It was on January 10 1901 that the first oil gusher in the United States erupted at Spindletop, just outside Beaumont, Texas. It was considered the beginning of the oil age or petroleum age.
In 1901, all of America's oil came from the East, mostly from Pennsylvania, and the experts were sure that Pennsylvania was the future of the nation's oil. The president of Standard Oil, John Archbold, was amused when someone told him in 1885 that they had discovered oil in Oklahoma — he said, "I'll drink every gallon of oil produced west of the Mississippi!" Ten years later, Texas had started producing respectable amounts of oil, and some oil tycoons sent in people to drill. But the results were small compared to Pennsylvania, and they quickly gave up and left. At this point, Standard Oil controlled more than 80 percent of the oil in the country.
Not everyone was surprised that there was oil in Spindletop, which most people from Beaumont called the Big Hill. Native Americans had been using it medicinally for centuries. Spanish explorers used it to waterproof their boots. And one man who lived near Spindletop was convinced that there was enough oil there to shift the focus from Pennsylvania to Texas, and even to replace coal as the primary energy source. His name was Patillo Higgins, and most people thought he was crazy. He was a determined, wiry man who had lost one arm in a gunfight. He finally convinced some local entrepreneurs to invest by promising them millions, but when he tried to drill, he came up totally dry. After that, townspeople sarcastically called him "the millionaire" and stopped taking him seriously. So Higgins ran an ad in a trade journal in New York City, promising the same thing. He only got one response, but that was all he needed. The Croatian-born oil explorer Anthony Lucas signed on, and they started drilling in late 1900. Finally, on this day in 1901, they hit a depth of about 1,200 feet, and natural gas started shooting out of the ground, followed by crude oil.
The oil gusher reached a height of 200 feet straight up in the air, and produced about 4.2 million gallons of oil every day for nine days. Over the course of those nine days, about 50,000 people observed the gusher. Within the year, the town of Beaumont went from 8,000 people to 60,000. That first Spindletop well produced as much oil as 37,000 Eastern wells combined, and by the end of 1910 there were more than 100 wells on Spindletop. Before 1901, oil and petroleum had been mostly for lamps — suddenly, it was the cheapest fuel, just three cents a barrel.
In all the political maneuvering that happened, Patillo Higgins got squeezed out by more powerful players, and Anthony Lucas usually gets most of the credit for discovering the Texas oil wells. Higgins ended up moving away, but until he was 90 years old he would regularly head out into the middle of nowhere with a pick and shovel and try to find more oil.
Bryan Burrough wrote a book called The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (2009), and he wrote about the big oil families: "In time their salad days dissolved into a sordid litany of debauchery, family feuds, scandals, and murder, until collapsing in a tangle of rancorous bankruptcies. Some survived, others didn't. A few count their millions today. As the movies say about almost every story set in Texas, theirs is a big, sprawling American epic, marked by exhilarating highs and crashing lows, and it all began, sort of, with a queer character named Patillo Higgins and that odd hump of dirt they called the Big Hill. History would know it as Spindletop."
Source: The Writer's Almanac