West Texas petroleum history is made in 1923 when a well blessed by nuns reveals the size of the Permian Basin. A small Texas university owns the arid land deemed worthless by many experts.

west texas petroleum

In 1958, the University of Texas Board of Regents moved the Santa Rita No. 1 well’s walking beam and other equipment to the Austin campus. After the dedication, the student newspaper described the well “as one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”

The Permian Basin, once known as a “petroleum graveyard,” began to make U. S. petroleum history in 1920 with a discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County in West Texas. But when completed, his well produced just 10 barrels a day.

It would be another discovery well, the Santa Rita No. 1, that convinced wildcatters to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.

Although many experts still considered West Texas barren of oil, the Santa Rita well will produce for seven decades after tapping into the vast commercial oil production of the Permian Basin.

Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made its major oil strike May 28, 1923 – after 21 months of cable-tool drilling that averaged less than five feet a day.

west texas petroleum

Discovery of the Big Lake oil field in 1923 will lead to many boom towns, including Midland, which some will refer to as “Little Dallas.”

Within three years of the discovery, petroleum royalties endow the University of Texas with $4 million (legislators had given the land to the university when it opened in 1883).

The Texas board of regents will move Santa Rita’s drilling equipment to the campus in 1958, “In order that it may stand as a symbol of a great era in the history of the university.”

Santa Rita’s walking beam today stands near the campus library. After the dedication, the student newspaper of the day described the well “as one that made the difference between pine-shack classrooms and modern buildings.”

west texas petroleum

The original Santa Rita equipment is now a permanent exhibit at San Jacinto Boulevard and 19th Street on the Austin campus of the University of Texas.

The original Santa Rita No. 1 site can still be found near Big Lake. The historic well was spudded shortly before midnight on August 17, 1921 – on the last day before the 18-month drilling permit was to expire. Progress was slow.

Drilling crews, when available, “consisted mostly of cowboy roustabouts who were distinguished for high absenteeism and steady turnover,” notes one historian. The well was often shut down and roughnecks laid off because cash was not available to pay salaries or buy supplies.

Several months after drilling began, one of the well’s increasingly desperate owners, Frank Pickrell, climbed to the top of the derrick. He threw out rose petals that a group of Catholic women investors from New York had given him.

Pickrell christened the well for the patron Saint of the Impossible – Santa Rita.

west texas petroleum

The Big Lake field – at 4.5 square miles – revealed that vast oil reserves in West Texas came from both shallow and deep formations. Exploration spread into other areas of the Permian Basin, still one of the largest oil-producing regions in the United States.

On May 25,1923, oil and natural gas began to show at the well. On May 28, a loud roar was heard and Santa Rita No. 1 blew in. People as far away as Fort Worth traveled to see the well.

When the necessary casing and other well equipment arrived a month later, it was brought under control – and the first commercial well in the Permian Basin went into production.

In the fall of 1923, Pickrell found an important investor, Michael L. Benedum, the highly successful independent oilman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Benedum and another Pittsburgh wildcatter, Joseph Trees, purchased Texon properties and formed the Big Lake Oil Company in 1924.

The new company’s president, Levi Smith, would be instrumental in creating Big Lake – the first oil company town in the Permian Basin. Santa Rita No. 1 well, capped in May 1990, is remembered with a replica that stands in the Reagan County Park.

The Big Lake oilfield proved to be 4.5 square miles and demonstrated that vast oil reserves in West Texas came from both shallow and deep horizons.

Exploration spread into other areas of the Permian Basin, which would become one of the largest oil-producing regions in the United States.

Learn the story the Permian Basin at the Petroleum Museum in Midland. Not far from the museum, in Odessa, an Ector County historical marker notes “the first Permian Basin dry hole” was drilled in 1924.

Pennsylvania oilmen drilled the well to 900 feet and found only “Red Bed” rock, notes the 1965 marker. The well was abandoned — but by 1964 Ector County would have 9,600 oil wells.

Movie features Big Lake Baseball

The 2002 movie “The Rookie” was filmed almost entirely in West Texas. It featured a Big Lake high-school teacher played by Dennis Quaid, who despite being in his mid-30s briefly makes it to the major leagues.

west texas petroleum

In the movie “The Rookie,” Catholic nuns christen the well with rose pedals. In reality, one of the well’s owners did.

As the well is being drilled, Catholic nuns are shown carrying a basket of rose pedals to christen it for the patron Saint of the Impossible – Santa Rita. Read more in Oil Fields of Dreams.

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