Pattillo Higgins, the Sunday school teacher who found oil

Published 12:16 am Saturday, December 24, 2022

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Pattillo Higgins had been a “rough and tumble” teenager when he got in a shoot-out with a deputy sheriff that resulted in the deputy wounding Higgins’ left arm and the deputy suffering a fatal wounding by Higgins.

The jury found Higgins’ shooting of the deputy had been self-defense, so he was spared a prison sentence. However, the wound in his left arm had become infected and the arm had to be amputated below the elbow.

In 1885 when he was 22 years old, he attended a revival in a Baptist church in Beaumont. As a result of attending the revival, his life changed, and he became a dedicated Christian. He began to teach a Sunday School class for young girls.

In 1886 he formed the Higgins Manufacturing Company to make brick from the clay found around Beaumont. He became interested in using oil and gas to fire the furnaces in his brick company and started to study geology.

He had taken members of his Sunday School class on picnics at the hill south of Beaumont that was called “Sour Mound” due to the sulfurous smell of the gas and water that seeped up out of the ground on the hill. Higgins was convinced that the hill was a salt dome and that there was a possibility that there was oil to be found by drilling on the hill.

He was able to form a partnership with George W. Carroll and George Washington O’Brien to raise funding for drilling. O’Brien had noticed oil seepage on the hill as far back as 1865. In 1892 the men formed the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company. Higgins named the company after Gladys Bingham, one of the girls in his Sunday School Class.

The first well was drilled in 1893, followed by two more wells, also unsuccessful. By 1896  industry experts and many Beaumont residents believed that Higgins was a fool, there was nothing to be found on the hill.

Higgins advertised in magazines, newspapers and industry journals for geologists and engineers to come to Beaumont and develop the tract. The only one that answered his ad was Anthony Lucas. Lucas had been working in salt mines and sulfur mines at salt domes in Louisiana and agreed with Higgins that there could be oil under the dome at Beaumont.

Lucas negotiated a contract on June 20, 1899, to begin drilling on the hill called Spindletop. After several tries, he was not able to get past quicksand and go deeper than 575 feet.

Running out of money, Lucas went to two men in Pennsylvania he knew, James Guffey and John Galey. He got some funding from them to keep drilling. Guffey and Galey brought in Andrew Mellon for more funds. One of the conditions Mellon set for his participation was that Higgins was to be eliminated from the partnership.

The drilling equipment being used was not heavy enough to get past the sand and quicksand in the hole. Lucas brought in the Hammill brothers who had been using a heavy rotary drilling rig in Corsicana. When the men passed the 1,000 foot depth on January 10, 1901, the well began to rumble and shake. The pipe began to blow up out of the hole followed by some gas and then an amount of oil estimated to be at 100,000 barrels per day for the nine days it took to contain the flow.

The oil was said to “gush out” of the hole, the well then became referred to as a “gusher.” After that day wells that blew out of the ground were called “gushers.”

Higgins was cut out of the deal he had made with Lucas, but still had leases he drilled on in the Spindletop field. He had a 33-acre tract that became as prolific as the original well. In his lifetime he made and lost several fortunes. He never seemed to find as much satisfaction in making money from fields he discovered as he did from finding the field.

In his lifetime he was credited with finding some of the largest fields in Texas, including Goose Creek and Humble. His ability to find a field was legendary. From being once considered a fool, he became one of the most respected men in the oil fields.

Higgins remained a bachelor until age 45. He was a very generous, caring man. His mother lived with him, and he cared for her until her death in 1907. He also adopted and cared for young girls. He adopted Annie Johns in 1905 when she was 15 and made her his sole heir, he married her three years later, in spite of the scandal it caused. They had three children.

Higgins died in San Antonio in 1955. After his death it was said that he was so good at finding oil fields he could spot one from at night from a moving train.

“And now you know.”

— Written by Mike Louviere