GTR Oil Series, Parts 1–4

by Nancy K. Owens
Associate Editor

OPENING DAY: Texas Governor John Connally was the keynote speaker at the opening day ceremonies for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition, when the Tulsa Exposition Center, known as the IPE Building,??? was unveiled. The new structure covered more than 10 acres and showcased an enormous cable suspension roof. The building was constructed after being voted upon by the people of Tulsa.

Editors’s Note: Tulsa became the “Oil Capital of the World” after the discovery of oil in the nearby Glenn Pool oil field in the early 1900s. Civic leaders, many of whom were visionaries, developed their town into what became “America’s Most Beautiful City,” coined after an article in Readers Digest magazine in 1957. After hosting many of the headquarters and divisions of the major oil companies of the world, Tulsa’s role in oil began to wane in the mid-1980s, when crude oil prices declined dramatically. Oil companies and oil people began to move away to cities such as Denver, and then mainly to Houston. This article begins a series studying oil in relation to Tulsa and its surrounding area, and includes an early history of oil, the rise and middle days of oil, and then Tulsa’s fall from being the oil capital. Later in the series, the present days and future of oil in relation to the Tulsa area will be studied.

Part 1
The Early Years

Long before the arrival of the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma, long before the great oil boom in Oklahoma during the first quarter of the 20th century, the Plains Indians were utilizing Oklahoma’s greatest natural resource—oil. Used for medicinal purposes, oil was a cure for rheumatism and other chronic illnesses.

Spring forward a few centuries to the arrival of the Five Civilized Tribes in the 1830s. There were several written accounts about the existence of oil in the area made by the white agents who accompanied the tribes to Indian Territory. Spring forward again about 80 more years and by then Oklahoma was a state and Tulsa was the Oil Capitol of the World.

First Commercial Well

It took just several decades after the arrival of the Five Civilized Tribes for this to happen. The first commercial oil well drilled in Indian Territory was the Nellie Johnstone No.1, which was drilled in Bartlesville and became active in April, 1897. Its discovery, as James Kemm describes in his recently published book, “Tulsa, Oil Capitol Of The World,” “created an excitement that brought about the search for oil in earnest in surrounding areas.” (Kemm has served in several positions in the oil industry, including as the executive manager of the Oklahoma Petroleum Council and as the executive vice president of public relations for Mid-Continent Oil and Gas. He also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Historical Society and was a past president of the Oklahoma City Historical Society. His book is available in area bookstores.)

Next was the Sue A. Bland, which gushered in as a producer on June 25, 1901. It was drilled by Drs. Fred S. Clinton and J. C. Bland on the Sue Bland homestead adjoining Red Fork. Located across the Arkansas River in what was then the Creek Nation, Red Fork would later become part of Tulsa County.

Tulsa Booms

After the Nellie came in, three Tulsa oilmen, Mel Baird, George T. Williamson and Don Hagler quickly recognized the vital need for transportation across the river. They put up their own money and built private a toll bridge in 1904. They also added a sign that read, “They said we couldn’t do it but we did.” The bridge was often referred to as “the bridge that saved Tulsa.”

Some sources say that the name Tulsa stems from the Creek Indian word “Tallasi,” meaning old town. In the late 1800s “Tallasi” was known as “Tulsey Town”—a whistle stop on the Frisco Railroad with a population of approximately 1,000. By 1905, however, with the discovery of the Glenn Pool, everyone knew that Tulsa, in what was then still Indian Territory, meant oil. Oil meant money and growth. By 1923 Tulsa’s population had mushroomed to over 110,000. The discovery of the Glenn Pool was key to Tulsa’s oil future.

Glenn Pool Gushes

In the fall of 1905, Robert Galbreath, along with the financial support of Frank Chelsey of Tulsa, drilled the Ida Glenn No. 1 about 12 miles southwest of Tulsa. It was the first major oil discovery in Indian Territory. According to Kemm, “It almost didn’t happen. By the time Chelsey and Galbreath reached 1,400 feet both men were discouraged and contemplated giving up. Their decision to continue drilling for another 100 feet put Tulsa on the international map. At 5 a.m. on November 22nd, at a depth of almost 1,500 feet, the oil spewed forth 36 feet about the derrick.”
Talking about the great oil rush to Indian Territory at this time, Norman J. Hyne, Ph. D., professor of petroleum geology at the University of Tulsa, says, “People from Illinois, Pennsylvania andTexas all converged in Oklahoma to search for oil. Even today, you’ll find descendants of these early oil pioneers with the accents of these places.” He continues, “At the time, the Glenn Pool was thought to be the largest oil field in the world. So many wells were drilled that there was an oil well for every child in the Glenn Pool school district. At that time, Glenn Pool was the wealthiest school district in the nation.” (The name Glenn Pool was later shortened to what is known today as Glenpool.)

After the discovery of the Glenn Pool, there was enormous competition between Tulsa and Sapulpa regarding the name. Tulsans wanted to call it the “Tulsa Pool.” Sapulpa residents wanted it to be called the “Sapulpa Pool.” It continued to be known as the Glenn Pool but it did affect the development of both towns.

Hyne describes the momentum of the times: “Many different types of people came to the area to strike it rich. Drillers, pumpers, investors all rushed to the area. Also though came the “ladies of the night,” the gamblers and the roughnecks. The wealthy businessmen, investors and drillers built their homes in Tulsa while the rest settled in Sapulpa.” It seems, to a degree, it was a bit of minor geographical whimsy that put Tulsa permanently on the map.

In the year 1908, the production of the Glenn Pool was up to 20,494,313 barrels of oil. A significant factor in the success of the Glenn Pool discovery was the pipelines that moved the oil. This new, cheap and efficient method of transporting oil to the refineries was a huge boon to the petroleum business in Oklahoma and encouraged the development and drilling of the first major oilfields here.

Native Americans and Oil

Initial regulations about drilling were strict. The federal government had a paternalistic attitude toward the Native Americans and didn’t want them to be left out of the money to be made from oil. They did a head count of the Creek tribe. The result was that the 1,000 or so full-blood Creeks were given “head rights”—an allotment of land including surface and mineral rights.

The government formulated a policy whereby in order to drill a well, an oilman was required to obtain a lease. Initially, a lease size was only 160 acres, which was a hindrance to investors. If oil was discovered on the lease, the surrounding areas were opened up to other businessmen who wanted to drill in the immediate area. They would potentially reap the benefits of finding even more oil without having incurred the initial financial risk involved in searching for the oil. This raised the ire of the drillers and prospectors and over the years they worked with the federal government to relax the policies. This resulted in regulatory authority being largely transferred to the State in June 16, 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Enabling Act, which joined the Oklahoma and Indian Territories.

The discovery of oil in the Creek Nation made approximately ten percent of the Creeks very wealthy. One of them received $1 million from oil royalties – about $50 million in today’s economy.
Next Month: Part Two, Oil’s Legacy to the Riches of Tulsa.

Part 2
The Discovery of Oil Changed Oklahoma Forever

The discovery of oil in the Creek Nation made approximately 10 percent of the Creeks very wealthy. One of them received $1 million from oil royalties — about $50 million in today’s economy. The resulting financial disparity within the tribe resulted in conflicts and problems. So when oilmen moved into Osage County, Osage Tribal Chief Bigheart was one step ahead of them.

Bigheart had seen what had happened to the Creeks. Concerned, he went to the U.S. Congress to testify. The policy was amended. The government conducted its head count and 2,200 Osage Indians received an allotment of land that could be leased to oil prospectors. The entire tribe benefited, however. Each headcount was entitled to 2,200th of the oil royalties made on their allotments, but the tribe shared the revenue. In 1925, a headcount was worth $50,000.

Chief Bigheart’s foresight made the Osage tribe, during the oil boom days, the richest ethnic group in the world. According to Norman J. Hyne, “In those days, the largest volume Cadillac dealer in the nation was in Pawhuska. The Osage Indians were partial to Cadillacs (and Stutz Bearcats).”

The Osage were clever dealmakers. They held lease auctions under an elm tree known as “The Million Dollar Elm,” (now the location of The Million Dollar Elm Casino). The industry’s oil giants such as Skelly, Sinclair, Phillips and Getty all sent representatives to these auctions under The Million Dollar Elm to compete for headcounts.

It was a dynamic and exciting time. According to author James O. Kemm in his book “Tulsa, Oil Capital of the World,” “By the time the territory was united with Oklahoma Territory to become the nation’s 46th state on November 16, 1907, several hundred oil companies were active in the Glenn Pool area.” He adds, “As time went by, Tulsa became the headquarters for companies that were household words, headed by such oil giants as J. Paul Getty, William G. Skelly, Josh Cosden, William K. Warren and others.”

By 1914 production at Glenn Pool had fallen to 8,677,589 barrels annually, but the field had done its job. Tulsa was known all over the world as the Oil Capital. The discovery of the Cushing-Drumright field by Tom Slick and C. B. Schaffer in 1912 reinforced Tulsa’s international reputation owing to the fact that many Tulsa oilmen drilled in the area.

The Cushing-Drumright field, 40 miles west of Tulsa, was larger than the Glenn Pool. Production in this area was so high that it resulted in the above-ground storage of 1.75 billion barrels of unsold oil. Oil prices fluctuated greatly during the early years ranging anywhere from 17 cents per barrel to 3 dollars per barrel. The instability was due to the tremendous amount of production that would create an oversupply driving the price down. After the supplies were depleted demand intensified driving the price up. This seesaw pattern continued for some years adding to the risky reputation that the oil industry already had.

Without a doubt, the Glenn Pool and Cushing fields ushered in an exciting era of oil pioneering and development in Oklahoma with almost all of the attention focused on Tulsa. The discovery of the Burbank field near Pawhuska in 1920 kept the oilmen coming in. The Burbank was bigger than the Cushing. It “made” Marland Oil (later Conoco) and Phillips. Since the discovery of these fields, the Glenn Pool, the Cushing and the Burbank have each produced over 300 million barrels of oil to date.

Tulsa in the ‘teens and through the twenties emerged as the prime destination for ambitious oilmen, businessmen, bankers, lawyers and speculators. Many would make and lose fortunes in the oil industry over the years. Others made and kept fortunes and became the founding fathers of Tulsa. The risks these pioneering oilmen took and the investments they made in drilling for oil can be more readily appreciated when one realizes the fact that petroleum extracted from the earth in Oklahoma between 1901 and 1933 approached $5 billion in value.

The men who made it happen are familiar to many — particularly in the oil industry. Harry Sinclair got started in oil by selling timber for derricks. He moved on to buying oil from independents for ten cents a barrel and holding it off the market until the price reached $1.20. Cousins Robert McFarlin and James Chapman were drawn to Tulsa by news of the Glenn Pool field. Combining their capital and their names they founded the McMan Oil Company. Within ten years, McMan had become the world’s largest independent oil company. In 1916 they sold their company to Magnolia (later Mobil Oil) for $55 million — the equivalent of over a half a billion dollars today.

These names and others like Josh Cosden, W. G. Skelly, W. K. Warren, J. Paul Getty, the Phillips Brothers, Thomas Gilcrease, Walt Helmerich, Joseph A. LaFortune and John H. Williams became synonymous with oil and success. Tulsa reaped benefits of their success very early on. People were excited to be in Tulsa — the dynamic and thriving oil capital of international renown.

Part 3
Oil Brought Fast Growth, Wealth

The names of Tulsa oilmen in the early part of the 20th century became synonymous with success. Tulsa reaped benefits of entrepreneurs such as Josh Cosden, W. G. Skelly, W. K. Warren, J. Paul Getty, the Phillips Brothers, Thomas Gilcrease, Walt Helmerich, Joseph A. LaFortune and later John H. Williams.
People were excited to be in Tulsa—the dynamic and thriving oil capital of international renown.

The city’s civic growth during these early years was tremendous and the spirit of volunteerism and charity was strong. Tulsa business leaders formed the Commercial Club in 1902, which was renamed the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in 1915. The Tulsa Chapter of the American Red Cross was founded in 1906 and the YWCA followed in 1914. Sixteen Tulsa women organized the Children’s Day Nursery in 1915, and the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women was formed in 1917.

The American Association of University Women was founded in 1918, the same year as Tulsa’s first Kiwanis Club. The first Tulsa Boys Home opened in 1918 and 1919 saw the formation of the Tulsa Business and Professional Women’s Club. Tulsa’s Junior League began its dedicated volunteer work in 1923, which continues today.

During these busy and heady times, the oil fortunes made were invested into Tulsa’s development. Consequently, the city’s business reputation flourished. Danny Goble, author of “Tulsa! A Biography of the American City,” describes how Tulsa was perceived at that time. “Herbert Feis, a representative of the eminently respectable Charity Organization Society of New York, visited Tulsa in 1923. Even as a well-traveled New Yorker he was impressed. A quick tour of Tulsa’s downtown district convinced him that ‘Tulsa reproduced some features of New York more exactly and truly than any other town in between’.”

There were luxury hotels such as the famous “Tulsa Hotel” built in 1912 on the northwest corner of Third Street and Cincinnati Avenue, the site of today’s performance Arts Center. The Tulsa Hotel was not only Oklahoma’s finest hotel but also the center of the petroleum industry. Kemm discusses the significance of the hotel: “Harry Sinclair maintained a suite of offices in the hotel and commuted each day by train from his home in Independence, Kansas. Oil company executives and independent operators from Tulsa and other cities got together there to buy and sell leases and producing properties and arrange deals worth millions of dollars.”

Goble’s book describes the high level deal making that went on in the hallways and rooms of the illustrious hotel. “Harry Sinclair (according to legend) put together the Sinclair-White Oil Company one night in its hallway. Another legend – this one confirmed by dozens of witnesses – was that Josh Cosden bought Hill Oil when he nonchalantly wrote a personal check for $12 million over a table in the Tulsa Hotel.”

In addition to hotels, other buildings quickly formed Tulsa’s growing skyline. Among them: the Fred S. Clinton office building at Fourth Street and Boston Avenue, the Sinclair Building at Fifth and Main, the First National Bank Building at Second and Main, the Cosden Building at Fourth and Boston and the Petroleum Building at Fifth Street and Boulder Avenue.

Tulsa’s prosperous oilmen built impressive buildings to work in and beautiful homes to live in. Architect and author John Brooks Walton describes many of these beautiful Tulsa landmarks in his book “One Hundred Historic Tulsa Homes.” In 1914, Josh Cosden, who built the Cosden Refinery (now the Sun Oil Refinery) on the west side of the Arkansas, constructed Tulsa’s first oil mansion at the corner of 17th Street and Carson Avenue. Cosden’s mansion had one of the first indoor swimming pools in Oklahoma and the first lighted tennis court with clay imported from Britain. The Cosden home was razed in the early 1960s to make room for what is today the University Club Towers.

Earl Harwell, one of the three partners in the Mann Oil and Gas Company (later sold to a subsidiary of Standard Oil for over $30 million) began construction of their Riverside mansion in 1923. Architects Biollot-Lauch of Kansas City designed the Gothic style mansion at 2210 South Main. It was completed in 1926 and is now the home of Tulsa’s Arts and Humanities Council.

Tulsa’s landmark “Skelly Mansion,” still existing at 21st Street and Madison Avenue, was purchased by Skelly in 1921 prior to its completion. In his book, Walton relates a story involving Mrs. Skelly and the murals in her dining room that suggests the more delicate sensitivities of the times. Apparently, Mrs. Skelly was quite put off by the frolicking naked nymphs painted on the murals. She insisted that they be repainted to be covered in some sort of fashion. They were.

The Travis mansion, what is now the Tulsa Garden Center near 21st Street and Peoria Avenue, was built in 1920 at a cost of $100,000. Tulsa merchant Arthur Hull purchased the home in 1923 and added the greenhouse and conservatory.

Perhaps the most famous of all the oil homes in Tulsa is Villa Philbrook, built by Waite Phillips on a 23-acre estate on Rockford Road in 1926. He hired Edward Beuhler-Delk, a Kansas City architect, to design an Italian Renaissance-style villa. Kansas City landscape architect Herbert Hare designed the gardens. The gardens on the east side of the villa were patterned after the gardens at Villa Lante in Italy. In 1936, ten years after building Villa Philbrook, Waite and Genevieve Phillips donated their home to the city of Tulsa as an art museum, which is now a destination for visitors and art enthusiasts from all over the world.

A great legacy of Tulsa’s oil boom days is the number of beautiful homes, office buildings, museums, hospitals, parks and schools that bear the names of Tulsa’s oil industry pioneers.

Part 4
The IPE Brought Worldwide Attention to Tulsa

The International Petroleum Exposition was the brainchild of Tulsa attorney Earl Sneed. He conceived the idea of organizing an exhibit for the entire oil industry. Sneed made the suggestion to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. They in turn held a public meeting on May 11,1923 to discuss the issue and it was unanimously approved by Tulsa’s business community.

It was the premier petroleum trade show in the world and just about everyone involved in the oil industry attended. According to Norman J. Hyne, Ph. D., professor of petroleum geology at the University of Tulsa, “You could not get a hotel or motel room between Bristow and Claremore during the two week span of the IPE.”

Thousands attended the first IPE in downtown Tulsa in 1923 and it was a show of all shows. It had a “King and Queen Petroleo,” showgirls, vaudeville acts and ballyhoo. In its early years it bore only a remote resemblance to the sophisticated industrial showcase it would become. The IPE moved to Peoria Avenue and Admiral Place in 1924 and then to its location at the Tulsa Fairgrounds on East 21st Street in 1927.

W. G. Skelly became IPE President in 1925 and by 1930 the IPE had begun to achieve a level of sophistication and importance acknowledged throughout the international petroleum industry that would increase over the years as Tulsa’s destiny continued to become even more dramatically intertwined with the story of oil.

The seventh IPE took place in 1930 and closed on a note of triumph despite the fact that the nation was facing economic upheaval. The Great Crash of 1929 destroyed financial empires. Fear and insecurity beat in the hearts of Americans.

Skelly and his IPE Committee decided that they would not allow the oil industry to acquiesce in these dark times and were more committed than ever to host a successful exposition. On October 4 at 1 p.m., according to an account in author James P. Walker’s book “The International Petroleum Exposition,” “United States Secretary of Commerce Robert P. Lamont gave the keynote address. He emphasized Oklahoma’s importance in the recovery of the national economy by doing what it did best: continuing to search for oil in the plains and valleys of Oklahoma for the fuel our nation lived on. This was an important point, as 30 percent of the United States production of oil over the previous five years had come from Oklahoma, as well as 18 percent of the world’s total.” Lamont’s comments were supported by Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley, who was also in attendance, as he urged the local audience “Don’t sell Tulsa short. Don’t sell Oklahoma short and don’t sell the United States short.”

Enthusiasm was strong for the IPE, evidenced by the positive reception to Lamont’s and Hurley’s comments and the amount of foreign participation. Twenty foreign countries sent 80 delegates and Poland and Venezuela reserved booth space. It was clear to everyone that by 1930 the IPE had settled comfortably into its role as a pace setter for the oil industry.

As the IPE increased in its seriousness of purpose, the sideshows and entertainment that had been a staple at the earlier shows declined. By 1930 there were no longer the numerous troops of entertainers as there had been in the past. King and Queen Petroleo had been quietly dethroned. The vaudeville acts had been sent back to vaudeville. What remained for entertainment was in the form of a couple of acrobats who performed tightrope walking and rig-climbing acts. The focus was on business. This focus resulted in a considerable level of sales volume at the 1930 show and created a tremendous sense of anticipation for the next IPE, planned for 1932.

The 1932 IPE, however, never took place. The nation’s economy was still mired in serious problems and it wasn’t until 1934 that the IPE opened its doors again. An aggressive public relations program was put into place to promote the event. Additionally, a joint resolution in the United States Senate by Senator Thomas P. Gore calling for the U.S. government to endorse the IPE and issue invitations to all states and to 50 oil-producing countries was signed by President Roosevelt. IPE President Skelly engineered a massive public relations and marketing campaign that included railroad and airline officials inviting over 18,000 guests who had attended the 1930 show. Marketing associations in various states sent out materials advertising the IPE, local radio station KVOO broadcast weekly half-hour programs advertising the event and Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce mobilized speakers to appear at various venues all over the state to promote it.

The marketing efforts paid off. Opening day attendance was 10,852, the highest ever. Foreign representation was again strong with delegates coming from Belgium, France, England, Italy, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Poland and French Morocco.

The focus of the 1934 IPE was on the major trend in the industry of the intensifying emphasis on refining and marketing. Consequently, booths in the Refiners and Marketers Building had been sold out for months.

The exhibits at the IPE were impressive. The Society of Mechanical Engineers had installed an automatic pump station to show how oil could be mechanically pumped from oil wells. The station was valued at $90,000 and was one of the marvels of its day. Other exhibits detailed in Walker’s book included cloth made of corrosive-resisting alloys; blankets for the very latest clay towers; new drill pipe with patented joint features having 30 percent more bearing surface; wild well capping devices used to shut in wild wells at Oklahoma City and the gulf coast; sucker rods for corrosive conditions which made it possible to pump highly corrosive wells as well as many other innovative products. An important feature of the IPE was the actual demonstration of these products so that viewers could visualize the equipment at work in the oil fields.

Safety was an important issue in the oil industry, and progress made in this area was also showcased. The Kinley brothers, famed specialists in extinguishing oil well fires, provided a memorable fire-fighting demonstration at the 1934 show.

To demonstrate their technique an oil derrick was raised and gas, under high pressure, was piped to its floor. The gas was ignited. A tower of flames engulfed the derrick and shot one hundred feet into the air. Meanwhile, Kinley donned his asbestos suit, armed himself with nitroglycerin charges and prepared for battle.

Walker describes the impressive display: “He allowed the blazing derrick to crumble into a heap with flames and gas continuing to spew forth. He pulled the seething metal from the flames with grappling hooks. At precisely the right moment he hurled his nitroglycerin charges at the base of the flame, setting off a deafening blast which snuffed out the roaring gas fire and left the scene smoldering with wisps of smoke and drifting vapors. The tumultuous applause of the spectators almost equaled the thunderous clap of the nitroglycerin.”

Kinley’s demonstration was so popular that spectators crowded onto the viewing stands in greater numbers than the stands could bear. During the May 16 evening performance a section of the grandstand collapsed. Spectators tumbled to the ground. Fortunately there were only minor injuries. Nevertheless, claims were filed and final settlements totaling $1,201.50 were paid to claimants.

The accident during Kinley’s firefighting show did not dim the outcome of the 1934 IPE. The eighth IPE was widely recognized to be the greatest and most effective in the industry, marking a turning point for the nation’s largest industry.

Continue to rest of story

Updated 01-09-2006

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