The Mysterious Stranger

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In 1908 a mysterious stranger arrived at the on the train to the frontier town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Photo: Santa Fe Depot in Ponca City in 1912
The stranger said he was a lawyer from back east and that he has come to Ponca City to prospect for gold - black gold

"The Mysterious Stranger"

by Hugh Pickens

Someone asked me a few days ago why I was an advocate for renaming the Phillips 66 refinery, the "Marland Refinery of Ponca City" and who was this Marland fellow anyway. "Wasn't he the guy who had his oil company taken away from him in the 1920's?"

"Let me tell you a story," I replied.

A Stranger Arrives

Picture a frontier town over one hundred years ago, just one year after the territory where it is located becomes a state. The town's population is just over 2,500. The town is only 15 years old and there are only a few brick buildings. The town's streets are unpaved, dirt roads that turn to mud when it rains and there are wooden sidewalks and hitching posts for horses pulling wagons in the commercial district. Main street consists of a few hardware stores, barbershops, dry goods stores, a carriage repair shop, a newspaper, and a bank in one of the town's few brick buildings. Residents get their water from a a tank on a water tower in the middle of main street.

A mysterious stranger arrives in town on the train with nothing more than a cloth bag for his clothes and a letter of introduction to the owners of the largest ranch in the county. The stranger is 35 years old and says he is a lawyer from back east and that he has come to the town to prospect for gold - black gold. Dressed in a Norfolk jacket, a loose, belted, single-breasted jacket with box pleats on the back and front, and wearing spats and knickerbockers, the stranger looked out of place on the prairie and no one could tell by looking at him that he was living on borrowed money.

But with his confidence and charisma the townspeople welcome the stranger with kindness and generosity and he is able to convince the owner of the local hotel to let him have a room and take his meals on credit until oil is found.

The Ranch

In a few days the stranger travels the largest ranch in the county - a cattle ranch with over 100,000 of land - and there he presents his letter of introduction to the owner who takes him around to show him the ranch operation. The stranger tramps the land around the ranch studying the outcroppings of rocks and walks for miles over the broad and rolling prairie carefully inspecting the formations.

Here's what the stranger wrote in a letter:

"George L. Miller was showing me around the Ranch one day and we rode up a hill to see the cemetery of the Ponca Indians. The Indians placed their dead on wicker platforms above the ground. I noticed by the outcropping of the rock on the hill that the hill was not only a topographical high but also a geological high. A little further investigation showed it to be a perfect geological dome."

Convinced that the Indian cemetery was a distinct oil formation, the stranger told the ranch owner he would agree to drill a test well if he would give him a lease on the ranch lands and help him obtain the necessary leases from the Native American tribe.

Drilling the Wells

The first well was drilled near the ranch headquarters under the most adverse conditions. There were no heavy draft teams in the area, nothing but light horses and cow ponies. Lumbering teams of oxen with their heavy yokes had to be used to haul rig timbers, tools, boilers, and casings frosm the railroad station in Bliss t the well location. The nearest supply house was 125 miles away in Tulsa. The well was drilled with old Manila cable to a depth of 2,700 feet but is abandoned as a non-producer.

After this failure, a location is made for a second well about five miles from the first on a piece of land called the Iron Thunder Tract under conditions even worse than the first. At a depth of 500 feet they strike gas in spring of 1910. A gas line is laid from the well to the ranch to provide fuel tin handling the crops grown on the land. But still no black gold.

A third well is drilled 1800 feet from the second and it struck gas too. In fact, eight wells are drilled and not one produce petroleum.

The stranger is out of money and the prospecting had done against the advice of experienced oil men in the rich Mid-Continent field further east in Osage County who hold to the theory that there are no profitable fields west of the Red Bed formation which begins after passing westward across the Arkansas River.

But the stranger in undeterred. He is is running out of money but decides to drill one last well - his ninth - but after weeks in the field, that well comes up dry like the others.

The Stranger Departs

The stranger packs up his bags to leave the town where he arrived at lived three years earlier. He has made enough money from the gas wells he has drilled to pay off his debts and he returns east on the same train that brought him to Ponca City and opens a law practice in his hometown on Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Marland is very sucesssful as a lawyer and eventually enters politics. In 1936 he is elected Governor of Pennsylvania and two years later Franklin Delano Roosevelt appoints Marland to the United States Spreme Court fullfilling the dream that Marland's father had had for him all his life.

Years later after he retires from the Supreme Court Marland sits down to write his memoirs and devotes a chapter to the frontier town where he had gone as a young man in search of adventure and riches and remembers the town wistfully and the generous way he had been treated.

Time Passes the Town By

A photo of part of Marland Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma taken in 1919 when the refinery had a production of 10,000-barrel per day and included nearly two million barrels of steel storage for crude and finished products. By 1928 article from Petroleum Age in 1928 noted that "Marland refinery at Ponca City is one of the largest complete plants in the Mid-Continent field with a crude capacity of 35,000 barrles per day of which approximately half can be run down to wax. The plant is equipped with four large Dubbs units, two Cross units, and 18 Fleming stills."

The sleepy little town stayed a sleepy little town. Fifteen years after the stranger leaves town wildcatters discover oil at three sands and fianlly come through and drill a well just a few hundred yards away Marland's last well and strike oil. But time has passed Ponca City by. Instead of building a refinery in Ponca City, the oil men build a pipeline to the refinery in Cushing where the petroleum can be refined and sold across the country.

There was never any Pioneer Woman Statue in Ponca City, no Marland Mansion, no Marland Grand Home, no hospital, no big new high school north of town, no children's home, no vo-tech center, no two hundred acre homes. There was never any Marland Refinery to provide employment for thousands of men for the next hundred years. There was no Marland Refinery to provide health care and loans to employees to buy homes and make a better life. And there was no Ponca City one hundred years later, just a sleepy little town that time forgot.


  • "The Greatest Gamblers" by Ruth Sheldon Knowles. University of Oklahoma Press. 1959.
  • "Kay County's Historic Architecture" by Bret A. Carter. Arcadai Publishing. 2007.
  • "Life and Death of An Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland" by John Joseph Matthews. University of Oklahoma Press. 1951.
  • "The 101 Ranch" by Ellsworth Collings, and Alma Miller England. University of Oklahoma Press. 1937.
  • "The Real, Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West" by Michael Wallis. St. Martens Press. 1999.
  • "Conoco: The First One Hundred Years" Dell Publishing Company. 1975.
  • "Conoco: 125 Years of Energy" Greenwich Publishing Group. 2000.