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Million Barrel Hole

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

One 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. Unfortunately, the Roxana Petroleum Company (later 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.

To solve the problem, the company decided to build a Texas-size reservoir to hold the black gold.

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.

When 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 36 feet from roof to floor at the center, 25 feet along the perimeter.

A story provided to the Dallas Morning News by a correspondent in San Angelo and published Feb. 19, 1928 said company officials reported the cost of the tank as $250,000 – a quarter a barrel in storage costs compared to 50 cents a barrel for storage in steel tanks.

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.

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. The tank also had six 150-foot lightning rods rising from it.

One thing Roxana’s engineers apparently forgot to take into consideration was the weight of crude. One gallon of the thick stuff weighs about eight pounds. A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons and weighs some 336 pounds. When Roxana injected a million barrels of oil into the tank, the weight bearing down on the concrete amounted to 870 pounds per square foot.

Consisting of seamed sections of concrete, under that much pressure the tank leaked. Beyond that, despite the roof, evaporation also claimed oil. Too, the weight of the roof put a lot of stress on the concrete.

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 methods.

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.

The 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 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.

Million Barrel Museum aerial view
The Million Barrel Museum
Courtesy Suzi Blair, Monahans Main Street Program Manager
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
August 14, 2008 column

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