Well-Meaning Efforts To Revive Symbols Of UT’s Oil Wealth Run Dry

May 11, 2018

As a boy in the 1950s James White remembers going with his father to his job in the oilfields of the Permian Basin. His dad would give him a five-gallon bucket, some soap and a scrub brush and come back to check on him hours later.

During those hours of scrubbing in the West Texas sun, he developed a passion for oil rigs and pump jacks.

“It’s kind of like a carnie loves to watch his Ferris wheel go around,” he said. “You become attached to that piece of equipment.”

White maintains and preserves a vast collection of old oilfield stuff at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. He gets paid for his hobby, he says.

But the preservation part can be tricky.

Several months ago he took a tour group to look at the Old Santa Rita No. 1 oil well, about an hour outside of Midland, and what he found shocked him.

“For it to be in this condition is appalling to me,” he said, scrolling through pictures he took of rotten wood and metal splayed on the ground.

That’s because the Santa Rita No. 1 is not just any oil well.

A photo of men (possibly University of Texas regents) at the site of the Santa Rita No.1 in August 1933.
Credit Texas Times, via the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Stuck In Traction

Ninety-five years ago the Santa Rita was the first oil well to find crude in the West Texas desert.

It was named after the patron saint of the impossible, because no one thought it would strike oil there. But when it did, it ushered in a boom that enriched the state – as well as the Texas public universities that own millions of acres in the West Texas oil fields.

Since that visit to the Santa Rita, White has been using his position at the museum to urge the state office that manages the Santa Rita to rehabilitate the well.

Representatives of that office, University Lands, agree the site should be rehabilitated – but nobody can agree on how exactly.

For one, White wants to spend more money than University Lands, which manages 2.1 million acres of land for the University of Texas System – meaning it’s more of a steward, and less of a historical preservation outfit.

To complicate all of this, the Santa Rita oil well isn’t the only Santa Rita oil well. There’s another one – hundreds of miles away from the West Texas oil fields.

A Font Of Knowledge

If you were a student on the campus of the University Of Texas at Austin up until a few years ago, you may remember the voice of the other Santa Rita No. 1.

The rig was moved to Austin in the 1940s and now sits along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It was moved to Austin in the 1940s.

For decades, through a well-concealed PA system, the rig told a tale of Texas, narrated by late UT professor Carl J. Eckhardt. It delighted, surprised and annoyed generations of passersby, and is reported to have led to some street corner conversions as pedestrians mistook it for the voice of God.

But it’s silent now.

The university recently renovated it, but didn’t reinstall the PA system. Though a tape of the narration is still kept, in the event that that audio is restored.

But, while the well’s old voiceover continuously foretold of “greater things to come,” that may not be the case for its West Texas counterpart.

The Well’s Run Dry

A recent photo of the Santa Rita site.
Credit Courtesy of James White

James White admits he’s lost interest. He can’t convince anyone to spend the money he thinks is necessary to fully rehabilitate the West Texas rig. He says it’s even harder because of the oil boom, which has allowed contractors to take their pick of jobs and even name their price in some instances.

Still, University Lands says it still wants to put some money toward a rehab while it figures out feasible plans to fix up the old well site.

In the meantime, your best view of one of Texas most iconic rigs might hundreds of miles from the oilfields here in Austin.