Western Trips

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Spindletop Changed The History Of Texas And The World

anthony francis lucas
If your road travels include southeast Texas, chances are you're passing by an area that left a permanent stamp on world history. While not necessarily considered a vacation destination and you might not find it on a lot of vacation planners, it's quite difficult to find any other  location where one event marked the start of a modern industry that ranks at the very top of world economic importance to this day.


The story of Spindletop Texas begins not with a native Texan but with a Austrian schooled European mechanical engineer who decided to travel to Beaumont, Texas and explore the salt domes located there. The man, pictured to the right, was named Anthony Francis Lucas, a Croatian oil explorer who was born into a family of shipbuilders and owners in Split, Croatia. Often he was referred to as Captain Lucas for good reason since he spent earlier years in the Austrian Navy. His Croatian surname was Lucic but was changed to Lucas after visiting relatives in the U.S. Lucas applied for and received his naturalization papers with his new name and became a citizen.

spindletop salt dome photo
Lucas first worked in America's lumber industry then took a position with a firm working with salt deposits in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. It was here where Lucas conceived the theory of a direct relationship between salt deposits and sulphur including crude oil.

Lucas was of the opinion that crude oil and natural gas became trapped in the broken rock underneath the salt deposits. The picture at left are salt domes taken from a NASA satellite. Salt deposits under pressure from below will move upwards and form domes along otherwise relatively flat terrain. During this process, the rock underneath the surface becomes cracked. The salt dome on land would resemble a hill. Many salt domes are located in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.

An interesting fact is that the Indians of the area actually knew that oil was indeed in these salt domes. They used the tar that seeped to the surface as treatment for various maladies. Some even drank the tar hoping it would cure indigestion. It's also known that the early Spanish explorers used the oil tar to help waterproof their boots. In fact, minor amounts of oil had been found in the region as early as 1866. This brought in a few more oil drillers and most thought it was just a matter of time before a significant find would be hit. What's interesting is that the very early Texas drillers came across crude oil while they were drilling for water. When they encountered oil along the way they regarded it as a nuisance. Regardless, as with any new theory advanced, there are skeptics, and in this case it was the majority of geologists that doubted Lucas and his salt dome/oil theory. Not a few doubters, but many.

Anthony Lucas was intrigued with the area around Beaumont, Texas and after securing investors  leased land from oil explorer Pattillo Higgins (pictured on the right) just south of Beaumont for the purpose of oil exploration. Higgins was a firm believer that at some point oil would replace coal as the leading energy source.

Higgins himself was unsuccessful searching for oil in the area and ran out of money. It was at this point where Higgins was more than willing to lease the land to Lucas. Lucas firmly believed that the salt dome area was a source of a vast amount of crude. He hired the Hamill brothers, very well known Texas drillers, to handle the drilling. The Hamill brothers employed "rotary drilling" which at that time was a newer, more effective method of drilling a hole in the ground.. Although the science that Lucas used to arrive at his belief that oil was there south of Beaumont was solid, many of the locals simply thought he was wasting his and his investors money. Texas investors took a pass on the venture.

Capital From Mellon

higgins at spindletop texas
Drilling organized by the Hamill brothers started in October of 1900. The task turned out to be difficult. The new rotary bits were damaged at about 900 feet and this made the costs escalate. It was at this point that Lucas needed additional funds and approached John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller turned him down but a few associates of the Pennsylvania Mellon family did come on board with the needed money from Mellon.

An associate of the Mellon financed partnership, John Galey, who was previously involved with the Matthews Gusher (40,000 barrels per day) in East Texas and previously with Higgins, was brought in. Drilling now resumed at Spindletop and after reaching a depth of a little over 1200 feet on January 10th, 1901, natural gas began coming up. It was soon followed by a gusher of crude oil. The amounts of crude shooting up from the ground was like nothing ever seen before. Amounts in the area of 80,000 to 100,000 barrels per day.

The Lucas Gusher

The picture to the left shows exactly what it looked like. This particular oil find was named the "Lucas Gusher" and sometimes referred to as the "Lucas Spindletop Gusher". The gusher shot up over 150 feet high and took some nine days to bring under control. During this time it was estimated that about one million barrels of crude were lost.

A device called the "Christnas Tree" was invented at that very spot to finally control the outflow. This device is comprised of valves, pressure gauges and chokers to stem the flow. The Christmas Tree device is still in use. What the Lucas Gusher did to Beaumont, Texas was incredible. The town of 10,000 tripled in population in just three months and eventually reached 50,000. Land prices soared with this unprecedented growth. What happened in Beaumont was very similar to what happened at Virginia City, Nevada when silver was found.

The picture below left shows the Spindletop oil field in 1903.

By about 1903 the well production diminished to around 10,000 barrels per day. This was still a large amount of crude since a typical well might produce 50 barrels per day.

Captain Anthony Lucas did not end up with the type of riches you might expect. The partnership he was involved in gave him only a one-eighth share. Higgins, who supposedly was still connected to the drilling, ended up with nothing. Most of the profits were taken up by the Mellon backed investors.

What did occur was that the Spindletop oil find proved that crude could be found among the underground rock layers as Lucas predicted. It also proved that the rotary drilling process undertaken by the Hamill brothers was the most effective way to drill. The Spindletop find ushered in the modern age of oil exploration. An interesting side note is that many of the major oil companies...Exxon, Gulf, Texaco, Mobil and Sun all have their beginnings back at Spindletop.

See the Western Trips articles on the links below...

Texas' Historic Driskill Hotel 

West Texas and the Katy Railroad

Visit the Spindletop Oil Field

Visiting the Spindletop oil field south of Beaumont makes a very interesting weekend trip especially if you live in Texas or nearby Louisiana. There is a monument in place at the spot of the Lucas Gusher and Lamar University has a very nice museum in Beaumont, the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. These are two good vacation stops to put on your Texas trip planner. The websites below offer the information you need.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your comments...