Pipeline Crossroads of the World

It seems like every time I run an article about an odd appendage cobbled to the boundaries of a U.S. county, an interested reader brings an equally unusual shape to my attention. That’s great — keep them coming! The latest example arrived courtesy of Scott Surgent on a comment he made to the Merrick Strip article:

Tom Green County was once much larger, but one new county — Irion — was created in such a way that it would have cleaved Tom Green into two discrete halves. Thus, the north boundary of Irion was set so that a narrow strip of land would connect the main (east) part of the county (which includes the city of San Angelo) and the western half. For a time, it had a dumbbell shape. The west half later formed into Reagan County, but the vestigial strip remained in place.

Naturally I had to take a closer look. Tom Green County, named for a Confederate general rather the Canadian actor with the same name although there are other Canadians in Texas, includes a roughly rectangular appendage off its northwestern corner measuring about 2 by 24 miles (see on Mapquest with county lines). What I found equally interesting, however, was the strange network of structures imprinted on the landscape as I drilled into the image, looking a bit like a circuit board.

View Larger Map

At first I thought I might have found a housing development. That seemed a bit far-fetched because of its remoteness. No, as I got even closer I realized it was an oil field. Each one of those interconnected earthen patches marked a drill, a storage tank or some other piece of equipment related to the oil industry. Tom Green’s appendage is Swiss-cheese riddled by oil and gas wells. Street View coverage is rather scarce throughout this rural patch but I did find one decent image just over the county line.

The county managed to hold onto an extremely valuable parcel although they may not have fully realized its worth at the time. Reagan County was created from Tom Green in 1903 and the Texas oil boom was only just getting started. Most of that activity happening well to the east.

I enjoy the stories behind these oddly-shaped counties. When the History Channel television show, “How the States Got Their Shapes" runs out of states, may I recommend that they move their focus to counties? I like that show for reasons other than the obvious: I get a bunch of first-time visitors to the website every time a new episode airs. Often, topics glossed over on the program are covered in more detail here. Search engines point hordes of curious viewers directly onto the Twelve Mile Circle.

Oh yeh, I guess I should get off this long-winded tangent and back to the subject of the article. The Tom Green wells reminded me of something familiar. I’ve been aware of the self-proclaimed Pipeline Capital of the World; Cushing, Oklahoma for awhile but it hadn’t made it off the ever-growing “to do” list of possible topics until now.

View Larger Map

It looks a little like the oilfield Tom Green, doesn’t it? The main difference here is that each spot isn’t a well pumping a few barrels a day. These are huge oil and petroleum depots conglomerated into massive tank farms. The facilities at Cushing can hold 5-10% of the entire United States oil reserve at any given time, forty million or more barrels. Ponder that for a moment and let the enormity of the volume settle-in.

View Larger Map

Cushing never set out to be the pipeline crossroads of the world. It started as a typical Oklahoma land run town in 1891. Soon a railroad arrived, then another, then oil was found nearby. Cushing quickly became a hub and a refining center in the early 20th Century. More pipelines followed, with success building upon success. This cemented a purpose for Cushing even as the nearby oilfields played-out.

Cushing also serves as a price-point on the New York Mercantile Exchange for a key investment benchmark, West Texas Intermediate crude oil. It’s currently the most important proxy for oil prices worldwide, although that may be slipping. In recent years the pipelines bringing oil into Cushing have begun to outstrip the capacity of pipelines flowing out That impacts the liquidity of the commodity from a financial perspective, making it less appropriate as a proxy. Nonetheless, this small location of fewer than ten thousand residents wields oversized influence and power over a market that impacts us all.

5 Replies to “Pipeline Crossroads of the World”

  1. Just giving you a check in for the Google Statistics page, during a layover in Bogota, Colombia.

  2. I hadn’t heard of the History Channel’s “How the States Got Their Shapes”. The one episode you can watch online is sadly heavy on UFOs and light on actual borders (and on their sharpie-colored plexiglass maps they put Vandenberg AFB in totally the wrong place!). The bit about Dade County, GA, was interesting though.

    I don’t have another weird county appendage, but the Dade County bit made me think of counties with even tougher geography. Jefferson County, in Washington, for example, is long east-west and fairly narrow north-south. It reaches from Hood Canal to the Pacific. So it has two “coasts”, each with some settlements and folks (mostly on the east side, but a few on the west). However, in the middle is the extreme wilderness of the middle of Olympic National Park & Wilderness. No roads connect the two sides of the county, except via neighbor counties on the north of south the Olympic National Park. The county’s middle landscape is rugged to the extreme. People hike across it, but it takes many days and more than a few high elevation passes.

    I guess when Clallam County was created to the north, Jefferson County was loathe to give up its Pacific frontage, even though it would make far more sense if it was part of Clallam County.

    I wonder how many other counties are so effectively divided in two like this—population on two edges and a nearly impassable wilderness in between.

  3. Pfly: “I wonder how many other counties are so effectively divided in two like this—population on two edges and a nearly impassable wilderness in between.”

    It’s probably a lot more than you think, although your definition of “wilderness” might have to be broadened a little to take differing times (and transportation options) into account, and a basic map like Google Maps might not reflect “oddities” like this very well.

    Example: La Porte County, Indiana. It doesn’t look like “wilderness”, and hasn’t for quite some time due to extensive land modifications, but it had its own “wilderness” separation back in the day that’s still part of the county today. The county seat is in La Porte, which is roughly on a glacial moraine that divides the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River watershed. Historically, the area between La Porte (the city, located near the geographic center of the county) and the only halfway decent Lake Michigan port at that time (Michigan City) was low-lying, swampy, and heavily forested, making travel between the county seat of government and the economic center for the county very difficult and time consuming. Business demanded a quicker response to legal matters than a multiple-day trip across a swamp to the county seat. Even the railroads didn’t help much. As a result, county courthouses were established in both cities–and they still have them today, even though a trip from La Porte to Michigan City now takes about fifteen to twenty minutes.

    The other two counties along Lake Michigan in Indiana (Porter and Lake) had some similar transportation issues in the 1800s. These counties also reach back from the lakeshore over the Valparaiso Moraine to the Kankakee River, with similar swamp and forest landscapes (historically), so there were travel issues here, too. The county seats are also geographically centered in the county and away from the bulk of the population (especially Lake County–you’ve heard of Gary, Indiana, but probably not the county seat of Crown Point), and travel in the region has centered on east-west movement around the giant water hazard that is Lake Michigan rather than north-south.

    So, historical travel issues also play a huge role in shaping counties, even “boring” rectangle ones. You just need more map layers–and sometimes some local knowledge–to see the reasons for the shapes.

    (As an Indiana map reference, check out http://www.indianamap.org. It’s a statewise GIS with loads of information. I’ve noticed that other states tend to not have maps and sites like this one. For some reason, indianamap doesn’t like Firefox very well, but it will still work. And, BTW, Google Earth has county lines, even if Google Maps doesn’t…)

  4. Perhaps this topic has already been mentioned, but northern Idaho was once a practical exclave from the bulk of the population in the southern part, which perhaps explains why that part of the state is in the Pacific Time Zone rather than the Mountain. A connecting road (US 95) wasn’t built until 1921 and not paved until 1938. The stretch up White Bird Hill was/is full of switchbacks, and a straighter, faster route wasn’t completed until 1975. (I was nearly stranded on that uphill section when I had a fuel pump failure in 1992.)

Comments are closed.