spindletop launches Modern Petroleum Industry.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/spindletop-launches-modern-oil-industry. Last Updated: January 4, 2021. Original Published Date: December 31, 2009.