• SLIDESHOW Watch a historic boomtown evolve

  • Drillers first discovered the riches of the Permian Basin in this community, which would later see booms and busts.

  • In the early 20th century, most drillers thought West Texas had little to offer. But in 1923, the gushing Santa Rita oil well proved them wrong. Frank T. Pickrell and Haymon Krupp of El Paso drilled the Big Lake well after unsuccessfully trying to sell leases from their tract. Pickrell had purchased the leases from an old Army buddy for $2,500. (Footage from "The Texon Film" by Arthur Flores, courtesy of the Petroleum Museum Archives Center.)

  • Because the drilling took place on University of Texas land, the Santa Rita and wells that followed sent millions of dollars into the Permanent University Fund. By 1926, the peak of production, the Big Lake oilfield had sent $4 million into the fund, according to Texas State Historical Association research. (Footage from "The Texon Film" by Arthur Flores, courtesy of the Petroleum Museum Archives Center.)

  • A cluster of pump jacks sit above horizontal wells in Reagan County just outside of Big Lake. Horizontal drilling enabled operators to tap vast areas of shale from wells clustered together. Since 2009, the county has added about 1,000 oil-producing wells, according to state data.

  • Big Lake’s official population is fewer than 3,000, but it swells to more than twice that each day when oil workers head into town. The increased drilling activity has required the expansion of a railroad station that hauls sand and other materials used in hydraulic fracturing.

  • Technological advances have largely driven the Texas oil boom. That includes improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the blasting apart of shale to free up oil and gas with water, sand and chemicals hauled in by trucks.

  • One fracking job typically requires millions of gallons of water, which is injected deep underground at high pressures. The technique has allowed operators to tap resources once considered unreachable.

  • Fracking’s water demands require the construction of ponds like these, which store millions of gallons of freshwater.

  • Here is a view of a fracking site in Reagan County just outside of Big Lake. As the city booms, officials say they are also trying to diversify the economy.

  • Old utility poles sit in a lot in Big Lake after being replaced by new equipment.

  • “Man camps,” temporary homes for oilfield workers, have cropped up in and around Big Lake to meet high housing demands.

  • RV parks like this one have also moved in to accommodate the influx of workers — many of whom are uncounted in the community’s officials population estimates.

  • Pump jacks and drilling sites are scattered across land also used for farming and ranching, other key components of local economies. In some parts of Texas, this has caused headaches for those who have long lived on such lands.

  • Here, an old pump jack stands outside of a crop circle near Big Lake.

  • The last oil boom, which ended when oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, has left lasting impressions on the land. These marks appear to have come from old tank batteries — cylindrical tanks that received crude oil on a producing lease — and containing walls that were built around them.

As Oil Town Roars Back to Life, a View From the Sky

Advances in oilfield technology have reawakened Big Lake, a town that long ago helped cement Texas’ reputation as an oil-rich state.

In 1923, Haymon Krupp, an El Paso merchant and wildcatter, struck oil here — gushing enough crude to cover a 250-yard radius. That well, Santa Rita No. 1, proved that West Texas held vast petroleum resources, spurring a mad dash to the small railroad community and the surrounding Permian Basin. Because Santa Rita was drilled on University of Texas land, the discovery was also a huge windfall for the state’s universities.

Like many drilling communities, Big Lake rode the boom-and-bust cycle, and it faded after the 1980s crash. The town and the region have another chance, thanks to advances in hydraulic fracturing that have helped drillers unlock oil and gas once thought to be unreachable.

The Permian Basin is now the country’s most productive region. Texas regulators are issuing more than twice the drilling permits there than they did in 2007. It’s been lucrative: Between 2009 and 2013, Big Lake’s sales tax collections more than doubled, and collections in surrounding Reagan County nearly quadrupled.

What does Big Lake’s growth really look like? Soar a few hundred feet above it to see.

Reagan County

Reagan County by the Numbers

2000 2010 2013
Population 3,326 3,367 3,601
Oil production (barrels) 5.4M 8M 15M
Natural gas production (cubic feet) 3.7B 1.5B 1.9B
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Texas Railroad Commission