Southern Pacific

The pine-covered red-earth hills of East Texas are covered with creaking old pump jacks, still sucking up the crude oil that has kept the region economically afloat since the 1930s. The oil business here has gone through numerous booms and busts since it gushed into existence in December 1930 at a well outside Kilgore (pop. 14,839), on the south side of I-20, about 12 miles southwest of Longview via US-259. This comparatively small and quiet oil town has street lamps disguised as oil rigs and a set of 100-foot-tall derricks standing along the railroad tracks in memory of the “World’s Richest Acre,” a plot of downtown land that produced over 2.5 million barrels of oil through the 1960s. The site was so productive and so valuable that one of the wells was drilled through the terrazzo floor of a local bank, and over a thousand derricks once loomed over the downtown area.

The history of the local petroleum industry is recounted in entertaining detail at the East Texas Oil Museum (Hwy-259 at Ross St., 903/983-8295, Tues.-Sat., $8) on the campus of Kilgore College, off US-259. The museum includes displays of drilling equipment and old gas stations, plus a simulated “elevator ride” a mile deep into the earth to show off the oil-bearing geology. Also on the Kilgore College campus, in the Physical Education Complex, is a small free museum devoted to the Kilgore Rangerettes (1100 Broadway, 903/983-8265), a highly trained precision drill and dance cheerleading team that performs at college and professional football games.

Back on US-80, well north of the I-20 freeway, the booming oil-fueled city of Longview (pop. 82,055) holds one of the best places to eat in East Texas. Longview is also where actor Matthew McConaughey went to high school. In between his role in the stoner comedy Dazed and Confused and his Academy Award-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey appeared in Richard Linklater’s East Texas film Bernie.