Sure it’s weird, but I know I’m not the only one who has romanticized oil refineries. The way their size generates its own skyline, their incompatibility with the natural world, their unparalleled aptitude at point-source pollution: air, soil, light, probably noise. We witness the staggering cruelty to the dilemma that forms the basis for their very existence: the negative externalities involved in processing a material that in itself serves as an extremely cheap, largely efficient (it’s cheap because it’s efficient) energy source—yet the architecture for this refinement appears so inhospitable that even Batman may demur to the prospect of vanquishing the inchoate evil that lurks within. At night, though, a refinery is most certainly Gotham, and its glowing, smoky, byzantine mystique almost achieves a beauty that it only earns because of its general scarcity. If refineries were everywhere, the cultural eye of judgment would far more credibly relegate them to a necessary evil—or even an unnecessary one that we must transcend, if not altogether annihilate. But even among the Gulf Coast (Texas and Louisiana) or Prudhoe Bay (the Alaskan North Slope basin), they’re still infrequent enough that we tolerate them. Or, if you’re like me, we almost lionize them for eliciting that same intrigue that keeps them dancing on the needle head that sequesters love and hate.
If it isn’t obvious already, I’m waxing poetic to avoid diving into murky, uncomfortable political waters, which is completely unnecessary to make the point here—and probably would actually weaken any argument. I’m not prepared to pontificate on fossil fuels. But I am prepared to explore why both industry execs and environmentalists can marvel upon the engineering feats necessary to transform Texas tea to a commodity. And I can think of few better places for such marvels as the small city of Kilgore, in northeast Texas.
The photo conveys the essence of Kilgore well enough: it was a boom town, owing much of its growth from an agrarian hamlet to the discovery of the East Texas Oil Field in 1930. A town that had previously been on the brink of collapse with the decline in demand for cotton at the start of the Great Depression, Kilgore instead surged during much of the 30s, forcing incorporation within a year and boasting several thousand people within five years—and over a thousand oil wells within the modest city limits. With surges and declines throughout the volatile decade, civic leaders did their best to plat and articulate a defined central business district, but much of the surrounding housing consisted of shanties and lean-tos. The oil derricks and wells unified a community that shared many characteristics of the 19th century wild west, up until the boom plateaued near the end of the decade. Although drilling largely ceased at the onset of World War II, production in Kilgore has continued to the present, ensuring the small city of a generally stable or growing trajectory for the subsequent eighty years. Most Census estimates suggest it is now approaching 15,000 people, and the more permanent housing, some of which has endured for three generations, endows Kilgore with districts clearly visible based on age and design. Kilgore is here to stay. And so, it appears, are the oil derricks.
Adjacent to Kilgore’s reasonably active downtown is the “World’s Richest Acre” Park, the highest concentration of oil derricks anywhere in the country: 24 wells on ten lots managed by six different operators, yielding over 2.5 million barrels of crude during its operation. I’m going out on a limb to suggest that, even if the acre is no longer worthy of its superlative adjective (it no longer produces the stuff that made it so rich), it may still host the highest concentration of oil derricks, bearing in mind that more contemporary oil extraction hubs operate under safety standards that mandate greater spacing. Regardless of the 21st century’s prize winner, the oil derricks create an indelible impression on the city’s skyline, obviously abetted by the fact that the tallest building in Kilgore is no more than five stories…but also because so many of them are still standing, and precisely because they are no longer operational. Instead of integrating with all the other commercial functions in the city, they serve as a display.
Framed strategically, the oil derricks almost achieve the ornate fascination of a miniature city—much like an oil refinery—perfectly befitting the cover of a college literary magazine. But their design is at the mercy of the function; not a minute of effort went into making an oil derrick look pretty. They’re cold, mechanical, and ruthless. They’re also the biggest attraction in Kilgore.
Using the five key visual elements that Kevin Lynch defined in his seminal book The Image of a City—path, edge, district, landmark, node—this World’s Richest Acre achieves the dimension-less height-based prominence of a landmark combined with a node, formed by the clustering of so many derricks into what must be the most anti-green pocket park on the planet. In the photo below, we’re standing in a plaza for which a derrick enforces the vertices to the square, it’s mesh frame looming above us. The node.
What might otherwise pass as infrastructural clutter is a pivotal part of the city’s history, so the preservation should come as no surprise. Visiting in November during a sort of low-key Christkindlmarkt, it’s obvious that the City deploys the derricks for seasonal messages and decorations.
And although the site of the Mrs. Bess Johnson-Adams & Hale #1 oil well offers the most bang for the buck, various other clusters or freestanding oil derricks accent the rest of the community. Here’s the other side of the street from the World’s Richest Acre:
The festival activity and adjacent utility lines detract from the derricks’ prominence somewhat; a Google Street View shows the magnitude of these steel cones flanking a modest street. And they’re visible in the opposite direction too, albeit less prevalent. I suspect that, no matter where one stands across most of Kilgore’s eighteen square miles, he or she should expect to see an oil derrick puncturing the horizon line. They are so wedded to the town’s identity that the serve as the iconography for streetlight banners, as seen to the far right of the photo linked here, taken in June of 2016 (they keep the Christmas decorations up all year apparently). And they serve as a prime backdrop to the city’s official website.
Prevalent though the oil derricks may be—and the World’s Richest Acre Park does offer a landscaped garden and picnic seating underneath some of the other derricks—I suspect that the civic boosters have only begun to scratch the surface, in terms of deploying them as a unique attraction. Take, by comparison, the blast furnaces from the old Bethlehem Steel corporation in its namesake city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Wry, rusted, and almost terrifying, this long-abandoned leviathan is a far more visually distinctive fabrication than anything in Bethlehem’s pleasant but conventional downtown. Fortunately, on the brink of closure in the early 2000s, Bethlehem Steel’s executive board charted out a master plan for the huge industrial campus that included repurposing the site into a distinctive attraction, with museums, continuing education, and performing arts occupying some of the adjacent old factory buildings. The full campus, called SteelStacks, is now probably the largest single entertainment venue in the entire Lehigh Valley (Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton), Pennsylvania’s third largest metropolitan area. People even get married with a blast furnace as the backdrop. Elsewhere in the Keystone State, the utilitarian Art Deco cast iron entrances to various stations at Philadelphia’s subway system (SEPTA) have recently achieved protection as contributing elements to a historic district. The designers of these entrances didn’t conceive them as works of art, but they’re so representative of their time period that they’ve achieved an adulatory nostalgia, all the more amplified by the fact that, over the years, the City has taken quite a few of them down. Now the rest are here to stay.
I’ll confess that my familiarity bias may inform this forthcoming admonition: that is, I know Bethlehem and Philadelphia much, much better than Kilgore (I used to live in both places), so I probably remain unaware of some of the other ways that Kilgoreans have capitalized on their distinctive skyline. It’s clear that, even without the festival, they boast a downtown with better- than-average tenancy (probably better than parts of South Bethlehem adjacent to SteelStacks). But cities that have distinctive relics of their history rarely turn these relics inside out, spin them 360 degrees, or shake them vigorously to see what else might fall out. What I’m saying, in short, is that the World’s Richest Acre still seems like a bit of a missed opportunity: civic boosters could do far more to turn a semi-local curiosity into a regional (or statewide) tourist magnet. It’s understandable to hesitate; after all, in most people’s eyes, they’re an eyesore. But the often-gendered aesthetic gaze sometimes favors novelty over beauty, much the same way the gendered gaze may orient itself more toward things and mechanics over people and expressions. A great mind, male or female, can hybridize beauty and engineering and, as a result, Instill an obsolete object with cultural primacy that allures even the seemingly agnostic. And they can make bank in the process. Maybe, with enough ingenuity, Kilgore’s oil derricks will become the World’s Richest Acre once more.