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Ernest O. Thompson - Texas Railroad Commissioner

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We started this blog with the purpose of bringing you stories of people who were not included in the Texas State Cemetery book which was published last year. The book was a long and sometimes difficult process that required editing for style, content and length. Unfortunately, a whole section of the book was omitted for lack of space. We had the chapters researched, written and even had the images, but the Texas Railroad Commissioners section had to be cut. Jason and I debated on which section to cut and it was a hard decision, especially considering the sheer amount of power the Texas Railroad Commission held during the early to mid-Twentieth Century.

We had five railroad commissioners slated for the book, Olin Culberson, Bill Murray, Charles Vernon Terrell, Ernest O. Thompson and Byron Tunnell. All were worthy and all served on the Commission during its critical years overseeing the petroleum industry in Texas. It seems counterintuitive, but in a state where the Texas Department of Banking oversees cemeteries (it has to do with the perpetual care aspect of cemeteries), the Texas Railroad Commission regulating petroleum doesn't seem all that unusual. Today I'd like to share Ernest O. Thompson's bio. We'll probably publish the rest of them as blog entries in the future, but we'll stick with Thompson today. Thompson was an especially hard decision to cut seeing that his wife made it. May Peterson Thompson had an interesting life, but her husbandwas a study in power and an early voice for conservation in Texas. He was eulogized by Lyndon Baines Johnson after his death in 1966.

The following is the bio I wrote about him:

Ernest O. Thompson, Texas Railroad Commissioner at the height of that body’s power, died in 1966 after serving the military through two world wars and as railroad commissioner during the East Texas oil boom in the 1930s. Thompson died in Amarillo and was interred at the Texas State Cemetery next to his first wife, May Peterson Thompson, an internationally renowned opera singer. 
At the time of his death, Governor John Connally said of Thompson’s concepts, that they “became an orderly system of state conservation laws that not only saved countless millions of barrels of crude oil, but also literally saved the oil industry.” 
The American Petroleum Institute presented Thompson with its Gold Medal of Achievement in 1951 and said he was “the greatest living authority in the world on conservation.” 
Thompson served as a Texas Railroad Commission for 32 years, presiding over the heyday of the Texas petroleum industry. During the war, Thompson led the charge to supply oil for the military. Texas and other oil-producing states pumped at maximum capacity. However, a majority of productiuon fell on Texas as the state supplied 80 percent of the increase in production.
General George C. Marshall said of oil production during the war, “No plane failed to fly, no ship failed to sail, and no truck was ever delayed for want of oil.”
Thompson was the commander of the Texas National Guard from 1949 to 1957 and retired as a Lieutenant General. Thompson was one of the first to recognize the importance of oil conservation for national security. One of his most famous quotes was delivered at a speech in Wichita Falls where he said “there is nothing more important to mankind than the conservation of soil, water and oil, except the salvation of his own soul.” 
Thompson was a proponent of the concept of prorationing. Prorationing was a highly controversial subject at the time. The practice kept oil production lower than market demand, which in turn kept the price of gasoline high. In the opinion of many, prorationing kept the Texas oil business viable for years after it could have been tapped out from uncontrolled pumping. 
Along with prorationing, Thompson kept state production of oil out of the hands of the federal government. The United States government threatened to take the oversight of the oil business out of the hands of the Texas Railroad Commission three times during the 1930s East Texas oil boom. However, Thompson was able to bring the situation under control before any more measures were taken by outside forces. 
The East Texas oil boom occurred when an Oklahoma wildcatter drilled the Daisy Bradford 3 Well on farmland on October 3, 1930. Over the next two years, East Texas experienced dramatic growth turning sleepy little villages into boom towns overnight.
In Thompson’s biography, Three Stars for the Colonel, author James A. Clark described the boom town feeling. “With each new day and each new well, the price of oil declined. The operators had to produce more oil to keep their incomes on an even keel, and the more oil they produced, the lower prices fell. Oilmen were producing themselves into destruction.”
In 1932, Governor Ross S. Sterling appointed Thompson to the Texas Railroad Commission. Thompson went to East Texas and halted all oil production and introduced prorationing. By the end of his stay in East Texas, Thompson saw the production of the East Texas Oil Field drop from approximately 100 million barrels a day to a state-mandated 600 to 775 barrels a day.
Thompson served on the railroad commission uninterrupted for 32 more years. He was elected to the office many times unopposed. 
Thompson was born in 1892 in Alvord to a prominent merchant, T.O. Thompson. The family moved to Amarillo by 1902. Ernest Thompson joined the U.S. Army in 1917 after earning a law degree at the University of Texas. He served in the Meuse-Argonne campaign and earned a field promotion to Lieutenant Colonel from General John J. Pershing for developing a mass machine gun firing technique.
Thompson began public life in Amarillo when he was elected mayor on a platform of reducing utility rates in 1928.
As commissioner, the staff of the railroad commission rose from little more than 50 in 1930 to about 500 employees by 1939.
Thompson acted as an advisor to presidents and testified before the national legislature several times.
At the time of his death, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson said: “For 30 years Ernest Thompson was an acknowledged world leader in petroleum conservation. He was one of Texas’ distinguished public service, and his death is a cause of deep regret.”

We'll see about getting the rest of the bios up in the next few weeks.


- Will Erwin