Aug. 1, 1999; reprint of Odessa American feature article by Jeanna Cuny.
Museum, a Remnant of Oil Heyday

Exhibit features tank built to hold one million barrels of crude oil.

Monahans -- A huge hole in the ground may not sound too exciting, but for local residents, it not only reminds them of a time when oil literally shot out of the ground - but of days of skipping school, stargazing and former loves.

The Million Barrel Museum in Monahans draws thousands of visitors annually, said Elizabeth Heath, a museum board member and Ward County Historical commission chair.

The museum, which was Heath's dream, features a cement tank built by Shell Oil Co. to hold one million barrels of crude oil.

Visitors to the museum generally expect to see a hole in the ground, said Emily Pantoja, the museum's curator and caretaker. And a hole in the ground is what they get, although on a colossal scale.

The floor of the tank roughly is the size of 5 football fields. The walls, which slope at 45 degree angle, have weathered well, aside from the graffiti left during the years by local students.

She said a couple with four boys recently visited the museum and took a family portrait.  The couple told her they had played hooky as high school seniors and visited the tank two weeks before they graduated. Then snapped a shot of the oldest boy beneath the words, "Ronnie and Rebecca - love."

Before leaving, the boys' mother told Pantoja the couple had conceived their son at the tank the day she and her husband had cut class. "She came down here and got pregnant, It's a true story, she told me I could tell it," Pantoja said.

Other area residents come out to see the writing on the wall as well.   "Some can't hear. Some can't even walk, but they're looking for their names on the wall" Pantoja said.

The enormous walls make up the tank that took men and pack mules to create. The mules hauled wood and cement to the site and the men worked around the clock for 90 days to construct the huge vessel in 1928.

That was when oil first was discovered in West Texas and was flowing about 500 barrels daily. "You didn't have pipelines or tanks, and you had this great bonanza out at Wink," Heath said. "Shell was trying to find a place to put the oil, so they just dug this big hole in the ground."

After soil was brought to the site from surrounding areas, it was packed into tall earthen walls, covered with concrete and reinforced with wire mesh. A domed roof, supported by posts soaked in creosote, a pungent wood preservative, and spaced 14 feet apart, a roof was then added and waterproofed with tarpaper.

The tank measures 522 feet across the floor from north to south, and 425 feet across the floor from east to west.  Its capacity is more than five million, although only one million barrels were ever stored there.

Crude oil stored in the tank was shipped to Oklahoma to be refined.

What they (Shell officials) found out was that it was a good idea but it didn't work.  There was too much evaporation." Heath explained. "And, when they laid the cement, they laid it in sections, so it made seams all around. They didn't have caulking like we have today, so some oil seeped. between the seepage and the evaporation, they lost a lot."

When the Depression hit in 1929, Shell pumped oil out of tank, then dismantled it in the 1930s and eventually abandoned it.

It was unused until Wayne and Amalie Long purchased it from Shell in 1954.

"My husband had worked with the city of Monahans, and the city was trying to get the lease on it to make it a part or something. He was the contact person. The city made an offer, but Shell didn't accept it, "Amalie Long said., "So, Shell said, 'OK, it's for sale, Doe you want to but it?'

The Longs bought the tank with the intention of making it a fishing lake. "He privately worked on drilling water wells for it," Heath said. "Being a private endeavor, it was just a tremendous effort for a individual to try to do."

In the cut that had been made to drag out timber from the roof during the dismantling effort, Wayne Long put in a boat ramp.

The day the lake opened in 1958, he brought in two professional water-skiers from Austin for a show. That show is Amalie Long's favorite memory of the tank. especially because it was something she hadn't seen since coming to Monahans from Corpus Christi in 1950.

Like the oil before it, the water didn't last, even with 6 wells pumping water to the basin.

Once Amalie Long told Heath the lake opened and closed on the same day, Heath recalled. As the water evaporated, Wayne Long's inheritance was doing the same.  He spent most of his inheritance paying engineers to find a leak in the tank.

They never did and Wayne Long never recovered. He went into a deep depression and had a fatal heart attack in 1980, Pantoja said.  Amalie Long walked away from the tank, although the deed was still in her name, and nothing more was done with it until 1986 when she donated it to the Ward County Historical Commission.

She said she gave the tank to the commission because her husband had wanted it to be an interesting project for the community. Heath said she hadn't paid much attention to the tank until a teacher, who was fascinated by it, mentioned it..

While involved with a junior historian program, teacher Deolece Parmalee approached Heath and other members with the tank as an interesting bit of history.

"She inspired us enough that we had the junior historians make a model of the million barrel.  It kind of focused our attention on the million barrel as something that was historical and languishing there without much attention."

In 1968, her dream of turning the almost forgotten tank into a museum became reality with Amalie Long's donation of not only the tank, but the 14.5 acres surrounding it.

The tank is historical significant because it was part of the birth of the oil industry here, Heath said.  The donation of the property also provided a home for other interesting historical pieces.

"It wasn't feasible to have several other museums. So we had an idea, if we could find a place big enough we could sort of show the history of the development of the county."

The museum is open form 10 AM to 6 PM Tuesday through Saturday and form 2PM to 8PM Saturday.  Admission is free, but a $3.00 donation is suggested.  For more information, Contact Pantoja at 943-8401.



Updated 02/08/2003