Pattillo “Bud” Higgins was born in Sabine Pass, Texas on December 5, 1863. He seemed to have a rough start almost from the very beginning.
He quit school in fourth grade, and his father apprenticed him to a gunsmith–a dangerous trade, perhaps, for a boy with Bud’s somewhat explosive temperament. Already he had a reputation as a troublemaker. He seemed especially fond of bullying and harassing the African-American community where he lived, pulling pranks even on their churches–one of which turned deadly when a sheriff’s deputy fired a warning shot over Bud’s head. Higgins shot back, striking the deputy, who fired once more and hit Higgins in the arm. The deputy died, and Bud’s wound became so infected that the arm had to be amputated below the elbow. Higgins was arrested, of course, for murdering the deputy, but somehow convinced the jury that he shot “in self-defense” and was acquitted. He left town to find work (which was probably a good idea!), but found the Lord instead at a Baptist revival in 1885. This experience turned Bud’s life around in many ways. He was serious about changing his old habits and decided that would be difficult as a young single man working in the East Texas lumber camps, so at 18 he went home to Beaumont to establish himself in business.
Higgins tried his hand at real estate and brick making, but he became fascinated with the oil and gas he used in his brick kilns. He made a trip to Pennsylvania to learn all he could about drilling for petroleum and the geographical clues that indicated where oil might be found. As he studied all the records and reports he could get his hands on, the descriptions reminded him of a place where he often took his Sunday School students back home–Sour Hill Mound, so named for the sour, sulfur smell of the water that bubbled to the surface there.
Convinced that this was a salt dome mound with oil below, Higging found partners to form the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company and in 1892 began to drill in the face of much ridicule. He was mostly self-taught, after all. Three times he drilled shallow wells, and three times he failed. Discouraged, he resigned from the partnership, but he kept his land and leases. In 1899 he tried again with a new partner, Anthony Lucas. They drilled a fourth well 575 feet into Sour Hill Mound before the sandy walls of the well collapsed like the first three had done. Out of money, Lucas formed a financial partnership with partners in Pittsburgh. His new partners agreed to finance the risk in exchange for the lion’s share of any profits. Lucas would get a small cut. Higgins would get nothing.
In October 1900, Higgins and Lucas began a fifth well using a new, heavy-duty rotary bit. For almost three months the new bit drilled through earth and rock to a depth of over 1000 feet…then on January 10, 1901 the 6-ton drill bit jolted and dropped suddenly. Several seconds later it came flying out of the 4″ hole, launched by a geyser of oil that shot 150 feet into the air! The drilling crew ran for safety, then began to celebrate their strike in a shower of oil.
This was the first great oil strike in Texas. The Spindletop well changed the world overnight, opening a gas-powered petroleum era and making Texas a major player in the new industry. Spindletop gushed 100,000 barrels of oil a day–more than all the other oil wells in the United States combined. It pumped 3 million barrels that first year and 5 times as many the next! The strike was also a personal victory for Pattillo Higgins. In testimony to his determined efforts, they’d struck oil EXACTLY where he predicted they would find it…but according to the contract his partner had entered into, the “Prophet of Spindletop” would receive no profits at all.
Pattillo Higgins took his case to court and won. Lucas had authorized his lease with the financiers before the lease he had with Higgins had expired. Higgins won, but as it turns out he was better at geology than he was at business. There was huge money at stake, and many greedy men took great risks to get it. In his battles out of court, Higgins lost more often than he won. Still, he lived in comfort with three estates in Beaumont, Houston, and San Antonio.
You can see Spindletop any weekday in Beaumont, relive the excitement of the discovery at the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown, or learn more about the discovery of oil in Texas at the Texas Energy Museum.