Before Spindletop, Pattillo Higgins puts Jefferson County, Texas on the map

Lithograph, 26 1/8”h x 23”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Minor-moderate soiling and staining. Some marginal losses including some loss of border, expertly reconstructed and all but invisible from the verso.

A very rare 1898 promotional map of Jefferson County, Texas. Published by Pattillo Higgins, the Father of Texas Oil, a few short years before the gusher at Spindletop transformed the global oil industry.

Higgins (1863-1955) was born in Sabine Pass, Texas but spent most of his life in nearby Beaumont. His unpromising early years were marked among other things by violent racism and the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in a shootout (Higgins was found not guilty by reason of self defense, but his lower-left arm was amputated after a gunshot wound became infected.) Undeterred by the loss of his arm, he worked for a time as a logger on the Louisiana-Texas border. After discovering religion he returned to Beaumont, where he invested in real estate and brick manufacturing. Use of oil to fire the kilns in his factory piqued his interest in the subject of petroleum, and he taught himself everything he could on the subject, going so far as to travel to Pennsylvania to learn the geographical and geological indicators of underground oil.

A stubborn man, in the early 1890s he went against the prevailing scientific wisdom, formed the Gladys City Oil Gas and Manufacturing Company, bought land at Spindletop, a salt dome southeast of Beaumont, and in 1893 began to drill. After three exploratory wells failed to hit oil, however, Higgins sold his share of the firm, purchased another nearby parcel, and began looking for new partners. The failure of the first venture and a reputation as a dilettante seem to have scared off Texan investors, and Higgins was forced to promote his interests nationally. It seems to have been in this context that in 1898 he issued this ambitious and striking promotional map.

Revised Map of Jefferson County Texas
The map depicts all of Jefferson County, situated at the southeast corner of the state, its eastern and northern boundary formed by Sabine Lake and the Neches River, with Hardin, Liberty and Chambers Counties to the northwest and west. The map identifies property boundaries and owners, and uses a variety of line styles to delineate numerous operating and proposed railroads, all converging on Beaumont; the ongoing construction of the Port Arthur Canal (completed 1899); and a proposed deepwater channel in Sabine Lake. At top and bottom are a number of official-looking attestations to the map’s accuracy.

It all seems straightforward, but much about the map has an intensely persuasive quality, all aimed at emphasizing the Jefferson County’s boundless economic potential. A long text block at lower right sums up the argument: The county offers ample and inexpensive natural resources, an excellent climate for agriculture, proximity “to the good lumber region of Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana”, and transportation infrastructure, all rendering it “the logical commercial and manufacturing center of the Gulf Coast Country”.

One of the more interesting persuasive features is easily missed: At far upper right a tiny sketch map of the region between Texas’ Gulf Coast and Chicago and Omaha emphasizes both the extent of “the great long leaf yellow pine forest in South East Texas and West Louisiana” and the ease of getting its lumber to market. This little map is wildly out of scale, thus making Jefferson County appear far closer to Midwestern markets than it is.

The most striking persuasive feature is at lower right, where Uncle Sam stands with a satchel of money at his feet, below it the declarations “Jefferson County / Deep Water / A Success”, and “A Door to the World”. To Uncle Sam’s right is the Stars and Stripes with the motto “Uncle Sam’s Deep Water. The World’s Progress.” This all refers to a cluster of proposed projects to improve navigation from the Gulf of Mexico, through Sabine Pass to Port Arthur, and then up the Neches River to Beaumont. As I understand it, funding for much of this work was not actually improved until after the 1901 Spindletop Gusher boosted demand.

The Spindletop Gusher and Higgins’ later career
Higgins eventually entered into a drilling partnership with Anthony Francis Lucas, a Croatian-born engineer then involved in salt mining in Louisiana. But their initial drilling efforts also failed, and the funding ran out. In early 1900 Lucas obtained new funding from Pittsburgh businessmen, on the condition however that Higgins be eliminated from the partnership.

The effort faced enormous financial and technical obstacles, but after a number of stops and starts Lucas struck oil on January 10, 1901. The well flowed at the extraordinary rate of some 100,000 barrels per day—more than all other wells in the country combined. The ensuing frenzy was extraordinary: the area’s population exploded, real estate prices skyrocketed, fortunes were made and lost, and innumerable frauds perpetuated on a gullible public. Soon more than 200 wells dotted the hill, leading to a short-lived oil glut until production plunged within a couple of years.

Higgins sued the drillers and obtained an out-of-court settlement. This, combined with his now immensely-valuable real estate interests in the area, provided a financial platform for him to establish Higgins Standard Oil Company in 1902. As the name suggests, his intention was to establish a vertically-integrated oil empire on the model of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Unfortunately for Higgins, the offering seems to have failed: In the words of writer Daniel Yergin, “the public had become wary of any more stock offerings bearing the imprint of “Swindletop.”” (The Prize, chap. 4)

In all, a rare and striking persuasive map by one of the most significant and colorful figures of the early Texas oil industry.

OCLC 29179334 (Houston Public Library, SMU, Univ. of Texas-Arlington) and 798205772 (Library of Congress, Yale), as of Feb. 2022.