Rise of the Permian | Chapter 2


I've heard tells about the Santa Rita number one the oil well that started the first boom in west Texas. The site itself is a kind of Mecca and the Permian Basin one recent afternoon. I decided to see it for myself. In the Santa Rita stood alone in a field of mesquite trees and yellowed grass. There was a metal Derek in a tin shack next to it a barbed wire fence surrounded the rig but the gate was unlocked so I slipped inside. The wind rattled the shack. Part of the ceiling had caved in the huge belts that once powered the rigs engine had snapped and rotted in the Sun. I stood on the rig floor and thought about the roughnecks roughnecks who drilled this well almost a century ago must have seen mad to be drilling for oil in the middle of nowhere. They had no idea the The discovery they were about to make would change the world and I'm Christian walls from Texas monthly imperative entertainment. This is boomtown podcast about the historical boom. That's playing out in the Permian Basin. A boom so big. It's reshaping our economy. Our climate and our geopolitics geopolitics. Today we're going to step back in time to truly understand what's happening in the Permian right now you. I have to know how we guy here are. The Permian Basin went from being sparsely populated cow country. To one of the most influential regions in the world This is episode to the rise of the Permian when people think about Texas they tend tend to think of cowboys when I travel outside of the southwest. I'm often asked if I wrote a horse to school for the record I wrote a bike. This enduring stereotype springs from a relatively brief period of time three or so decades following civil war. This was when cowboys drove millions. Ends of cattle out of Texas to railroad hubs like Dodge City. Kansas think of Augusta's mccrae. And Woodrow McCall out on the trail and lonesome dove. But but if the cowboy defined Texas in the late eighteen hundreds it was oil and the wildcatter the define the states next fifty years and it all started did with the most famous strike at the mall spindle top the world changed it spindle top which was big mound out on the swamp flats. It's below Beaumont that's writer. Brian Burrow the author of six books including the big rich the rise and fall of the greatest Texas old fortunes. You know kids there since the civil war had seen things bubbling and it smelled sulfur us And there was one. Arm Guy Petillo Higgins Gins Bud Higgins and he thought well. There's at least a shot. There that there might be some oils we brings in some water well drillers from core scanner and they They sink hole in this big mound which we would call today a salt dome and they hit a gusher classic. Hollywood gusher Out of control. You know rain down black oil on everybody getting everybody dirty. Brian came to Texas monthly studio in Austin to talk to us about the history Texas oil and just to be clear. The American oil industry didn't actually begin in Texas in eighteen fifty nine four decades gates before spindle top. A Yankee named Colonel Edwin Drake was the first to drill a successful oil well in Pennsylvania. Yeah there air had been Oil production in western Pennsylvania. Going back to civil war. Toms and I think there were a couple of wells in in in Kansas. But you know it was. We were still learning how to I use it and what it was for. There was no sense. There was no scramble to find oil. It was guys like but Higgins Sang. Oh let's see if we can find oil in every now and then somebody found something small. He was the first one to find something. Big Petillo but higgins was a troublemaker in his youth raising hell in the small town of Beaumont place where the East Texas piney woods meets the swampy Gulf coast at seventeen. His antics led to a gunfight light. With the sheriff's Deputy Higgins caught a bullet in the left arm and the limb had to amputate higgins eventually straightened out. He taught himself geology. Geology and studied the region subterranean salt domes the tops of which form hills around Beaumont. He spent a decade trying to coax all from what locals called the the Big Hill. After a decade of unsuccessful drilling Higgins published a newspaper ad hoping to attract new investors. The ad caught the attention of a man named Anthony Lucas. The austrian-born engineer believed that Higgins was onto something. Lucas raised enough capital to begin again a new drilling operation. That was in October of one thousand nine hundred and sure enough. The well came roaring in on January tenth. Nineteen O one. A plume of crude oil shot over one hundred feet in the air raining down over the wooden derrick and coating nearby houses it took nine days to get the Lucas Geyser under control troll in looked like snow ended discolored all the houses in town in the self awareness aware and assailed way in your pocket. Where'd quickly spread about the strike at the big hill which was rechristened spindle? Top Beaumont became came. The state's first old boomtown over the next three months the population tripled from ten to thirty thousand. Just one a year later there were two hundred eighty five wooden derrick surrounding spindle top hill and more than five hundred companies vying for a piece of the big black pioneer Nathan. The signal I well produce more oil. That had been produced in the United States like the previous ten years. It was just the explosion. mm-hmm was such a metaphor for for what was going happen in one thousand nine hundred a year before spindle top. There were only eight thousand cars driving throughout the entire United States. Just twenty years later there were ten point five million yes spindle top and Texas oil really was one of the main propellants behind the oil boom. So we'd have impacted everything from Navy's Davies two cars but transform the way America did business the way we got around. I mean an awful lot of horses where out of work there in those first I in years would one created an even greater need for the suddenly abundant black gold flowing out of Texas and other American oil fields after the war ended in nineteen eighteen a British lord famously bragged that the Allies had floated to victory on wave of oil and with the economic economic explosion that followed the war. The demand for oil only increased at the time. All geology was still a crude practice. Many of the early wildcatters simply relied on their nose sniffing around salt domes for the smell of sulfur. Just like Higgins said others drilled based on nothing thing more than a hunch some all seekers turn to the spiritual realm for help and others tried to divine new wells with dowsing rods in other words words. A lot of early wild catting was little more than a crap. Shoot and keep in mind. This was at a time where we had no real idea. What was down there or how it got around? I remember Hugh Cohen who was the richest man in in Houston for years one of the first great welcome centers you know. He thought that oil moved in Rivers. I down below. We had no idea of the geology. They were just beginning to use geophysical stuff he would walk around and find places in the earth I think he just felt like usually low low places he just felt in his bones. If there were oil there some guy was pretty good at it eventually. The great spindle top. Played out there. Were simply too many holes poked in the ground too many straws sucking from the same milkshake if Texas I was going to continue to be a major player in the game it would have to find new reserves up until this point oil had been found in swampy hilly areas like East Texas Texas in western Pennsylvania so the West Texas desert seemed. Like the last place you'd find another spindle top so when people would appear it. Sure doesn't look like western Pennsylvania like there are no trees not much water and it doesn't have hills it's mostly flat. What so if you're looking for oil in places where it looks like you found it before this is not attractive? Dr Dianna hidden is a historian of the petroleum industry. She's lived in Midland the financial capital of the Permian Basin for forty six years and has published six books on the industry. We we spend a morning talking at her home. Far As towns and roads and that type of thing. There's very little at that time. Most roads weren't paved even major arteries this ranch country. The Permian Basin was in the Nineteen Twenty S. Mostly a blank slate. A Pancake Flat Sea of Scrub Brush. Mesquite there are few towns and few people and towns were spaced. I used to some extent in terms of how to get cattle efficiently to the railroad which was why about every twenty five thirty miles along the railroad. There'd be a town. The Permian Basin was still in many ways the land of lonesome dove but there were a few who looked out at the empty empty pastures of West Texas and saw the potential in its arid red dirt in nineteen nineteen. Frank Pickerel was discharged works from the army and traveled to Fort Worth at the time fort worth was the western hub for the nascent. Texas oil industry place where aspiring old promoters went to make deals deals. He just so happened to run into an old army buddy. Who recently assembled the rights to drill on four hundred thirty thousand acres of land surrounding big link a speck speck of a town? Roughly halfway between PASOAN DALLAS SMACK DAB in the middle of nowhere. The land in Reagan County were big lake is located it was dirt cheap. Just ten cents an Acre in fact the land in this area of West Texas was deemed so worthless than in eighteen. Seventy six six. The state legislature gave two million acres to the University of Texas for Free Pickerel and his partner and El Paso businessman named named taming crop acquired the drilling rights and pickerel traveled to New York hoping to round up some investors at one point he even approached a group of Roman Catholic nuns. The sisters pulled their money and took a leap of faith on the harebrained scheme. It took nearly two years but by the end of Nineteen Twenty Twenty pickerel and crop managed to raise over one hundred thousand dollars now they had to actually do something with the land and they had to do it fast. They're drilling permit had an expiration irrigation. Date and if they didn't start drilling before that permit expired all their efforts would be for naught ignoring the advice of his geologist. Just pickerel settled on a drilling location about a dozen miles west of big lick. His choice was more of convenience than fate. It was only one hundred seventy four four feet from the rail line. He purchased some US drilling equipment. Shipped it to the location and on the afternoon of January Eighth Nineteen twenty one just Hours before the permit expired the crew managed to split in on the rigs. Water will needing legal proof that they made the midnight deadline pickerel hill to passing Asan car and persuaded one of the passengers to sign an affidavit saying he had witnessed the event the deal was saved. MM-HMM PICKEREL KRUPP. Now had another three years to find some all but first they had to find driller pickerel was scouting east. Texas says boom towns when he met a hard nosed old patch veteran named Carl Cromwell Cromwell who had a little problem with alcohol. And that's well known so. Nobody can sue me for saying that about a dead man for fifteen bucks day. Cromwell agreed to move his wife and small daughter daughter into one of the two shotgun houses that had been built near the rig the ramshackle lodgings and the rig the only man made structures as far as the I could see the progress proof slow. They discovered that they were going to have to drill a lot deeper than they might have. Originally thought I had to go down almost two four thousand feet. And you're drilling with a cable tool rig essentially you're dropping a heavy pointed wait eight to shatter it and then you're bringing up the rock shatters. The the you know this is how you're you're making whole. It's a slow procedure. The old rig broke down often and it could take days to ship in replacement parts by rail. Sometimes sometimes the crew went weeks without a paycheck. It was at one of these. Low points depict climbed the rigs Derek with a sealed envelope. A gift from the nuns suet. Invested in the project inside were a handful of dried rose petals. Here's frank pickerel himself in hand. Njit New Year and the envelope contains regrowth had been blessed. I in the many of the same estimate in the rose activates on with me without theory and the scattered the rue specialist tesla which by then were ride or whether we and to save five crystal the Santa Rita earn pickerel dedicated. The will the Santa Rita number one after several months of tough drilling Krummel got a lucky break and experience. roughneck named De Lachlan happened to be traveling through the area and was surprised to see an in all rig- running cromwell hired him on the spot. Lachlan's wife Nora. Joined her husband in the Cromwell's at the lonely drilling site awesome People pay and camp just up the other side of the rig and Toward night while we walk walk through you. Just get hungrier. Great to talk to people and how we were they lady asked me said have you lived in West Texas and and she said well. You just don't know any better do you little. We knew the value of that land that we were standing on. They drilled for nearly two years without results but everything changed on May twenty eighth nineteen twenty-three we went to bed. That night dislike always got up. Make Coffee I think that's far as we got. We didn't get breakfast at all. It was the whole world will lose a coral ran out of his house and and hollered real loud and we ran out and that was not baylor going to the top of that eighty six berry and hit the ground block. Failed down to one side and anchor that just play all of oil Kane and the fatter over back in the leg and chickens worldwide anymore and the Pagis Yup of often that said Nikolai and our garden. People from as far away as Fort Worth came to see the well pulse and spew oil all over the Derek which it did for an entire month until Cromwell's crew managed to control the flow. The well quickly filled two large tanks with crude when those field they let the whole run into their slush pit until that too was overflowing soon the big lake filled was one of several new oilfields sprouting and thriving throughout West Texas. The Permian Basin had been born handed. Always been the way that we find oil in some of the most atrocious. Climate's not gonNA say anything atrocious about middle in an Odessa elicit the did the climate and the ground is not a place that people are just dying. Go build their vacation homes you now. People find oil all over Texas and they don't WanNa live. Nobody wants to live in the places that they find it while I actually find much. Richard the Permian Basin quite beautiful. I get Brian Cinnamon. The oil producing parts of West Texas are an acquired taste but despite its atrocious atrocious climate. Once the Santa Rita came in the boom was on an soon wildcatters and boomers were rushing into the Permian. So the now you're in a position by nineteen twenty seven of knowing that okay the Permian Basin even though it doesn't look like other places that have oil even though it's a real headache getting your stuff in and out to drove wells even though there's no place for your workers or your company employees to live you're going to have to develop that But has level and so that's when the first permian basin boom takes off midland with its hotels and banks was probably the nicest of West Texas boom towns but most of the small towns closer to glorify working campgrounds with the living conditions. Were permitted the twenties and thirties with a great time for the classic classic Texas Spoil Boomtown the classic. One I'm thinking of is Wync way out. We're thinking Lincoln someplace You know towns sprung up in the middle of the pasture in like a month and you know initially it's tents and then it's tents and shacks and then it's tents and shacks and hookers in bars. And you know everybody works their rears off all day long when they come home. Young white men being what they they are especially in the twenty S. They want entertainment and so they were loud. They were dangerous There was a lot of gambling and a lot of drinking and in a lot of shooting guns in the air. You know Texas Boone. Towns American oil boom towns were not place for for the the plight and the mannered. They were rough in terms of fun. Not only were they places where you can get booze but nearly all of those places also also had a place where you could gamble and then there were ladies whose occupation involved lying down a lot and they would would operate out of these places where people were having fun and you could also get a fight at the end of the day if you wanted one now. Quick to make here is the lot of the people people in a town like wink. Who are using what I've been describing are single? They don't have families very young. is they'll move with the boom because because they can get a job without asking questions and when the action slows down and the wages begin to taper off they'll move to the next button. As America entered the Second World War the production of all became a matter of national security in fact some will workers were exempted from the draft to ensure ensure there was enough crew to power the allied forces. We'll Texas oil was massively important to the allied effort I remember the very first challenge. Inge was how to get it out of Texas because typically it was Oil Back then was moved by ship and unfortunately with Nazi Zi submarines in the Gulf of Mexico and along Florida an awful lot of the Texas oil that was should be going to Texas ended up washing up on the beaches in Florida. The Roosevelt Administration Russian built the first ever pipelines the call the big inch and the little inch from Texas all the way up to Pennsylvania and once we figured you're now how to get Texas oil up to the East Coast you know. It became the great driver of jet fuel of all manner of airline fuels. Also tanks Everything I mean the Nazis and the Japanese were always hard pressed for oil. That was the reason that you know. Hitler went so hard for Romanian and one of the main ane reasons he invaded. Russia was to get Russia oil of from the Caucasus. Texas oil was widely credited for helping secure the allied victory and afterward. The state's influence only grew while I mean the thing where ultimately Texas really changed the way America lived was with Texas natural gas After World War Two when we got the first pipelines built up to the northeast and gas from the Permian gas from either even further west Texas suddenly only lit up most of Brooklyn You know all of New York all a Broadway. That was all Texas natural gas. After the War America was able to turn its gaze gaze inward in the period of economic growth that followed another Texas phenomenon was born one that would come to live alongside the cowboy in American magin adulation the swaggering Texas wildcatter. It really wasn't until America kind of woke up in nineteen forty six and nineteen forty seven began taking stock of fifteen years of kind of economic and social changes. It had not been widely covered. The people began to understand cheeses crisis a lot of wealthy people in Texas. Where do these guys come from? Rich Texas oilmen weren't a new thing but they were new to the rest the country there was this famous magazine cover of life magazine early. Nineteen fifty I wanNA say in which they put h hunt on the cover. The the ambushed him on on the streets downtown Dallas and in the big headline on the cover was. Is this the richest man in America and East Coast and the north. Everybody was like what. Who are these people? The national press became statuary with these staggering rich colorful characters. One of the most famous famous wildcatters was a guy known as silver dollar. Jim West this roly-poly guy in Texas in Houston who would walk around literally throwing silver dollars hours in the air and chuckling people would scramble for them in Houston. Specially Dallas is always a little bit better behaved. Women almost competed to be the most Outrageous you know this was the air will people bought Tigers for their backyard and start with. Put a like a steamboat. In your swimming pool you know stuff like this from nineteen fifty into the late. Fifties was really the high watermark for press attention. It really created this whole idea of kind of the loud nouveau riche. Texas Oilman mythos surrounding the Texas log. Katter has persisted to this day. Perhaps perhaps the most famous oilmen of all time hills from the eighties and wasn't even a real person without a doubt the most influential oilman broadcasting this larger than life persona to the rest of the world was jr ewing. TV's Dallas us. And if you weren't alive in the seventies just may not remember Dallas and Jr Ewing were the top things on TV the number one thing on TV They ran an episode once where he got shot and it was the most watched episode in television history anywhere in the world but while the fictional antics. Jr Ewing captivated the viewing public real live. Texas oilman found out their money could influence a different audience. Washington DC Texas oil. Money does not immediately move into the political sphere. It needs to be discovered and it was famously discovered by a young unknown. Texas Congressman Name Lyndon Johnson in nineteen thirty eight nineteen thirty nine period. Where he was tasked with raisins money and he said why I've met some of these rich oilman course in Washington they were like rich oilman in Texas? Well Okay Pal and like like. Let's say that was on a Friday afternoon by Monday morning. He Scott like five checks for five thousand dollars each and that's serious money back in the day and suddenly everyone who was like Whoa. There's money down in Texas more importantly the oilman down in Texas wit. Whoa our money actually as we could do something in mean something in Washington and that all money could go a long way toward advancing one's own political agenda whatever it might be but in the state will millionaires the gym wests? The Hugh Collins were beginning of the nineteen thirties beginning to buy newspapers and radio. uh-huh stations to broadcast their kind of politics. And they're kind of politics with rare exception as what we would call today. Ultra conservative. Perfect Anti Union anti-labour anti people of Color. You know it was kind of an old fashioned white. Supremacist politics politics. And so you saw the rise of Pappy O.. Daniel you know Kinda crazy most bigoted governor we ever had their through the forties by the Early Nineteen Fifties Texas oils influence on national politics was well established if you were running for National Office. especially as a present doesn't it became a right of passage to come down and meet with Texas oil millionaire and this was a thing you know. Nixon Came Down Nixon met with with everybody here over and over and over by and large you know Texas Oilman. We're pushing What we would call today a right wing agenda And what changed everything is that They hitch their wagon to Joseph McCarthy in the Early Nineteen Fifties McCarthy of course this was a US. Senator from Wisconsin who famously launched a national inquisition to as he claimed expose communist sympathizers it it became known as the second red scare plenty of Texas Oilman strongly supported his cause but after the backlash to McCarthyism they were more chastened Jason Their political pursuits. This was very popular and very powerful For four or five years in the early fifties where you know a lot of people. We're losing their jobs because they were too liberal but there was finally in Nineteen fifty-three an immediate and powerful backlash powered by in the media but also by Eisenhower who was more of a moderate president who didn't much care for this crazy right-wing stuff the fact that Texas a woman had so vividly vividly sponsored McCarthy there was huge blowback that cost a lot of them really in fact almost all of them to kind of tamp down their political critical involvement there for a period of years. And you really didn't see Texans become visible on the national stage again until the sixties axes with LBJ with the rise of George Bush especially in nineteen forty eight. George H W Bush was a young graduate from yell and a war hero He. He traveled from New England down to West Texas to make his fortune as an oilman to Edessa then midland midland. Stop Middle and Odessa. These were not places on the earth that the rest of the country had ever heard of much less bintu and suddenly you know in the late forties early fifties there so many Ivy League kids moving down there that they open Harvard Club and Yale Club in a Princeton Clubs that these gentlemen will have of an appropriate place to drink. I suppose the Texas oil business was reaching maturity but it wasn't just the character of the almond that was changing the late fifties. We saw tectonic shift across the entire industry. Oil was going global The problem was people started finding Oil Willing even more obscure places in in the Middle East places called Kuwait and cutter that no one had ever heard of and this was a lot cheaper a lot closer to Europe you know by by nineteen sixty by the early sixties. He didn't WanNa be a Texas oilman was a lousy business. The rise of OPEC met the golden age of the Texas. wildcatter was over. You're George Bush looked for a way out of the Permian Basin in nineteen fifty eight. He moved to Houston to run an offshore drilling company called Zapata there. Air Bush got into politics and began to rise to the Republican race. Meanwhile the sixties grew worse and worse for those in the American old business. This domestic production declined while imports of Middle Eastern all skyrocketed. For the first time America grew dependent on foreign oil to meet meet its energy needs in nineteen seventy three during the Yom Kippur War between a coalition of Arab states and Israel OPEC issued an oil embargo oh on America and other Israeli allies over the next few months the price of oil jumped nearly four hundred percent America L. was in a full-fledged oil crisis it's the lowest point told becomes the highest point President Nixon began to tout a phrase that has been repeated by every US presidents residents since energy independence. The federal government pushed American oil companies to invest in domestic projects in skilled doc regulations to make it as cheap as possible to drill for all by the Mid Nineteen Seventy S. The Permian basin was booming. More than ever before a four. So we've got twenty dollars a barrel oil. Thank you OPEC. Now it's going to come up to twenty five thirty so so everybody and his dog is out there getting into the oil industry and your local dentist gets into oil. Your local auto dealer gets into oil. Everybody is out there Looking for oil and gas now. Profitable in nineteen eighty. Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory and on the ticket a Texas Oilman George H W Bush and back in West Texas. The oil business had never been better things peak in nineteen in eighty one. At which point economists out here still think that the boom has no end. We're GONNA not only see forty dollar a barrel oil. We're going to see eighty dollars a barrel while it seemed unbelievable but it seemed plausible. Canley CNN to this well. Oil is a diminishing in commodity. Take it out of the ground and it's going to take you many millions of years to replace. It has no place to go but up four months ago the price of West Texas crude oil was almost thirty. One dollars a barrel today. It was just over thirteen dollars for every dollar. The price robs Texas stands to lose a hundred million dollars in state revenue. You next time on boomtown the crash Boomtown is a CO production of entertainment. Texans executive producer is Jason produced and engineered by Brian Stanford. You also wrote the score. Boomtown is edited by J K Nickel and begging crite. Right Co reported by leak staff. Our theme song is written and performed by Cake Rossi. I'm your host and writer. Christian walls especial. Oh thanks to the DOLPH. Briscoe Center for American history at the University of Texas and the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland for the use of their archival footage also to the Dallas historical society in October productions. The use of archival through visit Texas monthly dot com slash. Boomtown for more on the sort. And don't forget to tell your friends about boomtown and please leave us a review of Apple podcasts. If you like the show.

Coming up next