STAYcation: The story of Texas energy — Museum includes purviews into geology, exploration

Published 7:39 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2018

High gasoline prices and an economy still struggling to fully reboot means that Greater Port Arthur people may enjoy “staycations” this summer, reveling in the tourism sites within easy driving distance. The News will highlight some of these this summer, places we’d all do well to visit.

BEAUMONT — The Texas Energy Museum, still a youngster at 28, tells a story that belongs to this state a much as to the world.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Located in downtown’s museum district, within eyesight of the Port of Beaumont and the Sabine Neches Waterway, the museum complements its sister institution at Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown by depicting oil’s history here but expanding that purview into other, key areas and developments in energy: geology, exploration and production, drilling, refining and petrochemicals.

Museum director D. Ryan Smith said much of the collection comes from the former Western Co. of North America Museum, formerly of Fort Worth, and from Spindletop Museum of Lamar University.

The Western Co.’s collection became available after the company’s bankruptcy in 1988, and Beaumont had to compete with Tulsa and Oklahoma City to land it. The Texas Energy Museum opened in downtown Beaumont, part of a revitalization effort, in 1990, using the bones of a structure that had formerly housed the YMCA dating back to 1911 and, later, offices.

“Today, it’s grown into this museum,” Smith said, “combining geology, the technology of drilling, Spindletop and the industry.”

Texas stories

The museum’s stories are Texas’ stories. Spindletop’s history is told in a second-floor exhibit that includes a complete rotary rig from the era, with manikins of historical figures related to the story. At one side of the exhibit stands Anthony Lucas, European-trained engineer who brought Spindletop to fruition; on the other stands Patillo Higgins, a rough man with local roots but with little formal education who held some natural genius for area oil and a stubborn insistence that there was oil in abundance at Spindletop. (If you visit, note that Higgins’s figure has but one hand because of in incident in his violent past.)

But there’s more.

“We have the exhibits about petroleum science and have added a lot of things since the original opening,” Smith said. “In 2007, we completed a major exhibit about refining.”

There are spaces dedicated to Spindletop’s revival in the 1920s, to pipes and vessels of refining, to early gas marketing. Thus, visitors can admire on the second floor the bust of Marrs McLean, the “second prophet of Spindletop”; marvel at antique gas pumps from Sunoco and Sinclair; enjoy both a 1926 Model T Ford Tank Truck that hauled oil products for The Texas Co. and a Gulf Refining Co. tank.

Plus science

Downstairs, the geology gets serious: Visitors can ponder the rocks and fossils. You can also delve into offshore drilling and all that goes with it: platforms and rigs and drillships for deepwater.

(This reporter’s favorite stop was my exhibit “ride” on a crude oil tanker up the Sabine-Neches, a ride I’ve never actually experienced but one for which I now have a better understanding. I stayed for several minutes, testing out the waters until the appearance of the next visitor caused me to move on.)

In addition to permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts special events and short-term exhibits. Thus, visitors get the chance to enjoy “Experimenting with wind,” an interactive science exhibit for ages 6 and up. It opened June 12; it closes Sept. 9.

There are other one-day special occasions for energy enthusiasts, including:

• Blowout 2018 on March 22 featured an appearance by Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff for President George W. Bush. Other guest speakers have included former Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and conservative commentator; and Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. Blowout is a fundraiser.

• SpaceVentures2018, a science camp intended for those entering grades 3-5, is set for July 24-27.

• Dinosaur Day is scheduled for Oct. 27. The literature says, “It’s an interactive outdoor experience about fossils and dinosaurs.” Ages 3-10.

STEM emphasis

On the whole, though, the Texas Energy Museum is for an older crowd, or at least older children, not toddlers. That’s why children’s programs are occasionally offered in addition to the energy exhibits.

The museum also welcomes school groups and programs to generate interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education.

Smith said the museum should help Texans understand key parts of the energy industry that apply to this area.

“The oil history is rich here,” he said. Among those things that Texas ought to know about industry changes relevant to Texas are:

• The beginnings of the post-Rockefeller and Standard Oil Co. history, specifically at Spindletop.

• Changes in the economy of the industry, such as the development of large refineries here.

• Oil’s progress from its focus on kerosene for heating and light to refined gasoline for engines.

• Coastal Texas’ unique position near the water’s edge, which made it right first for producing and later for refining and shipping products.

• The development of the auto industry from 1910 to 1920, which generated the need for gasoline.

Use it wisely

And, of course, there’s always more. Smith said the museum helps people consider the balance between energy exploration and production and environmental challenges.

“There is a science behind climate change, overuse of plastics, used natural resources used unwisely. Used wisely, all of it is beneficial to us,” he said.

So the museum teaches that resources are not unlimited, that we must look to what is long term.

Bottom line, Smith said, the museum makes no claim of deep expertise. Rather, it looks to trends and movements within the energy industry to explain its progression.

“We don’t try to be on the cutting edge of information,” he said. “We don’t pretend to be the experts in everything that comes up in oil.

“In our setting, stories can be told with real objects.”

That’s what the museum offers.