Roaring Ranger wins WWI
Ninety-nine years ago, a Texas oilfield was discovered halfway between Abilene and Dallas. The October 17, 1917, wildcat well in Eastland County made headlines worldwide. “Roaring Ranger” erupted in a geyser of oil – and revealed an oilfield that would help win World War I.
Ranger’s town leaders had been eager to find oil, especially after newspaper accounts of a 1911 oilfield discovery at Electra to the north. A decade earlier in southeastern Texas, the famous “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop had launched the modern U.S. petroleum industry.
As the county’s farmers struggled with severe drought, Ranger officials hoped to strike “black gold” with the help of William K. Gordon, vice president of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company in nearby Thurber. After one failed attempt with a shallow well, Gordon agreed to drill a second well up to 3,500 feet deep.
Using a cable-tool rig, Gordon and contractor Warren Wagner spudded their well on July 2, 1917, on the McCleskey farm about two miles south of Ranger. After more than three months of drilling, the J.H. McCleskey No. 1 well roared in from a depth of 3,432 feet.
When completed, “Roaring Ranger” initially produced 1,600 barrels of oil a day of high gravity oil. Later gushers yielded up to 10,000 barrels of oil daily. Within 20 months, Texas and Pacific Coal Company stock jumped from $30 a share to $1,250 a share. The company reorganized as the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.
Eastland County oil discoveries brought economic booms to Ranger, Cisco, Desdemona (today a ghost town) and Eastland. The Abilene Reporter-News reported Ranger’s population swelled from less than 1,000 to more than 30,000 – mostly men. The drilling boom “started the rush to Ranger that brought about the development of one of the greatest oilfields in the country,” proclaims historian Damon Sasser.
“By 1919, the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company had 22 oil wells being drilled and there were also eight refineries open or under construction,” Sasser adds. More freight was unloaded in Ranger by the railroad than at any other place upon its line, including stations in Fort Worth, Dallas and New Orleans.
The flood of people also brought Texas Rangers to enforce laws. When jails in Ranger overflowed, the lawmen handcuffed prisoners to telephone poles. “The Texas Rangers were no strangers to the town – years earlier, the city actually sprang up around an old Texas Ranger camp, hence the name Ranger,” Sasser notes.
Independent operators opened other nearby oilfields, including the Parsons, Sinclair-Earnest and Lake Sand fields. Production from the Breckenridge oilfield in neighboring Stephens County was 10 million barrels of oil by 1919. It peaked at more than 31 million barrels of oil in 1921.
“Roaring Ranger” and the region’s production had proved essential to the Allied victory in World War I. When the armistice was signed in 1918, a member of the British War Cabinet declared, “The Allied cause floated to victory upon a wave of oil.”
Among the veterans visiting booming Eastland County after the war was a young Conrad Hilton, who visited Cisco intending to buy a bank. When he witnessed the long line of roughnecks waiting for a room at the Mobley Hotel, he decided to buy the hotel (learn more in Oil Boom Brings First Hilton Hotel).
Although Ranger’s boom ended in the early 1920s when excess oil production caused wells to fail, the discoveries confirmed existence of a large petroleum-producing region, the Mid-Continent, which includes hundreds of oilfields reaching from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Established by the Ranger chamber of commerce in 1982, the “Roaring Ranger” Museum – inside the original Texas and Pacific Railway’s depot – exhibits drilling equipment, historic photos and a vintage cable-tool rig.
Ranger residents annually celebrate their 1917 gusher with an oil festival and parade down Main Street. When the parade crosses the historic train depot’s tracks, it passes a small, gray granite marker dedicated to the “First Oil Well Drilled in Eastland County.”
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