His discovery turned an agrarian and ranching reliant state into the foremost energy producer in the country. Nondescript behaviors such as filling up the gas tank, flipping a light switch, and turning on the television each hail in lineage the Spindletop discovery and the boom it created.
Born in Sabine Pass, Higgins and his family moved to Beaumont when he was six-years-old. As fate would have it, this would be the town to which he’d usher prosperity. At the age of 17, a six-shot scuffle with sheriff’s deputies left Higgins wounded in his left arm — resulting in amputation.
Despite losing his arm, Higgins might well have uttered the machismo quip “you should see the other guy” as the bullet fired proved fatal for the deputy on the wrong end of the future wildcatter’s barrel.
The incident stemmed from Higgins’ slingshot-laden vandalism of a black church, during which he broke its windows and terrorized the congregants.
He was found not guilty of murder by a jury only a few days before he turned 18. Crippled and tarnished, Higgins languished in town further tarnishing his family name with mischief. Eagerly trapped in his pantomime ways, nothing short of divine intervention would pull him out.
Excelling as a logger for a Beaumont company, Higgins found salvation in the Bible. In his own words, “I used to put my trust in pistols … now my trust is in God.”
He went from miscreant to Sunday school teacher in nearly a flash and thus began his journey from small-town delinquent to trailblazing entrepreneur.
Now a dogmatic Bible thumper, Higgins disapproved of alcohol and loathed any public entertainment. He also had a penchant for adopting young, orphaned girls — one of which would become his wife.
One day on horseback Higgins discovered the red clay dirt was optimal for brickmaking.
Having heard of brickmaking successes in the Midwest, as far as Pennsylvania, Higgins made the reverse journey as that of Alamo defender Sgt. Maj Hiram James Williamson to learn from the Keystone State’s innovators.
While there, he discovered the brickmakers produced a lighter but sturdier product by kilning at hotter and more consistent temperatures. Burning oil, rather than wood, achieved a higher intensity and constant flame.
The impression left on Higgins was not just of the fuel’s potential for his new vocation, but also of the fuel itself. Similar terrain existed in Pennsylvania’s nascent oilfields as did around his southeast Texas home.
Though a different type than those who rushed to California in the mid-19th century, Higgins was a prospector nonetheless and returned to Texas with treasure in his eye.
Upon return, Higgins chose Spindletop, a nearby salt dome as the place for his brick factory, believing beyond any shadow of a doubt that beneath its soil lay the oil and gas needed to fuel the fire.
Teaming up with two others, George W. Carroll and George Washington O’Brien, the men secured full rights of the hill. O’Brien, notably, had already owned half of the terrain — convinced of the petroleum’s existence since seeing it ooze out of the ground in 1865.
Forming a partnership, the three men minted the Gladys City Oil company in 1892, named after one of Higgins’ favorite Sunday school students. But for nearly 10 years, the trio and their company pierced earth and emerged with nothing more than dirt.
Having resigned from the company at the midpoint of the decade, Higgins jumped, hat in hand, to any potential financier or ally he might be able to convince to back another effort to find oil.
The man who answered the call was Anthony Francis Lucas, a petroleum engineer and salt dome expert from the east. The pair, like the previous crew, again came up short and drained their coffers during the short-lived partnership. The mission became a mockery back in Beaumont as those watching became increasingly convinced of its futility.
Lucas was able to secure funding for continued drilling back east — including from famed banker Andrew Mellon — but returned with only a minor cut of the prospective profits and left Higgins hanging out to dry entirely.
And so, shortly after the turn of the century, Lucas continued drilling operations sans Higgins.
Not exactly the climactic storybook ending Higgins likely imagined, the ruffian-turned-roughneck was vindicated on January 10, 1901 when 100,000 barrels of oil a day rocketed out of the Spindletop well for nine straight.
Higgins eventually sued Lucas for breaching the previous leasing agreement, a challenge which the pair settled out of court. But that undisclosed settlement became all Higgins profited from that Spindletop hill. He bounced around the region speculating, sometimes finding success, other times finding bankruptcy.
He remained a nomad, much too impatient and hard-nosed to differentiate between a dry well and a gusher-in-waiting.
After years of unverified speculation, Higgins was instrumental in the discovery which spurred Texas to new heights — the highest of which came with the fracking revolution of the late 1990s.
Beaumont and the rest of southeast Texas has long been outshined by the west’s Permian Basin. But without Spindletop, the speculation frenzy which followed may not have produced the basin’s first well 19 years later.
It’s serendipitous that roughly six months after the area’s decimation from the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, a flood of another type would usher in wild prosperity.
The recent tumult of the industry, and derivative economic slump, remains a discouraging testament to the importance of Spindletop’s legacy to Texas. And there is no Spindletop without Patillo Higgins.
In their chronologic tome “Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery at Beaumont, Texas, in 1901,” authors Judith Walker Linsley, Ellen Walker Reinstra, and Jo Ann Stiles said of Higgins, “Both [his] virtues and his faults were larger than life. For good and ill, he simply was as he was — as it turned out, to enormous effect.”
Over a century ago, a one-armed wildcatter named Higgins altered the trajectory of the state borne by Austin, fostered by Houston, and regaled by Nelson and Strait.
If not among those figures on the Lone Star Mt. Rushmore, Higgins is within arms’ — rather, arm’s reach.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.