Million Barrel Museum - Giant Oil Tank
Monahans was ground zero for a West Texas oil boom in 1928. So much crude was pumped out of the ground that there weren't enough barrels to store it. Shell Oil Company had an idea. It built one big barrel.
Today it's known as the Million Barrel Museum. "Barrel" describes its capacity, not its shape; it's actually a giant dish dug into the earth, 35 feet deep, paved with cement. It originally had an elaborate vaulted wooden roof (long gone). But cement has its load limits, and a million barrels of crude oil weighs 315 million pounds. The barrel cracked, the oil ran back into the ground. What little remained was pumped out, and the empty barrel was left to the elements.
Thirty years later, a man named Wayne Long, who ran a local trailer park, bought the barrel. He sealed its cracks, filled it with water, and named it "Melody Park" -- a West Texas oasis for boating, fishing, swimming, and even water-skiing. It opened on October 6, 1958 -- and closed on October 7. Long discovered to his dismay that the barrel was no better at holding water than it was oil.
The barrel was again abandoned for decades, its five acres of cement scarred by the Texas sun and teenage graffiti (a 20th century Newspaper Rock). Long never gave it up -- he even dreamed of turning its high-banked walls into an auto race track. When he died, his widow gave the barrel and its surrounding land to the Ward County Historical Commission, which opened it as the Million Barrel Museum in 1987.
Ward County recognized that the tank could be almost as valuable empty as it had been full. Its flat bottom became a ready-made site for tailgate parties, square dances, and an annual Fajita Cook-Off.
Tourists can drive down Wayne Long's old boat ramp into a dun-colored world, encircled by a towering wall cracked with weeds. The biggest RV is humbled here. It's like being at the bottom of Meteor Crater -- if you could drive to the bottom of Meteor Crater, which you can't.
The Historical Commission has moved other attractions onto the property to complement the tank, such as Monahans' first jail and its former hotel. There's a small museum; its exhibits include the restored mail cart of "Domino" Cleveland Brockman, who hauled freight and mailbags by hand from the railroad to the post office for 25 years. A couple of rooms are filled with someone's donated collection of Coca Cola memorabilia. An old train car contains a mirrored "endless" stretch of railroad tracks.
Outside, by the barrel rim, a small granite slab marks where Monahans buried the ashes of its retired American flags in 1992.
Texas crude is about 30 percent gasoline, which means that 200 million gallons of 1920s vintage leaked gas may still be in the ground beneath the Million Barrel Museum. That's a lot of potential driving miles, and it's reassuring to know that this Strategic Reserve is so handy if we ever need it. Just be mindful when you visit that you're in a giant, leaky oil tank if you decide to fire up a barbeque.