Discovering America’s Heavenly Kingdom of Oil
On One Man's Journey Through Christianity and Crude
Patillo Higgins sensed oil’s arrival before setting eyes on it. Tired after a day of trading timber and fighting a January wind, he prodded his old horse along, eager to settle into the ease of home. As the weary duo made their way through the Gulf Coast town of Beaumont, Texas, Patillo heard someone frantically calling his name. “Mr. Higgins!” Jim Collier, a former business partner, hollered from across the street. “Mr. Higgins—did you know you [are] the wisest man in the world?” Perplexed, the rider appealed for details. The “Lucas 1” oil well had come in—and spectacularly so—at Spindletop, a hill just south of town. It was the exact spot of soil Higgins had long predicted would someday spew liquid gold and make Beaumont forever rich.
Higgins resumed his journey, anxious to get a look. As he drew closer he began to smell the noxious fumes wafting overhead; their pungency overpowered the wood smoke—especially dense this wintery day—fanning out of Beaumont’s chimneys. Then he heard the roar and finally caught a glimpse of the column rising in the distance, off the natural earth mound and high into the sky. Arriving at the heart of the action, he stood alongside Beaumont’s rapt denizens, tilted his head to take in the full view of the eruption, and froze, staggered by the scene, deafened by the sound. He had always believed Spindletop’s yield could be big—perhaps thousands of barrels per day—but Lucas 1 streamed at a rate of tens of thousands per day.
Just as striking was the picture of black-faced men scrambling to bring the uncontrollable under control. A team of roughnecks, led by chief driller Anthony Lucas, worked feverishly to support a fragile derrick, out of which a deluge six inches in diameter jetted 180 feet into the air. Witnesses compared the geyser to a tornado; others said it was like “a giant black ostrich plume sticking out of the earth’s hatband.” The blinded toilers trapped under its downpour saw little other than the pool of ebony fluid at their feet, which was rapidly turning into a sea.
Awed by the spectacle, Patillo Higgins nevertheless experienced a range of other emotions. The Lucas gusher of January 10th, 1901, had proved him right: pools of oil did indeed rest beneath Beaumont. Yet his self-satisfaction dimmed as he saw the praise heaped upon Anthony Lucas, whose persistence would now yield riches. The multitudes who descended on Spindletop to witness history, Higgins thought, should have been there because of him.
His jealousy must have been disorienting, for a sense of divine certainty had accompanied his every move for quite some time. Such assurance had not come easily, though. Born in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a rough coastal section of Southeast Texas, Higgins matched the tumult of his moment and place. When he was six, his family moved north to the lumber town of Beaumont, where townsfolk came to know him simply as “Bud,” a prankster who loved to gamble, drink, and brawl. Higgins’s delinquency culminated in a violent encounter with a sheriff, who had been called in to stop the armed ruffian from harassing a black church. In the ensuing gunfire, both hit their mark, but only Higgins survived, albeit with his left arm so mangled that it had to be amputated. A jury deemed the killing “self-defense.” Having narrowly escaped conviction for murder, Higgins soon changed his ways—dramatically.
His new direction came by way of the cross. In 1885, the one-armed renegade attended a fire-and-brimstone revival at Beaumont’s opera house, conducted by Reverend William Penn. A towering, 250-pound Confederate veteran, Penn was a Christian warrior known for his black frock coat, tumbling gray beard, and imposing style. The burly evangelist convinced the 22-year-old Higgins, consumed by guilt over his past transgressions, that only the Bible could help. Higgins committed to Jesus Christ. “I used to put my trust in pistols,” he confessed to Penn. “Now my trust is in God.” When Higgins walked the aisle toward the altar, his mother almost fainted from surprise; others shared her disbelief that Bud “done got religion.” Most doubted it would last. But after converting, Higgins set out to prove everyone wrong and make something of himself. He would become a businessman and use material wealth to build a spiritual kingdom in anticipation of Christ’s return.
Higgins tried several vocations before discovering oil. He dabbled in lumber, then brick-making. After forming the Higgins Manufacturing Company, he traveled north to gain expertise in his new trade. His visits to industrial compounds with brick-making activity took him to the tucked-away oil region of western Pennsylvania. There, in Titusville three decades earlier, another enterprising sojourner named Edwin Drake had first proved that subterranean crude could be summoned to the surface. Ingratiating himself with locals and embracing the exhilaration of an oil-flush region that journalists came to refer to as “Petrolia,” Higgins apprenticed himself in the art of reading the land. Once sure he knew how to survey any topography for signs of rich loam, Higgins returned to Southeast Texas and started seeking his fortune, with Jesus, he liked to think, by his side.Patillo Higgins would become a businessman and use material wealth to build a spiritual kingdom in anticipation of Christ’s return.
The sequence of events that followed consecrated his marriage to God and black gold. Initially Higgins hunted oil as efficient fuel for his kilns, but it quickly became the endgame. Not for the last time, his Christian commitments complemented his evolving financial priorities. After resettling in Beaumont in 1891, he joined First Baptist, the town’s leading church. Deep conviction and desire for acceptance compelled him to serve this congregation in whatever capacity possible, even if it meant teaching a Sunday school class of unruly eight-year-old girls. On one fortuitous Sunday, Higgins took his charges out of town to show them an “everyday application of religion” in the appreciation of nature. With a dozen pupils in tow, he made his way to a quiet spot on Spindletop where springs of water bubbled enchantingly. Higgins had been to the springs before, but this time he noticed clouds of a gaseous substance and hints of an auspicious rock formation. Excited about the possibility of oil, he decided he had to purchase the plot on which the springs sat. For help with financing he contacted his church elder and mentor, George Carroll, the corporate leader who had sponsored the revival at which Higgins found release from his sin.
Together the two formed in 1892 what Higgins insisted be titled the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company. The company’s namesake drew frowns of disapproval around Beaumont. Higgins, by then a 30-year-old bachelor, had become infatuated with a Sunday school pupil, Gladys Bingham. He promised to marry her one day. For the time being, he placed her image on the company’s official emblem. Over the course of the next two years, with the backing of Carroll and local Methodist businessman George O’Brien, Higgins devised a bold plan. Based on its anticipated lucrative finds of oil and gas, the Gladys City corporation would construct a utopian town—a model “industrial city on the Texas Gulf Coast” replete with a refinery, pipelines, harbor, and thriving business sector and communal life. Higgins exclaimed that “zones [would be] designated for schools and churches, and provision . . . made for numerous city parks, a town hall, and a handsome public square.” Higgins did not simply want to find oil. Like an apostle, he wanted to channel it toward realization of human perfection and heavenly splendor.
Higgins’s gut sense that something big simmered beneath Beaumont convinced Carroll and O’Brien but failed to attract other investors. Discouraged but undeterred, Higgins busied himself with prayer and study in geological and biblical texts. “If I read anything in the Bible, I know just what it means,” he liked to boast. His tiny kerosene lamp, which barely illumined his books, allowed him to study late into the night. The whistle of a nearby mill blew at four o’clock each morning, signaling the scholar to bed. But Higgins never rested fully. During the day he aggressively pursued financiers, courting local bankers at a barbershop one moment, pleading with faraway corporate czars the next.
Even Standard Oil king John D. Rockefeller heard his plea. By then Standard’s US monopoly was absolute. Thanks to its grip on Pennsylvania, it saw little need to locate new sources west of the Mississippi River. Nor did it feel such a pursuit could succeed. Standard executive John D. Archbold bragged he would drink every gallon of crude produced west of the Mississippi, so sure was he that the West was dry. Unfazed, Higgins wrote Archbold’s boss directly. Rockefeller declined to invest in Gladys City, citing Archbold’s “adverse geological judgment.”
Higgins pressed on, determined to prove the critics wrong. As the 19th century drew to a close, though, he found it harder to withstand his neighbors’ ridicule. Jokes about the “one-armed madman” hurt. More problematic was that his partners began to dismiss him as well. By 1896, his eccentricities had frayed his relationships with Gladys City’s other investors. O’Brien, highly respected in the community, could barely handle the embarrassment of his association with Higgins’s failing dream. Things only grew worse when a state geologist warned locals “not to fritter away their dollars in the vain outlook for oil in the Beaumont area.” Easing O’Brien’s stress, the perennially impatient Higgins sold his own interests in Gladys City to Carroll.
But even as he turned his attention to ventures in lumber and real estate, Higgins remained obsessed with locating Beaumont’s hidden treasure. He forged a friendship with “Captain” Anthony Lucas, a mechanical engineer and veteran of the Austrian navy, who was exploring the Gulf Coast’s salt domes, convinced that minerals lay beneath. In 1899 Higgins and Lucas agreed to partner and lease Spindletop acreage from Gladys City: the captain contributed the capital; Higgins, the prospecting hunches. Promised 10 percent of the profits, Higgins interpreted the deal with his old company as redemptive, even retributive. Yet his good feelings did not last. While Lucas’s drilling operation on Spindletop proceeded at a fast pace (penetrating the salt dome was easy), it did not produce quick results; the team would have to drill much deeper, requiring expensive tools.
In a quest for funds Lucas looked to industrialist and banker Andrew Mellon in Pittsburgh. Mellon agreed to invest but demanded that Lucas proceed on his own and cut off communications with the rube Higgins. Lucas did so, if regretfully. Hurt by his friend and bitter about how “big oil” people back east had stolen his opportunity, Higgins again found himself elbowed to the margins. On New Year’s Day 1901, the Lucas drill team punctured the earth in a new spot, a mere 50 feet away from one of Higgins’s original targets. Ten days later, Lucas hit the geyser that blackened the very ground on which Gladys Bingham had once walked.
Spindletop was struck, announcing Texas’s oil age and America’s era of unrivaled power. Referencing an old hymn, Higgins marveled that “the rocks broke their silence.” Grappling with the stabbing truth that he had not been the one to coax the wonders out of the ground, yet never one to wallow in self-pity for long, he did what he would always do: started chasing the next thing, with Jesus by his side. He incorporated the Higgins Oil and Fuel Company and by day began drilling on land he had managed to retain. By night, he privately started work on a theological treatise he hoped would correct his church’s teachings on sin and salvation. Then, in April 1901, Higgins No. 1 came in, with a spectacular display that rivaled Lucas 1. Soon Higgins’s company became one of the largest in operation on Spindletop, a rival of the Gulf Oil Company, the Mellon-Lucas enterprise. The “Prophet of Spindletop,” as Higgins was branded, finally found acceptance in his own land.
Excerpted from Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, by Darren Dochuk. Copyright © 2019 by Darren Dochuk. Available from Basic Books.