To understand the current shale boom, we take a step back in time to explore the history of oil in Texas. Earlier this year, I drove to the site of the Santa Rita No. 1. Named after the patron saint of impossible dreams, the Santa Rita was the oil well that launched the first Permian Basin boom and has been fueling the dreams of West Texas wildcatters ever since. The well was a classic Hollywood gusher when Frank T. Pickrell and his partners first struck oil there in 1923, but it’s a lonely site today. The metal derrick stands out like a rusting nail against the yellowed grass and surrounding scrub brush. Wind rattles the tin shack housing the rig’s ancient engine. There are no remnants of the company town that once thrived there. There’s nothing significant about this scene. Just another abandoned well in the West Texas desert. But next to the derrick is a plaque that proclaims that the events that once unfolded there “stretch the imagination.”
The story of oil in Texas, and especially West Texas, does indeed stretch the imagination. It’s a tale populated by one-armed wildcatters like Patillo Higgins and hard-drinking drillers like Carl Cromwell. To help us tell this sprawling narrative, we enlisted writer Bryan Burrough, the author of The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, and historian Dr. Diana Hinton, who has written six books on the petroleum industry. With their expertise, they guide us through eight decades of history, from the strike at Spindletop to the booming days of the early 1980s.
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We explore how the strike at Santa Rita caused rowdy boomtowns to sprout across the Permian and how the riches found in those dusty plains would make Texas oilmen the wealthiest individuals in America. We discuss both the cultural and historical impact of the swaggering oilman, in both pop culture and politics. And we trace the rise of one such oilman, George H.W. Bush, from his humble beginnings in the oil fields of Odessa and Midland all the way to the Oval Office.
Today, the Santa Rita’s original wooden rig resides at its permanent home on the campus of University of Texas. The riches that have poured from the oil-rich university lands in West Texas have made the UT System one of the wealthiest educational institutions in the country, with an endowment worth more than $30 billion, second only to Harvard.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the endowment is distributed across the entire UT system.