The historical obelisk proclaims, “On this spot on the tenth day of the twentieth century a new era in civilization began.” No mention is made of Patillo Higgins, the Prophet of Spindletop, as he came to be known.
Higgins had often taken his young ladies Sunday School class on picnics to this very spot fifteen feet above the surrounding coastal plain. He was single, the owner of a brick manufacturing company, and disfigured only by his lower left arm being amputated. (After a deputy shot him, the wound became infected). The ladies must have thought, if God could change Patillo Higgins, God could change anybody.
“I used to put my trust in pistols…now my trust is in God,” he said.
After fourth grade Patillo dropped out of school to apprentice as a gunsmith for his father. He was seventeen when his energetic mischievousness led him to pull a prank on a black Baptist Church. A deputy arriving at the scene fired a warning shot in the air. Patillo fired back wounding the deputy; the deputy’s return fire struck Patillo. After the deputy died, a jury agreed with Patillo’s claim of self defense and charges against him were dismissed.
He was twenty-two when he gave his heart to the Lord in a Baptist revival meeting.
The dome on which the picnics were held had intrigued Patillo for years. He frequently amazed the girls by jabbing his cane into the sand, then lighting the gas vapors exuding from the hole. The flickering flame was strange indeed.
Patillo was convinced oil lay beneath this sand covered salt dome. Reading everything he could find on the subject, he became a self-educated geologist. Seeking confirmation of his conclusions from experts in the field, he did not find anyone who agreed with him. Newspaper articles ridiculed and scoffed at his predictions that oil would be found 1,000 feet below the salt dome.
Undaunted, he acquired mineral leases and undertook three successive drilling ventures with a variety of partners. Sand caving into the drilling hole stalled the work and the projects were abandoned. With a new partner and a heavier rotary bit, a new shaft was sunk. For the first time in history mud was used to carry away the drill shavings and the mud kept the shaft from collapsing. Christmas week the drilling crew shut down, taking a needed rest.
Drilling resumed with the start of the New Year. After reaching a depth of 1020 feet the drill was pulled out of the hole for repairs. When the drill was being returned, it was down about 700 feet when the workers noticed mud bubbling from the shaft. Then, six tons of drill stem came shooting out of the hole as the roustabouts scrambled to safety. When nothing else happened, the workers, puzzled by this strange event, began to salvage what they could.
Suddenly, with a great roar, mud spewed out of the hole followed by natural gas, and then a gusher of green-black oil six inches in diameter rose 150 feet into the air, soaking the crew in a rain of oil. In nine days, Lucus 1 (the drill site designation) gushed over 800,000 barrels of oil before workers gained control.
The prophet of Spindletop had missed his projection by 20 feet. The expectation of a well that would produce 5 barrels of oil a day was blown away: the daily output of over 100,000 barrels of oil exceeded the combined daily production of all the wells in the nation.
Spindletop, as the field above the salt dome came to be known, ushered in a new era. Within a year more than 200 oil wells, owned by over 100 companies, jostled for space atop the salt dome. Coal, as the preferred energy source, took a back seat and the industrialization of America was launched.
“Swindletop” became an alternate name with many because of the race to promote and hustle deals centered on this financial bonanza. Fortunes were made and lost.
Patillo Higgins, who had a lifelong passion for helping orphaned young women, died at the age of 91, a faithful servant of the Lord until the end.
When he laid his pistols down and put his trust in God, good things happened.
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