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Where Big Oil Was Born

Destination: Beaumont

By Tom Behrens

While most Texans know Beaumont as home to large petrochemical plants, if you snoop around a little, you’ll find a whole lot more.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 4 hours /
  • Brownsville - 4.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 4.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 13.5 hours /
  • Houston - 1.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 9.75 hours

When I used to regularly drive Interstate 10 heading east toward Louisiana, I often thought as I came into Beaumont that the city seemed to rise up out of nowhere; no gradual buildup of highway businesses till you hit town — but all of a sudden, there it was. You go from vistas of rice fields on both sides of I-10 to an overhead highway sign announcing the exit for Washington Avenue and U.S. Highway 69.

If you look at a Texas map, you notice that Beaumont is the first major city going east on I-10 after leaving Houston. It’s 25 miles from the Louisiana border and has a population of 113,866 — still a small city — but as I was to find out, it has all the amenities of a larger metropolis. Longtime residents of the city like its smallness. One local commented, “A traffic jam is being stopped by two red lights.”

The Neches River, flowing north to south, cuts through the city on the east side. I had forgotten, but was quickly reminded by the sight of camouflaged tanks and other military vehicles, that the Port of Beaumont is the primary port and headquarters for shipping military cargo to places like Iraq. Beaumont is a city complete with museums; an entertainment district — Crockett Street; a major university — Lamar University; great places to eat — especially if you love Cajun seafood and lots of history. There are also ample opportunities to wet a line or just enjoy the great outdoors.

The outdoor activities available in the area include hiking in the Big Thicket National Preserve, canoeing or kayaking on Village Creek, freshwater fishing in the Neches and Sabine rivers or saltwater fishing in Sabine Lake.

For this trip, the MCM Elegante Hotel would be my base camp. On the first day, after coffee and pastries at Rao’s Bakery, I decided to start off with a little history lesson by visiting Spindletop.

When oil was discovered at Spindletop, it marked the birth of the modern petroleum industry — and a bold new direction for Beaumont. Before oil, the area’s economy was based mostly on agriculture and logging.

The person who began the quest for oil from Spindletop was Patillo Higgins. Higgins’ life would make a great book or movie. He was a third-grade dropout who, as a teenager, was wounded in a gunfight with the deputy sheriff but later found religion and became a Sunday school teacher. By the way, the deputy lost his life in the gun battle. But because the deputy was a Yankee and shot first, Higgins was simply told to get out of town for a while. Higgins lost his left arm in the fight, so maybe they figured that was punishment enough. He also worked tirelessly to get the oil out of the ground at Spindletop.

In the retelling of the Spindletop story, certain names come up again and again, including Lucas, Guffey, Galey and Bingham. Higgins named the drilling company and the area around Spindletop after Gladys Bingham, a young girl who attended his Sunday school class, and gave her a 2 percent interest in the company (which made her extremely rich). The Lucas Gusher, named after Austrian-born mining engineer Anthony F. Lucas, erupted on January 10, 1901, spewing oil 100 feet above the top of the 90-foot derrick. Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company and Gladys City were developed to handle the needs of the burgeoning oil business and the growing population in the area around Spindletop.

At its peak, Spindletop spewed forth at the unbelievable rate of 80,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. At the time, a normal well pumped 500 barrels a day. Around the turn of the century, Beaumont’s population was 8,500. Within 30 days of the discovery of oil, the population exploded to 30,000.

Our next stop after lunch was the central museum area, in downtown. Visitors can park their cars and be within walking distance of the various museums and restaurants. The Texas Energy Museum tells the story of oil through colorful, state-of-the-art exhibits. Remember Higgins? A robotic image of him is there, minus an arm, talking about his exploits. A new exhibit, scheduled to open in the fall, will take visitors on a virtual trip that covers the entire life cycle of oil, from the ground to the gas tank.

Next, we took a short walk to check out the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.

“We have four art museums, which I think is pretty neat for a town of our size,” says Kathi Weathington Hughes, director of tourism for the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Art Museum of Southeast Texas is a revolving collection. The Art Studio is where local artists have their studios. They also have an art gallery. The Brown and Scurlock Gallery features art from around Southeast Texas. The Dishman Art Gallery is out at our university. They bring in exhibitions from outside the area. Also, they host a number of graduate exhibits.” Other museums located in downtown Beaumont include the Edison Museum and the Fire Museum of Texas.

A couple of blocks from the Texas Energy Museum is the McFaddin-Ward home. In 1983 the Mamie McFaddin-Ward Heritage Foundation began restoring the home. In 1988 work began on its carriage shop, which includes servant quarters, stable, garage and a gymnasium. This 8,100-square-foot structure was started in 1905. Located on the block behind the McFaddin-Ward house, it opened to the public in 1992, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The adjacent rose garden has more than 100 varieties. Other areas around the house are planted with more than 400 azaleas, which bring riotous color to the grounds each spring.

Saturday was my favorite day, the back-to-nature part of the trip. We headed north on U.S. Highway 69 to Kountz and the Big Thicket National Preserve. Visitors can select from nine trails ranging from .5 miles to 18 miles in length. I only had a chance to hike about a quarter of a mile on the Turkey Creek trail before we had to return for lunch and the swamp tour, but it’s on my “to do” list. I’ve got to come back to hear the warbler that, locals say, often serenades hikers.

“Between markers 23 and 24 on the trail in the Turkey Creek Unit, there is a bench to rest on,” says Judy Allen, preserve volunteer. “If you sit on that bench and be quiet for a minute or so, a Swainson’s warbler, which lives here year round, will fly into the trees right over your head and entertain you. Some gal went down there last spring and she came back up here and came running in and said she wanted to know if we trained that bird to sing like that. I replied, ‘No, it’s just part of the magic of the Big Thicket.’”

Our afternoon was spent in a boat on a guided swamp tour, with our captain, Eli Tate, regaling us with tales of cannibalistic Indians, soaring eagles and jumping alligators. Nutria, small beaver-like critters, put on a show for us, but the alligators were missing in action. The day was too cool for them to be out sunning themselves.

I can’t end this report on my stay in Beaumont without a comment on the food — everything from authentic Mexican to Cajun (spicy boudin, etouffe and boiled crawfish) to steaks to barbecue, and quite often a mix of them all. I heartily enjoyed a five-course meal at Bryan’s 797, along with a tour of their well-stocked wine cellar. At the boisterous Larry’s French Market & Cajun Restaurant in Groves, choices along the cafeteria line included two or three different types of etouffe and gumbo, alligator and fried fish. They’re right — alligator does taste like chicken. Visit on the weekend and dance away to a zydeco band playing music for young and old alike.

Beaumont today is the region’s largest city, a cultural crossroads rich in history, art and culture, but still small enough to give that extra personal attention. The Cajuns call it lagniappe, meaning a little something extra.

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