Higgins, Pattillo (1863–1955)

By: Tracé Etienne-Gray

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: September 16, 2020

Pattillo Higgins, called by some the "prophet of Spindletop," was born on December 5, 1863, in Sabine Pass, Texas, the son of Robert James and Sarah (Raye) Higgins. By the time he was six, his family had moved to Beaumont, where he attended school until he reached the fourth grade. Thereafter he left school and apprenticed with his father, a gunsmith. As a teenager, Higgins was a troublemaker and a practical joker. At age seventeen he was involved in an altercation with some sheriff's deputies who were attempting to prevent him from harassing Blacks. After the smoke cleared, a deputy was dead, and Higgins had suffered a wound in his arm that eventually led to its amputation. In the investigation and trial that followed, Higgins claimed he shot in self-defense and the jury believed him. After the incident he went to work in various lumber camps along the Texas-Louisiana border. The loss of his arm did not prevent him from logging nor did it seem to curb his wild ways. In 1885, however, his life took a dramatic turn after he attended a Baptist revival meeting. Persuaded by the preacher to accept Christ as his savior, Higgins abandoned his violent ways and the sometimes immoral atmosphere of the lumber camps to settle down in Beaumont and become a respectable businessman. As he explained, "I used to put my trust in pistols....now my trust is in God." Higgins's conversion was so complete that he began to teach Sunday School classes for young ladies at his home church. He had saved and invested his extra cash while working in the lumber camps, and upon his return to Beaumont he established himself as a real estate broker. In 1886 he expanded his business by forming the Higgins Manufacturing Company to make brick.

Through the brick business, Higgins became interested in brick and glass factories that were powered by the even-burning fuels of oil and gas. After a trip East to inspect modern plants, he began to plan an industrial city on Spindletop Hill, a salt-dome formation south of Beaumont. He chose the site because he believed that oil and gas could be found beneath the salt dome, despite the conventional wisdom of the day that the Gulf Coast region did not have any petroleum potential. Higgins, with the financial backing of George W. Carroll, whom he knew through his religious activities, purchased about half of Spindletop Hill. Subsequently Carroll and Higgins formed a partnership with George Washington O'Brien, who held the rights to the other half of Spindletop. O'Brien had been convinced of Spindletop's oil potential since 1865, when he saw oil oozing from the ground there. Higgins convinced his fellow investors to name the company after one of his Sunday School students, Gladys Bingham, of whom he was quite fond. In August 1892 the men incorporated the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company with the purpose of finding the oil and then building a city around it. Higgins was appointed treasurer and general manager. The company drilled unsuccessfully in 1893; it leased some of the land to the Savage Brothers of Corsicana for an unsuccessful attempt in 1895. That year Higgins resigned from the company after a dispute he had with the board of directors over extending a second lease to the Savages. Higgins disliked the terms of the contract with the wildcatters. After his resignation, a third unsuccessful well was sunk.

By 1896, industry experts and Beaumont residents believed that Spindletop was worthless and that Higgins was something of a fool. Even Gladys City directors doubted that they would ever be able to recoup their investment. At one point they even offered to sell the company to Higgins, but he couldn't raise the necessary cash because of his heavy real estate investments. Still believing, despite public opinion, in Spindletop's potential, Higgins placed ads in magazines, newspapers, and industry journals throughout the nation in search of geologists and engineers interested in developing the tract. Anthony Francis Lucas, a leading expert on salt-dome formations, responded to one of the advertisements and traveled to Beaumont. With the assistance of Higgins, Lucas negotiated a lease on June 20, 1899, with Gladys City to drill on Spindletop. In a separate agreement, Lucas gave Higgins a 10 percent interest in his lease as payment for Higgins's assistance in the deal. Lucas drilled to a depth of 575 feet before running into difficulties and out of money. As with the other wells, drilling was complicated by the quicksand in the formation that made it difficult to get to any great depth. Still believing in the soundness of the project, Lucas returned to the East to get new financing. Eventually he entered into an agreement with Guffey and Galey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who had successfully developed the Corsicana oilfield. Guffey and Galey in turn brought in the considerable resources of Andrew Mellon, who agreed to provide funds for five exploratory wells. One of the conditions of the agreement between Lucas and his new financial backers was that Pattillo Higgins was to have no interest in the venture.

In September 1900 Lucas signed a new twenty-year lease with Gladys City and also leased adjoining tracts from the McFadden-Wiess and Kyle farms. It was on the adjoining land that the Lucas Gusher (see SPINDLETOP OILFIELD) came in on January 10, 1901. An estimated oil production of 100,000 barrels a day flowed uncapped from this well for nine days. Higgins sued Lucas and Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company for royalties after the gusher, arguing that Lucas's second lease was invalid since it was executed before the expiration of the first lease. Higgins and his former friends settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Shut out of Gladys City and the Lucas Gusher, Higgins rebounded and formed Higgins Oil and Fuel Company, based on a thirty-three-acre lease he controlled in the center of Spindletop. Wells developed on this site proved over time to be twice as productive as the original gusher. The success of this second company, plus Higgins's tendency to overextend himself in land speculation, made Higgins Oil and Fuel vulnerable to a takeover bid in 1902 by John Henry Kirby. Accepting defeat gracefully, Higgins sold his shares to Kirby for $3 million, but he shrewdly retained his leasing rights on his original acreage.

Higgins's next venture was to form the Higgins Standard Oil Company, which became the vehicle for subsequent explorations of Texas Gulf Coast salt-dome fields. Over the next fifty years, Higgins continued to be something of a maverick in the oil and gas industry. Typically he would open a field but then pull out before giving it a chance to prosper, leaving the great profits to his followers. One day he would be a millionaire and the next he would be fighting with investors for more money to continue drilling a dry well. In addition to being a self-taught geologist, Higgins was also a draftsman, cartographer, inventor, naturalist, industrial designer, artist, and engineer.

In both his business dealings and his personal relationships, Higgins could be quite dogmatic and unyielding. Through his reading and analyzing of the Bible, he developed a profound belief in moral perfection on earth, and he was quite critical of preachers and others who argued that humans were imperfect and bound to sin. His views led him to criticize any public form of entertainment, such as swimming or dancing. He also hated theaters, beach resorts, and the selling of alcohol. A bachelor until age forty-five, Higgins owned homes in Beaumont, Houston, and San Antonio. He was always generous with his family members, and his mother lived with him until her death in 1907. He was also in the habit of adopting orphaned girls, which was how he met his wife, Annie Johns. Higgins initially adopted Johns in 1905, when she was fifteen; he made her his sole heir. In 1908 she and Higgins were married, despite the scandal. They had three children. Higgins died in San Antonio on June 5, 1955, and was buried in Mission Burial Park.

Robert W. McDaniel and Henry C. Dethloff, Pattillo Higgins and the Search for Texas Oil (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989). Edgar Wesley Owen, Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (Tulsa: American Association for Petroleum Geologists, 1975). Christine Moor Sanders, Captain George Washington O'Brien and the History of the Gladys City Company at Spindletop (1992). Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum: A Guide and a History (Beaumont: Lamar University, 1992).

  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

TracĂ© Etienne-Gray, “Higgins, Pattillo,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/higgins-pattillo.

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September 16, 2020