Million Barrel Museum
Tourists traveling on I-20 in West Texas should not miss the Monahans oil museum in the heart of the Permian Basin. Not just a petroleum-related museum, it is a Million Barrel Museum whose main attraction is an elliptical cement oil tank the size of three football fields.
The Permian Basin was once known as a “petroleum graveyard” until a series of successful wells beginning in 1920 brought exploration companies to the arid region. The Santa Rita No. 1 well alone would endow the University of Texas with millions of dollars.
Lack of infrastructure for storing and transporting the oil proved to be a problem. “There were great oil discoveries around 1926 and few places to put the oil. No pipelines or tanks,” says Elizabeth Heath, chairwoman of the Ward County Historical Commission. A single well in the Hendricks field produced 500 barrels a day.
“Unfortunately, the Roxana Petroleum Company – later absorbed by Shell Oil – did not have a pipeline to get all that oil to a refinery,” adds journalist Mike Cox in a 2006 article. To solve the problem, the company decided to build a giant concrete reservoir. Using mule-drawn equipment, workers completed an excavation and laid wire mesh over the packed earth, Cox explains in his “Texas Tales” column. Contractors then started pouring tons of concrete.
“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,” he reports. The timbers supported a domed redwood roof covered with tar paper. Completion of the walls, pillars and roof took just three months because construction took place 24 hours a day.
Although the Monahans oil storage facility soon became known as the “million barrel reservoir,” engineers had actually designed it to hold “a staggering five million barrels of oil,” Cox claims. It was filled with one million barrels just once.
“One thing Roxana’s engineers apparently forgot to take into consideration was the weight of crude,” he says, noting that one gallon of oil weighs nearly eight pounds.
“When Roxana injected a million barrels of oil into the tank, the weight bearing down on the concrete amounted to four hundred million pounds of pressure.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time,” adds Ward County historian Heath. A Monahans High School math teacher has measured the dimensions of the tank at 525 feet by 422 feet. The concrete covered earthen walls, 30 feet tall, slope at a 45 degree angle, she says.
“It didn’t work. It leaked from too many places and the company couldn’t seal it properly,” Heath explains. “When workers poured the cement, they did it in sections, so it made seams all around. You didn’t have caulking like we have today, so oil seeped into the sand.
Despite the tank’s domed, California redwood roof – which included a network of lightning rods – oil also began to evaporate.
According to Heath, Shell Oil pumped out the oil and dismantled the wooden structures soon after the start of the Great Depression. Much of the Redwood lumber reportedly ended up in Monahans homes and businesses. Empty and abandoned, the tank gaped on Monahans’ east side for decades.
Community Water Park and Racetrack
Then in 1954, Wayne and Amalie Long purchased the concrete reservoir from Shell. The entrepreneurial Monahans couple had an idea. The Longs believed in the tank’s potential as a community attraction – a water park. To fill the tank, Wayne Long pumped water from wells he drilled nearby.
They constructed a boat ramp from the opening oil company engineers had made to remove the interior pillars and the roof.
On opening day, October 5, 1958, the one-of-a-kind lake, which the Longs named “Melody Park,” attracted swimmers, boaters, skiers and anglers. A professional ski team from Austin put on an exhibition. Alas, leaks at the seams forced the water park to close after just one day.
A 2006 letter by Wallace Dickey Jr., the nephew of the Longs, offers a first-hand account of what happened next.
“I was there in the summer of 1958, when I was in high school, when they tried to turn it into a stock car racetrack after it would not hold water long enough for fishing and swimming,” Dickey writes.
After his uncle died in 1980, his aunt eventually donated it to Ward County. Left unattended for a few years, progressive classes of Monahans High School students added graffiti here and there.
According to Heath, in 1986 Amalie Long donated the structure and the more than 14 acres surrounding it to the Ward County Historical Commission.
“Her husband wanted it to be a community project, something we could work on for local history,” Heath explains. The community rallied behind the idea of creating a museum.
With the help of local teachers and historians, construction of the Million Barrel Museum began in 1986 as part of the Ward County sesquicentennial. With the help of donations from several foundations, the museum opened with much fanfare on May 30, 1987.
Today, the museum grounds include the Holman House, carefully moved from west Monahans, farming equipment, a railroad caboose and memorabilia – and oilfield artifacts from the surrounding oilfields.
The Holman House was built in 1909 and originally served as a hotel and, for a time, as a hospital. Eugene Holman, who grew up there, became chief geologist for Humble Oil Company in 1926. As president of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, Holman appeared on the cover of TIME, which proclaimed him its International Oilman of 1947.
A section of the wall is now the Meadows Amphitheater and includes a rebuilt roof similar to the original. Today it hosts rock concerts.
The still imposing concrete walls also witness class reunions, craft shows and other community events, the most popular being a Fajita Cook-off and Tejano Dance held in May, which attracts more than 5,000 people.
On the first weekend of December, the Million Barrel Museum hosts a Christmas lighting and holiday activities. It is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays in the summer. Admission is free.
Million Barrel Museum Timeline
1923 – The Santa Rita No.1 uncovers the Big Lake oilfield on land owned by the University of Texas. The discovery leads to one of the largest oil booms in the United States. Learn more in Santa Rita taps Permian Basin.
1926-1928 – More discoveries in Ward and Winkler counties (notably the Hendricks oilfield) increase oil production. Storage problems result from a lack of pipelines to reach refineries. In 90 days a 179,500-square-foot concrete oil tank is built in Monahans.
1930 – Shell Oil Company abandons use of the tank because of leaks, evaporation – and higher taxes on stored oil.
1935 – Shell Oil removes the roof, pillars and superstructure.
1940s – The tank becomes a parade ground. Former Monahans resident Eugene Holman is president of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
1950s – Dancers and spectators gather in the tank for square dancing and community events.
1954 – Monahan residents Wayne and Amalie Long purchase the tank. They considers its potential for the community.
1958 – Wayne Long uses water pumped from wells he drilled to create a water park. Professional water-skiers from Austin put on a show at the grand opening, October 5. “Melody Park” closes the next day because of leaks.
1960s – 1970s The abandoned tank remains a community landmark – and a site for high school graffiti artists.
1986 – In honor of her late husband, Amalie Long donates the tank and surrounding 14.5 acres to the Ward County Historical Commission. As a class project project, local teacher Deolece Parmalee has her students study the tank’s history and build a scale model of the original.
May 30, 1987 – Grand opening of the Million Barrel Museum. The entrance, funded by the Sid Richardson Foundation, includes two pillars of red sandstone, the same used to build the first Ward County courthouse. Brick paving is from the old Cabot Carbon Black Plant at Wickett, Texas.
A segment of the tank is transformed into a 400-seat amphitheater, complete with a stage and roof built to resemble the original, thanks to the Algur H. Meadows Foundation of Dallas.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.