They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When I look at this picture I see so much more than a thousand words. I see grit, determination, hard labor, rough hands, hot days, cold nights, family, dedication, and love.
Approximately 6 miles north of Colorado City Texas on the west bank of the Colorado River, lies the dilapidated ruins of a hard lived life. The plank house and stone chimney can be seen in the background. In front of the house sits a shed near the remains of a water well and windmill. The building in the foreground appears to have served as a barn for the livestock but it may also have been a house at one time.
I do not know who built these buildings and carved out a life on this West Texas soil. All that remains is what you see in the picture. But what I do know is that an inspired man, a man looking to make a life for himself by hard work, brought his family here. The came by wagon or horseback, most likely, with a few head of cattle or sheep and picked this spot to settle.
I imagine that the family lived in crude tents until the first building was erected. And while that was being accomplished, cattle or sheep ranching was being attended to. I am sure the children were tasked with carrying water in wood buckets from the Colorado River less than a quarter mile away. A steep bank had to be descended and ascended for the trip. I imagine carrying water in an open bucket without spilling it was quite a difficult task. The mother cooked their meals over an open fire while a pot of coffee sat on the edge keeping warm.
Colorado City Texas, located in Mitchell County was settled in the late 1870’s. Ranchers were the first settlers. A Texas Ranger unit was stationed in the area the same year to ward off any raiding Indians and protect the rancher’s herds. The prospect of the railroad coming in 1877 brought more settlers, and in 1881 the Texas & Pacific Railway began service to the fledgling town. At that point most of the 350 residents still lived in tents or crude dugouts in the banks of the river.
The next 2 years would see the population explode to 5,000. Stores and homes were built. Trees that could be sawed into lumber were scarce or used up quickly so wood was shipped in from east Texas, at first by wagon and then later by rail. Cowboys, merchants, and cattlemen converged on the area to make their fortune. The first sermon was preached in a saloon as there were many. Soon a number of churches and a school were built as well.
The Texas Rangers operated out of a dugout on the edge of town and required that all men check their guns. The jail was a chain attached to a mesquite tree and occasionally an offending member of society could be found shackled to it until a punishment was determined, which at times, was the end of a rope strung from one of the few trees. Texas Ranger Dick Ware was elected the first Sheriff in 1881.
The city was dubbed the “Mother of West Texas” and was the largest city between Ft. Worth and El Paso. The railroad brought supplies for all the west Texas ranches including the famous XIT ranch in the panhandle.
I can see how a family would decide to come to the area and stake a claim nearby. There was work and there was land to sink some roots. I imagine that the man that built the now ruined ranch house took advantage of the booming city. He probably walked or rode his horse to town to work. He possibly worked for the railroad or a construction job as a way to pay for the materials needed to build his home. At some point a well was dug. And eventually a windmill was erected to take advantage of the nearly constant blowing west Texas wind. I am sure they had a garden for fresh vegetables in the summer.
Ranchers relied on the spring and early summer rains to water the grass their livestock grazed on. There were years of drought that made their lives more difficult, but they persevered not willing to give up on their dreams.
In 1920 the first oil well in west Texas was drilled between Colorado City and the town of Cuthbert to the northwest, about 10 miles from the abandoned ranch. Most people believe the first well in west Texas was drilled south of modern day Midland at Santa Rita, but that is not the case. A showing of oil was found at 450 feet, but much more found around 2350 feet below the surface. The well was completed in June of 1920, but did not produce much oil.
Since the well was not producing much oil they decided to stimulate it. Approximately 2,000 men, women, and children from around the area came to witness the process. An oil well was a new and exciting thing and quite news worthy. A nitroglycerin charge was introduced to the well and lowered to a predetermined depth. Much to the surprise of everyone, once the charge was set off a geyser of water, natural gas, oil, and smoke erupted into the sky higher than the top oil derrick covering all in attendance with black oil! The well produced 129 barrels (5160 gallons) of oil a day initially, but over time production slowed to 20 barrels (800 gallons) a day. This well started a chain of events that affected everyone in the Permian Basin. It was still pumping out oil as of 1995 from what information I can gather. The first oil pipeline in west Texas was constructed shortly after the first two wells were completed by the Rio Grande Oil Company.
By 1923 the area had many wells producing the “black gold”. Pipelines crisscrossed the country side and a refinery was built just west of Colorado City. Many ranchers were wealthy overnight due to the successful drilling. It is said that there were more millionaires in Colorado City in those days than anywhere else in the state.
I don’t know when wells were drilled on the ranch on the bank of the Colorado River, but to this day there are several small pump jacks pumping oil out of the ground just a stone’s throw from the old buildings.
I wonder what caused them to be vacated. Did the children move away and when the parents needed assistance they moved and the house was left to ruin? Did the horrible drought of the 1930’s lead to the demise of their ranching operation like so many other Texans?
No matter the reason this ranch was abandoned, the history of it intrigues me and this picture tells a much longer story than one thousand words.