Spindletop: For us, a look at our roots

Published 11:14 am Thursday, January 10, 2019


Look for a cool breeze and bright sunshine this morning in Beaumont, not the cold, raw January morning that awaited people on Jan. 10, 1901.

That was when, at 10:30 a.m., the dreams of Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas bore fruit. Well, oil, actually.

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That was when the Sour Spring Mound erupted as Higgins and Lucas knew it would. But let Judith Walker Linsley, Ellen Walker Rienstra and Jo Ann Stiles, co-authors of “Giant Under the Hill,” tell the story:

“A low rumble came from deep in the earth, and the gurgle became a roar. The mud blossomed into a fountain, then began to blow skyward until it spewed up through the top of the derrick.

“Intermixed with the mud, rocks began to shoot hundreds of feet into the air to rain down on the derrick and the surrounding countryside.”

What commenced that cold January morning might have seemed a nightmare to the uninformed. To Higgins and Lucas and others, it was the fruition of a dream. What had been to locals Higgins’ folly became a transformative event for Southeastern Texas, which was baptized in oil. It meant boomtowns and wildcatters and a rough, uneven frontier explosion in population and development.

But Spindletop was not merely a matter of what but also when: 1901, when horseless carriages were about to take hold and oil became not merely something to put in your lamps but something to fuel your new-fangled automobile. Spindletop ushered in the oil age for the U.S. and for Texas.

For this city, it would mean refineries and pipelines and ports. It would make Port Arthur something that even Arthur Stilwell, its founder, had not envisioned.

Last Jan. 10, we sat with Troy Gray, director of Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum on the Lamar University campus, to talk about the impact and of the gusher and what it meant to this region. We sat in the Log Cabin Saloon, as wildcatters and conmen and entrepreneurs might have in those days, when lodging was so scarce that people rented barber’s chairs overnight to catch some sleep.

The museum and grounds, which present the Spindletop experience today, has enjoyed some tourism resurgence in recent years, lending insights into what the frenetic local life was like 118 years back. If you haven’t gone, you should.

It tells not only a story about oil but about what oil can mean to people: those who dream, those who prosper, those who lose.

It may bear little resemblance to the energy industry of today, a story being told in this area in petrochemicals and liquefied natural gas and massive tankers. But it points to the origin of the dreams, about the people who made them happen.

It’s as close as Spindletop, on Jimmy Simmons Boulevard.