Oil and Riches

The discovery of oil in Red Fork in 1901 set into motion the events that would forever change Tulsa. The oil boom had begun.

The big strike at Glenn Pool in 1905—at the time the world’s largest—caused oil prices to plummet world-wide and made the Oklahoma and Indian Territories the center of oil exploration and speculation. By 1909—only four years after the Glenn Pool strike—the Tulsa city directory listed no fewer than 126 oil companies with offices in Tulsa.

In succeeding decades, the fortunes of Tulsa would be directly related to the cycles of the petroleum industry.

Downtown Tulsa, looking east on 2nd Street from Main Street, c. 1908.

By the time Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, Tulsa had a population of 7,298. By 1920, the population boomed to 72,000 and the city had earned the title “Oil Capital of the World”. It also became a respected financial center.

This period produced many of Tulsa’s historic buildings. Men like Waite Phillips, Robert M. McFarlin and W.G. Skelly sought to leave their mark with grand business and residential structures, many of them in the Art Deco style popular at the time.

As the city grew, its unreliable and unsanitary water supply became a problem. Considered an engineering masterpiece, the Spavinaw Water System, finished in 1924, brought a virtually unlimited fresh water supply to Tulsa from Spavinaw Lake, 55 miles to the northeast, using only the force of gravity.

The early 1900’s were filled with achievements fitting for a young city in a growing nation, but this period was not without tragedy.

Tulsa’s darkest hour came on June 1, 1921, when racial tensions erupted in violence against African-Americans living in an area north of downtown. Thirty-five blocks of black businesses and residences were burned down including Greenwood Ave., known as “The Black Wall Street”. Both blacks and whites were killed, although the numbers are still debated today.