Barrel Hole by Mike Cox
of Texas’ most impressive engineering feats is nothing but a hole in the ground
today, an idea that tanked big time.
In 1928, however, anything seemed
possible. The newly discovered Hendricks field in Winkler County spouted 500 barrels
a day and places like Pyote,
Monahans and Wink
became what one newspaper called “mushroom towns.” The only thing rising faster
than the available supply of crude was the price it fetched.
the Roxana Petroleum Company (later absorbed by Shell Oil) did not have a pipeline
to get all that oil to a refinery. And hauling the crude to the nearest rail connection
by truck over mostly unpaved roads would take a fleet of vehicles.
the problem, the company decided to build a Texas-size reservoir to hold the black
After selecting a site in adjacent Ward County southeast of Monahans
and not far from the Texas and Pacific main line, Roxana brought in an army of
workmen to dig a giant hole. More men than the nearby town could accommodate,
the work force lived in tents near the job site.
Using mule-drawn equipment,
the workers completed an excavation that from an airplane must have looked like
a wide meteor crater. Next workers laid wire mesh over the packed earth. Then,
working 24-hours-a-day, contractors started pouring tons of concrete.
the concrete cured, the tank measured 522.6 feet from north to south and 426.6
feet east to west. With 45-degree walls, the tank dropped 35 feet deep.
By late April 1928 workers hammered away at a wooden cover for the colossal tank,
placing creosote-soaked support timbers at 14-foot intervals across the sprawling
reservoir floor. Those timbers supported a domed redwood roof covered with tarpaper.
the Monahans facility soon became known as the million
barrel reservoir, engineers had actually designed it to hold a staggering 5 million
barrels of oil. Pressurized crude entered into the bottom of the tank, the intake
located near a huge drain that would be used to empty the tank in case of fire.
One thing Roxana’s engineers apparently forgot to take into consideration
was the weight of crude. One gallon of the thick stuff weighs nearly eight pounds.
A barrel of oil contains 50 gallons and weighs some 400 pounds. When Roxana injected
a million barrels of oil into the tank, the weight bearing down on the concrete
amounted to 400 million pounds of pressure.
Consisting of seamed sections
of concrete, under that much pressure the tank leaked. Beyond that, despite the
roof, evaporation also claimed oil.
Even so, the loss happened slowly
enough to make the tank workable for a time. The oil it did manage to hold got
shipped by rail to Oklahoma to be refined. But when production near Wink
began to decline, the flow from the field could be more easily moved by traditional
Not long after the economy soured following the stock market
crash in October 1929, Roxana stopped using its below ground Coliseum without
seats. In the early 1930s, the company removed and sold the wood. According to
Ben White, retired Monahans High School swim coach and local history buff, quite
a few board feet of the lumber ended up in residences and buildings in Monahans.
huge concrete hole in the ground, wider than five football fields, lay abandoned
and mostly forgotten until 1954, when Monahans officials tried to get the tank
and land around it for a city park.
Shell nixed a lease agreement, but
said it would sell the property. The city opted not to buy it, but a former city
employee named Wayne Long did. He envisioned the tank awash with a fluid then
even more precious than crude oil – fresh water.
Long drilled six water
wells to fill the tank, turned a cut that had been made to remove the timbers
into a boat ramp and transformed the million-barrel oil reservoir into a million-barrel
lake – the most water they’d seen in one place since moving to West
Texas from Corpus Christi
in 1950. Their lake would be a place where people could swim, ski and fish in
the middle of a semi-desert.
For the lake’s grand opening in 1958, Long
and his wife Amalie brought in a pair of professional water skiers from Austin
to crisscross their new waterhole.
But water is twice as heavy as crude
oil. The lake didn’t hold water any better than oil and soon disappeared, along
with all the money the Longs had sunk into the project. Not a man to give up easily
Long spent a bunch more on engineering fees hoping to find and fix the source
of the leak.
Despite Long’s best efforts, tests showed the reservoir still
leaked. An attempt to transform the tank into an automobile race tract also foundered.
Finally, he gave up on a literal and figurative dry hole. According to local lore,
his failure sent him into an emotional downward spiral that ended with his death
of a heart attack in 1980.
Six years later, Amalie Long donated the tank
and 14.5 acres around it to the Ward County Historical Commission for use as a
museum complex and park. After nearly 60 years, someone had finally come up with
an idea that held water.
© Mike Cox "Texas
August 14, 2008 column
See Monahans, Texas | More
"Texas Tales" |