Spindletop Hill, near Beaumont, is rumored to have gotten its name, which dates back to before the Civil War, from a grove of trees on the hill. The prairie that surrounded the hill would give off waves of heat, so the grove looked like a spinning top. According to one story about Spindletop, ghosts under the ground would get angry when people searching for oil would come and poke holes on the hill, so the ghosts would come out to chase people away. However, a more plausible scientific theory suggests that “the ghosts” are the heavy mist and fumes that rise up from the sulfur water and gas under the hill. Another theory states that St. Elmo’s fire (or static electricity) explains why there were “dancing figures” on top of Spindletop Hill.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that there has always been an interest in Spindletop Hill. And as early as 1865, Captain George Washington O’ Brien believed that Spindletop Hill could produce oil. In 1888 O’Brien decided to purchase one thousand acres of land around the hill; others soon followed suit, including a young Beaumont man by the name of Pattillo Higgins. After journeying to the Pennsylvania oil fields to research how to fuel his brick factory, Higgins came to the conclusion that all the oil seeps and gas flares on Spindletop Hill were signs that oil and gas lay beneath the surface.
To purchase the land and fund the drilling, Higgins partnered with George Washington Carroll, George Washington O’Brien, and J.F. Lanier in 1892 to incorporate the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company. Drilling began a year later when the company made three shallow attempts using cable-tool drilling equipment. Nothing happened. After another attempt in 1895 also proved unsuccessful, Higgins and Lanier left the company.
In 1899 Anthony F. Lucas, an expert on salt dome formations, leased land from the Gladys City Company. Lucas started drilling and had gotten 575 feet down when he ran out of money. Although it was difficult drilling with the tricky sands on the salt dome, Lucas still felt there was oil beneath the hill, and he contacted John H. Galey and James M. Guffey of Pittsburg to finance the drilling. Galey and Guffey wasted no time bringing in Al and Curt Hamill, brothers who were expert well drillers. From October 1900 through the end of the year, they kept drilling, using a heavy, efficient rotary-type bit.
On the morning of January 10, 1901, the Hamills lowered a drill into the 1,139-foot hole they had been drilling. Mud began bubbling out, drilling pipe came shooting out, and then mud, gas, and oil started to spew out. The gusher was more than one hundred feet tall, and it took nine days to cap it (after an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil had flown out every day). The first oil boom had officially been born.
In the coming months more than 40,000 boomers came to Beaumont, sleeping in shifts if there weren’t enough beds and sometimes even on the streets. At least six successful wells were on Gladys City Company–owned land by September 1901. The land prices around the Spindletop oilfield had increased rapidly: A man who couldn’t get anyone to buy his tract for three years for the asking price of $150 suddenly sold his land for $20,000. People started investing an estimated $235 million in oil in Texas, and although some were successful, others were not. All-white shack towns, such as Guffey, were created near Spindletop. The local hotspot was the Log Cabin Saloon. It was rumored that every Saturday night someone was killed.
Not only were people drilling for oil, but also working in refineries and storage facilities. By 1902, five hundred companies had been founded in the Beaumont area as a direct result of Spindletop, including the Gulf Oil Corporation, the Texas Company (later known as Texaco), Humble Oil (which became the Exxon Company, U.S.A.), Guffey Oil’s refinery (later known as Chevron), and the Magnolia Oil Company (which became Mobil). The ports in Beaumont and Orange, as well as Port Arthur, became increasingly important.
Production at Spindletop had declined from 17,500,000 barrels of oil in 1902 to 10,000 barrels in February 1904, but it wasn’t time to write off Spindletop just yet. Marrs McLean and Miles F. Yount were convinced that oil was on the flanks of the salt dome, as well as at deeper depths. And they were proven correct on November 13, 1925. By 1927, production had reached an all-time high at Spindletop: 21,000,000 barrels annually. More than 10,000 men were employed on the oil fields, but when the Great Depression hit in the early thirties, hard times ensued.
In the fifties the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company built a $12 million plant to extract sulfur from Spindletop. The hill started to subside as a result, and what was once Spindletop Hill looked like a wasteland. The sixties brought deeper oil production at nine thousand feet, and in the nineties the field continued to produce a very limited amount of oil in stripper well and salt brine form. The pink granite monument that had been erected in 1941 near the site of the original gusher was moved to the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum when the hill began to subside. Today Spindletop lives on in the form of companies like Exxon Mobil and in generations of Texans that have been and continue to be a part of the oil industry.