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