History in Focus: Petroleum, and the first “Boom”
After World War I, America’s growing love affair with the automobile demanded new sources of petroleum. Discoveries near Hamilton and Axial Basin helped put America on wheels and created Craig’s first industrial economic “boom.” Yet, its eventual closing was not a doomsday scenario for Craig, a sign of hope for our town’s near future.
Once the drilling started and roughnecks arrived, it was a question of how to transport the crude to a refinery. At first, several ideas for pipelines were proposed. A pipeline through the Moffat Tunnel all the way to Denver was under strong consideration, as was directing the black gold to Parco, Wyoming (Steamboat Pilot 9/3 and 9/17/24). The Craig Empire reported officials and businessmen from Grand Junction were in talks with the Texas Company to build a refinery (9/24/24).
Realizing a refinery would change the trajectory of Craig, local leaders heavily courted the Texas Company to build in Craig. The Craig Courier reported the Texas Company had purchased holding tanks on the outskirts of town, and the president and vice president had arrived to survey the territory. Vice President R.C. Holmes spoke encouragingly to the newspaper: “Craig has a wonderful future. It is situated in the heart of what will develop into a great oil field. It is a fine little city, in a beautiful country” (8/27/25).
To sweeten the pot, the Moffat County Commissioners offered the Texas Company a tax rebate of three years. The efforts worked, and in the spring of 1926 plans were finalized. The $500,000 refinery would be equipped with two state-of-the-art Holmes-Manly high pressure stills, and the gas would be marketed along the Moffat Road and into Denver. (Steamboat Pilot 6/23/26).
Just seven months after the formal announcement, the refinery was already finished and ready for business. On Oct, 21, 1926, the Lions Club hosted a huge celebration for the grand opening of the biggest taxpayer in the county. 150 invitations were sent to railroad officials, politicians, and businessmen from around the area.
Twelve mule deer bucks were joyfully sacrificed upon the altar of progress in order to feed the crowd of 200 at City Park. After the venison fry, a parade of forty vehicles led by the Lions Club band moved down Victory Way for the grand opening of the refinery, located south of today’s Third Street along both sides of today’s Highway 13. A dance later that night at the Armory concluded the festivities.
For the next 21 years, the refinery served as the economic engine of Moffat County, refining about 1,000 barrels a day. But by 1947, the refinery had become too small and outdated. With little fanfare or remorse, a June 5 blurb in the Steamboat Pilot cited the need for higher octane gasoline. Most of the 75 workers moved on to Casper, Wyoming, the center of refinery operations for the Texas Company.
While gone for many years, the site is still a concern due to contamination in that area of town. A 2012 Craig Daily Press article cited two studies in 1984 and 2000 that found various levels of contamination of oil, heavy metals, solvents, and various chemicals. How much recent remediation has taken place is not clear.
Despite any legacy of pollution, the refinery played a vital role in Craig’s early development, and we somehow survived and continued forward despite its demise. Knowing this history, we can confidently realize the similar impending closure of our coal mines and power plant will not be a fatal blow to Craig. Rather, it is a new chapter to our future.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, for access to the museum archives and photo collection.
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