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100 Miles or Less: Spindletop and Gladys City

In Beaumont, paying homage to the place where our big boom began.

By Katharine Shilcutt March 14, 2016

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Gladys City: a ghost town with a lot of life.

Everyone loves it when a plan comes together. In the case of Gladys City, however, it didn't. Originally conceived as the "perfect" industrial city to complement the growing oil fields around Beaumont, Gladys City was in the process of being neatly planned and plotted when Spindletop happened. On a winter morning in January 1901, the Hamill brothers accidentally tapped into the now-famous Lucas Gusher. As the story goes, crude oil shot 100 feet into the air for nine days until the well was finally capped.

Everything changed for Texas in those nine days, and everything changed for Gladys City. Plans for the perfectly constructed homes, schools, banks, bars—all of it—were put on the back burner as "boomers" began rushing into the nascent community. Soon the town looked like any other ramshackle boom town near silver mines in Nevada or gold fields in the Yukon. Spindletop itself was eventually depleted by other wells and by the 1970s, not much was left of the perfect industrial city that never quite was.

Today, however, you can visit Gladys City crystallized at a moment in time when that dream could have still been a reality, thanks to the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum on the campus of Lamar University in Beaumont. Here, Gladys City circa 1901 has been recreated and reconstructed with a collection of 15 buildings, each of them housing artifacts from that time and, often, volunteers showing visitors how a blacksmith shop works or what happened when a ladies' temperance club rolled into the local saloon (hint: look to Houston's own Carrie Nation for an example).

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Yes, the saloons sold Pabst back in 1901 too.

This historic village differs from, say, the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village in Waco or the Vermilionville Historic Village in Lafayette, LA, in that it shows a city—indeed, an entire state—on the cusp of sudden, dramatic change. As local historian Bartee Haile recently put it when discussing his new book on oil boomtowns, "the Texas we see today would be very different if it weren’t for the discovery of oil in 1901 and the development of the oil industry. We were the Saudi Arabia [of oil drilling] before Saudi Arabia."

Oh, and Gladys City has something else those other historic villages don't: its own gusher.

Granted, it's not oil that spews into the air from the reconstructed Lucas Gusher—it's just water—but the effect is startling: the force with which it's shot upwards into the sky is a reminder of just how much potential was tapped into here atop this salt dome in southeast Texas. The gusher is run on a schedule that's announced ahead of time, so plan your visit accordingly. Ditto if you want to partake in any of the other Gladys City activities, which range from blacksmith classes for the adults to interactive learning experiences for the kids.

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Thar she blows!

Speaking of kids, the museum is currently hosting lots of Spring Break events and admission is only $2 for kids ($5 for adults and $3 for seniors). Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., with the final admission time at 4:20 p.m.

At only a 90-minute drive, you have plenty of time to grab a meal while you're Beaumont, and two of its best restaurants are only minutes away from Lamar University. At over 100 years old, Patillo's Bar-B-Q is nearly as old as Gladys City itself, and rightly famous for its regional speciality: East Texas hot links, which are every bit as good as its smoked brisket.

Rao's Bakery, meanwhile, has only been baking its signature cakes since 1941, but it's as much a Beaumont institution as Patillo's. Though there's now a Rao's location in Spring, you still don't want to leave without a stop at the original for a slice of its chocolate-laden Dobasche or its silky-smooth gelato to get you nice and wired for the car ride home.

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