How One Individual's Pursuit of an Idea Changed a Nation

Abstract: A new museum in an old ghost town reaffirms why the petroleum industry should be proactive in communicating its message to a skeptical public.

Analysis:Need a break on this morning after the mid-term elections? Surely everyone must have a political hangover after the four-week binge of negative advertising, so get the hot water bottle ready and take a 10-minute interlude down the historical road.

After all, they finally got an official museum in Thurber, Texas. The W.K. Gordon Center for the Industrial History of Texas was dedicated last week. It supplants the photographs hanging without context in a couple of local restaurants. The museum and visitor center is a part of Tarleton State University in nearby Stephenville, Texas.

You won't find Thurber on most maps. It is a ghost town about 70 miles west of Fort Worth on Interstate 20, which today runs through what was downtown 90 years ago for 10,000 people, the majority immigrant coal miners. While the 20th century started with Spindletop, coal was still the nation's main energy source for the first two decades. And Thurber was a company coal town, company managed with company-owned stores, and company-owned housing.

That company was the Texas Pacific Coal Company. It built a camp close to mines that were opened in 1886 and eventually produced 14 million tons of bituminous coal, most of which was consumed by the Texas & Pacific Railroad. Coal production peaked at Thurber in 1912. Then came the Great War. Railroad transportation volume grew, coal shortages surfaced nationwide, and the race was on to convert the railroads to fuel oil.

And this is why it is good to have a museum at Thurber. The Texas Pacific Coal Company played an intriguing role in the nation's shift from a coal-based energy system to petroleum—essentially evolving from the 19th century way of life into the 20th century in a little less than a decade. It was Mr. W.K. Gordon, vice president and general manager for Texas Pacific Coal Company, who assisted in making the evolution possible.

Mr. Gordon was present in October 1911 when coring for the depth of the coal deposits west of Thurber generated samples that leaked oil and a little gas. Of course, finding oil in those days was easy. Any hillbilly from West Virginia or Pennsylvania could point out an anticline, the surface feature most used to determine where to drill.

But Mr. Gordon, who was trained as a civil engineer and became a competent geologist while overseeing the Thurber mining operation, was convinced that oil lay in deeper formations unreflected by surface features. It was a clever piece of geological detective work, tracing formations as they slanted west into the earth. But it was also a radical theory.

The shallow stuff was little challenge. By 1915, Texas Pacific Coal Company had developed a shallow gas field west of Thurber and the coal miners enjoyed heat from natural gas, the hydrocarbon that would eventually eliminate the need for their town. City governments in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls all expressed interest in natural gas, which encouraged the coal mining company to devote financial resources to prospect for oil and gas.

It was what lay under the shallow stuff that interested Mr. Gordon. In 1916 he received confirmation of his theory when natural gas was found in a deep well test the company drilled near Caddo, about 25 miles northwest of Thurber. Within a year, he had spudded a handful of deep tests near Ranger, Texas.

There is a story behind the Ranger discovery well. When it looked as though the well had reached TD without a show, Mr. Gordon insisted, despite resistance from his company's senior management, to drill a couple of hundred feet deeper to reach the geologic target 3,200 feet below the surface.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Ranger discovery came in 85 years ago last month. Within a year, World War I had ended and a flood of young servicemen returned to the United States seeking adventure. They found it in the rapidly developing oil fields of North Central Texas—places like Ranger, Breckenridge, Burkburnett, or Desdemona.

Ranger was not significant because of the volume of oil. It was a modest field in the context of history. It is what happened as a consequence of Ranger that is significant. Ranger marked the first in a string of significant "deep" discoveries that advanced the oil regions west into the Permian Basin with stunning regularity in 1921, 1923, and 1926. Thanks to the growing volume of oil from the Permian Basin, Texas supplanted Oklahoma at the end of the 1920s as the number one petroleum producer in the United States.

And while the U.S. was a coal-based economy in 1917, people everywhere were convinced the future lay in the mobility associated with a steady supply of petroleum as the 1920s got underway, largely due to publicity surrounding the oil boom in North Central Texas.

Mr. Gordon's personal theory led to substantial advancement in geological work. It was Ranger and its location along a buried geological feature called the Bend Arch that electrified the first annual meetings of what later became the American Association of Petroleum Geologists as a burgeoning geologic fraternity scrambled to solve the subsurface puzzle of Texas.

The excitement oil engendered in North Central Texas also became an economic fulcrum as the basis for capital investment shifted away from coal and railroads towards petroleum and automobile transportation.

Finally, Ranger was characterized by a series of stock promotions that featured Enron-like qualities when it came to fraud. A lot of money disappeared in the bubble. Those schemes reinvigorated a public distrust of oil that had faded a generation after the Standard Oil specter. Sadly, that image has been revitalized for subsequent generations by the TV character J.R Ewing, the ExxonValdez, and the Enron debacle.

Today, a public pampered by abundant, low cost energy, perceives the oil and gas industry, particularly "Big Oil," as an enemy. Industry attempts to counter that have been few, far between, and seldom successful. That is why there is a need for museums, archives, or other facilities to communicate the interaction between people and petroleum.

That said, most oil museums focus on old wooden derricks from the age of gushers and the oil and gas story largely remains untold. Indeed, the major breakthroughs in petroleum, as Mr. Gordon demonstrates, have been more about ideas than artifacts. Since the 1920s, oil and gas has been a three-dimensional voyage of discovery through the earth's crust. It is a great story.

As for Thurber, the last coal was mined about 1921, though some mines operated at reduced capacity until 1926. After the town burned in the late 1920s, the company—which had changed its name to the Texas Pacific Oil Company—began selling the remaining structures.

Ironically, several of those old coal miner abodes were moved west to supply housing in the new oil fields of West Texas. The ghost town with the new museum has had a direct impact on the lives of those speeding past in their new automobiles. Let's hope some will spend a few minutes in the visitor's center contemplating our relationship with hydrocarbons.