“Are you crazy? Why, I’ll drink every gallon produced west of the Mississippi.”
— John Archbold of Standard Oil, on the prospects of finding oil outside established fields in Pennsylvania and Ohio
My wife and I traveled last weekend to Beaumont, in southeast Texas, for the wedding of a niece. Along the way, we drove through some of the Piney Woods terrain that our small bicycle caravan will pass through this fall on our eastward journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.
The route will take us through a series of small towns — New Waverly, Coldspring, Romayer, Kountze, Spurger and Kirbyville — and pass about 25 miles north of Beaumont, which once had billboards that read: “Gushing with fun since 1901.”
The motto came from the discovery of oil, the first big find west of the Mississippi River, in 1901 at a low mound called Spindletop Hill, about four miles south of Beaumont.
With the help of an ad in a trade paper, Higgins enlisted the help of Anthony F. Lucas, a Croatian-born engineer, who also became convinced that a salt dome beneath the mound contained a wealth of petroleum.
Their first drilling attempts were unsuccessful and their money ran out. Lucas sought help from Pittsburgh financiers John H. Galey and Col. J.M. Guffey and signed a new agreement that excluded Higgins. Two drillers from Corsicana, Texas — brothers Al and Curt Hamill — were hired to run the operation.
At 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, 1901, the roughnecks at Spindletop heard a roar, then ran in panic as six tons of four-inch drilling pipe hurtled out of the ground — followed by mud, then natural gas and finally a 200-foot geyser of crude, rising from a depth of 1,139 feet.
It took nine days to cap the gusher. By then, Spindletop was hailed as the biggest oil strike the world had seen. Texas was wallowing in black gold and Beaumont became the state’s first oil boom town.
Standard Oil, the company founded by John D. Rockefeller, had been approached early on to invest in the Spindletop venture. But it was so skeptical of finding oil outside the well-established fields in the eastern United States that a Standard Oil executive, John Archbold, offered to “drink every gallon of oil found west of the Mississippi.” The company passed up a chance for a piece of the Spindletop action.
It was a bad decision. More than 153 million barrels of oil came out of the Spindletop fields by 1985. Among the companies that had their origins in the southeast Texas fields were Texaco, Chevron, Mobil and Exxon.