Tulsa: Oil Capital of the World

The famous 76-foot-tall Golden Driller, standing in front of Tulsa’s IPE building.
The famous 76-foot-tall Golden Driller, standing in front of Tulsa’s IPE building.

“Tulsa: Oil Capital of the World.”

It sounds a little boastful, doesn’t it? Well, over a century ago when the title was first touted – it certainly was.

When the appellation was declared by Tulsa, it was a boomtown in Indian Territory fast growing into a city with an entrepreneurial excitement fueled by some massive oil fields nearby. And the title was up for grabs.

The “Oil Capital” label was first proclaimed in the mid-1800s by Titusville, Pa., thanks to Edwin Drake’s oil find. Soon, nearby Pittsburgh lay claim to the title with its refineries and financial horsepower.

As oil production progressed west to Ohio and the Great Lakes population grew, Cleveland, powered by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, proclaimed itself the Oil Capital with a touted 88 refineries pumping out product shipped via Lake Erie.

But Cleveland? Oil Capital? Really? Besides, the Standard Oil Trust was about to get busted.

Then in 1897 the Nellie Johnstone well blew in near Bartlesville, about 40 miles north of Tulsa. The nearby Red Fork was discovered in 1901 and four years later came the Glenn Pool gusher that opened a giant new field just to the south.

Newspaper images of Oklahoma oil geysers were published over the world. Tulsa was in the center of the new oil-producing universe.

The Oil and Gas Journal was established in Tulsa in 1902. Where else? It was where the news was happening. It was the Oil Capital of the World.

Living On Tulsa Time

In 1903 Nebraska brothers Frank, a banker, and L.E. Phillips heard from a missionary to the Osage Tribe of the vast oil deposits in Oklahoma and began their oil hunt. Their first wildcat struck. Their second and third wells were dry and they were going broke. Then, in 1905, the brothers hit the first of 81 wells in a row without a single dry hole.

Twelve years later, they founded Phillips Petroleum Co. in nearby Bartlesville.

James O. Kemm wrote in his book “Tulsa: Oil Capital of the World” that by the time the territory became the nation’s 46th state in 1907, nearly 100 oil-related companies were active in the Glenn Pool area alone.

With Tulsa having rail access and green rolling hills, a new corporate generation chose it as their headquarters and began to build their worldwide empires – and homes. Residents were to become the “Who’s Who” in the oil industry, including J. Paul Getty, Harry Sinclair and William Skelly.

With the onset of World War I, the value of petroleum and its products heightened the importance of the city – and development of the aviation industry made it more accessible.

By this time, Tulsa was headquarters to 1,500 oil-related companies, and was the decision center for the mid-continent oil fields, which produced two-thirds of the nation’s oil. Its refineries produced more gasoline than any other location in the United States and supplied coast-to-coast pipelines, Kemm reported.

In 1917, the most influential geologists in the world gathered at a dinner in Tulsa and AAPG was born and headquarters were established.

In 1923 a group of Tulsa oilmen organized the first International Petroleum Exposition and Congress (IPE), a multi-day exhibition of the latest technology and science. It’s stated purpose was to “firmly establish Tulsa for all time to come as the oil center of the entire world.”

The first IPE drew 27 exhibits and 14,000 attendees, which at the time was pretty heady stuff.

With a certain “wildcatting sophistication,” Tulsa assumed a persona and lifestyle that set it apart culturally from the state that didn’t repeal prohibition until 1959. The social competition by the “nouveau riche” resulted in elegant mansions and downtown buildings grandly adorned with the art deco flair of the times. It was, as they were remembered, the “Doo-Dah Days.”

The IPE also drew the attention of the international press – and if you were doing business in the oil industry, this was the place to be. Major meetings were scheduled in Tulsa around the IPE. Notables were also among the attendees. Aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was present when President Calvin Coolidge opened the 1927 exposition from the White House by pressing a button that caused a simulated gusher to blow wild on the IPE grounds.

Kemm wrote that the 1948 IPE, the first after a World War II hiatus, reportedly drew more than 200,000 but the board of directors voted to hold it every five years due to logistics and financial difficulties.

Pass the Peak

Meanwhile, the post-WWII industry was mushrooming in Houston with companies’ activities increasingly becoming more offshore and international – and Houston was a growing hub of decision-making.

Tulsa continued to be known (and to promote itself) as the “Oil Capital of the World” into the 1950s and 1960s. “The IPE grew and reached its peak attendance in 1966 of about 300,000 held in the new IPE Building,” Kemm wrote, “then said to be the world’s largest building under one roof.”

By the end of the 1960s, Tulsa’s role in the industry was beginning to diminish as companies focused more operations in Houston.

An indicator of the changing of the guard is the Offshore Technology Conference. Founded in 1969 by 12 engineering and scientific organizations – including AAPG – OTC was a response to the growing technological needs of the global ocean extraction and environmental protection industries. The need for interdisciplinary and cross-sector cooperation was becoming acute, Kemm wrote.

OTC’s significance was apparent after the first meeting and larger facilities at Houston’s Astrodomain Complex were booked annually for the next 33 years.

Then came the Oil Crisis of 1973-74. With the resulting economic turmoil, everything was being redefined – including the title of “Oil Capital of the World.”

In the wake of the tumult, the shift to Houston quickened. (One wonders if that would be the case had air conditioning technology not advanced).

The last IPE was held in 1979 and OTC was the new king of the hill – as was Houston.

Tulsa is still an oil center, thanks to a still-vibrant industry and not to mention it’s home to the headquarters of AAPG, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and SEPM, as well as international headquarters for some major E&P companies and other thriving industry ventures and two refineries.

But “Oil Capital” talk is historical and nostalgic rather than reality.

The previous generations of oilmen and women have left their mark on Tulsa through their philanthropy for the arts and education, and the new generation has picked up that mantle and continues to take pride in the city’s heritage.

Some benefits of Tulsa’s heritage is it is an attractive place to live and visit – and the museums, art deco and historic residences are daily reminders that the titans who built the oil industry worked and lived in Tulsa and made fortunes here. And major players remain.

Just not as many.

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Larry Nation served as AAPG Communications Director.

Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights - Hans Krause

Hans Krause is an AAPG Honorary Member, Distinguished Service Award winner and former chair of the AAPG History of Petroleum Geology Committee.

A History-Based Series, Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the "eureka" moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn't? – and you'd like to share it with your fellow AAPG members, contact the editor.

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