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ODESSA: COWTOWN TO BOOM TOWN 1881-1926 

Photo by Jack Nolan of old Ector County Courthouse. Nolan came to Odessa in the mid-1920's where he operated a photo studio. In 1936 Nolan established the Odessa Daily News

Under the hot July sun of 1881 a Texas and Pacific railroad construction crew pitched their tents at Wells Point not far from Monahans Draw. Today the location of that encampment lies in the southwest corner of the City of Odessa. However, in 1881 there was no bustling oil patch city, only seemingly endless rolling, grass covered prairies as far as one could see. Monahans Draw offered the only available shade and water. Wells Point resembled a hundred other T&P camps that rapidly appeared as the steel tracks of the railroad moved westward. The camps were shantytowns, tent cities that sprang up seemingly over night. Some grew to be the future towns and cities of West Texas while others simply withered away. A number of them earned well-deserved reputations of being rowdy wide-open places full of railroad workers, saloon keepers, drifters, gamblers and painted ladies.

Shortly after Wells Point came into being, an enterprising whiskey merchant unloaded his saloon from a railroad flatcar and opened for business. U.S. Marshals and buffalo soldiers kept a watchful eye over Wells Point for a time before moving on with the T&P crews. In 1881, the Texas and Pacific built an amazing 382 miles of track across West Texas from Baird to Sierra Blanca. As the crews moved on, they left behind rail station operators and their families in the camps. Many of the station operators lived in converted boxcars until section houses and better quarters could be completed. It is said the first permanent structure erected at Wells Point happened to be the T&P section house.

Although there a quite a few different stories about how Odessa got its name, several accounts have links to the Wells Point camp. One version states that Russian members of the construction crews said the place reminded them of their native steppes of Odessa, Russia. Another story says that Irish workers named their camp Odessa in honor of another town they recalled. Perhaps they referred to Texas communities in Cooke and Wise counties that had post offices with that name in 1855 and 1866. And then there is the story of Odessa Brockett, a runaway girl who wondered into Wells Point in search of her mother's family. According to this chronicle, the rail workers felt sorry for the young girl and renamed their camp for her. Another version says that Odessa was named for a little girl who came to Wells Point or perhaps to an earlier cowboy camp after she escaped an Indian massacre.

While it is not clear exactly when or how Wells Point became known as Odessa, the town was probably called by that name at least by 1885 when seventy residents petitioned for a post office. In January 1888, the Odessa Land and Town Site Company advertised, "The New Town of Odessa" to prospective buyers. Four years later, Odessa became the county seat of Ector County so named for Mathew Ector, a Confederate general during the Civil War.

During the 1890's, Odessa grew slowly from 224 residents in 1890 to 433 by the turn of the century. The 1900 census records the most common occupation in Odessa that year to be a "cow man". In 1904 a new red stone courthouse replaced an earlier wooden structure in Odessa. Jesse Frame, the T&P agent in Odessa, a group of documents to be preserved for future generations sealed in a tin box in the cornerstone of the new courthouse. According to Frame, Odessa offered few opportunities in 1904 because as he put it, "nothing here but some stock raising, though it may be a farming or granger country some day." Frame saw limited prospects for the town to grown although he also placed into the cornerstone a copy of the Odessa News Times dated July 29, 1904 that said, "Prof. V.D. Gassoway of the U. S. Geological Survey, while prospecting in the Odessa territory, has discovered unmistakable evidences of petroleum and natural gas that will doubtless developed in the future". Gassoway's prediction did come true for another twenty-five years, however, and Odessa remained a dusty little cow town.

In 1912 a Midland blacksmith by the name of John Pliska offered the citizens of Odessa a show, the like they had never seen before when he brought his hand built twin prop biplane to a main street Fourth of July celebration for an exhibition flight down Grant Street. Practically all of Odessa turned out for the event. The Odessa Band, directed by a Professor Beck, added to the festive atmosphere.

A native of Austria, Pliska's interest in aviation began when he studied at a military glider and balloon flight school in Bavaria. After emigrating to the United States, his interest in flying was rekindled when he saw a Wright brothers airplane land in Midland on a cross county flight about 1909. Plishka was so impressed with the Wright broghers flying machine that he decided to build his own airplane. With the exception of the engine, Pliska and his assistant, Gray Coggin, hand built their airplane in Pliska's blacksmith shop in Midland.

Before bringing their flying machine to Odessa for the July Fourth celebration, Pliska and Coggin successfully test flew the craft to respectable altitudes at the polo grounds near Midland. But their luck in Odessa proved to be less than hoped for. In preparation for the exibition, mesquite trees lining the road to Andrews now Grant Street had to be cut back. Pliska and Coggin arrived on the appointed day, hauling their flying machine on the back of a wagon. Somehow they got it unloaded and cheers arose when they got it unloaded and started the engines. With Pliska at the controls, the crowd loved it when he taxied the aeroplane up Grant Street. Then came time for Pliska to make a take off attempt, he throttled the engines and the dirt flew. Because of underpowered engines, the soft condition of dirt in the street, and the heat of the day, Pliska only managed to make a series of short hops into the air, unable to fly the aircraft to the satisfaction of a number of cowboys in the crowd who demanded more or their money back. Later that night, Pliska and Coggin loaded up the flying machine and took it back to the blacksmith shop where they stored in the rafters of the building. When Pliska's shop was torn down in 1962, the Pliska family donated the aircraft to the City of Midland. Today, the blacksmith's flying machine hangs on display from the ceiling of the Midland International Airport for all to wonder at the genius of his craftsmanship.

Odessa ceased being only a cow town in 1926 when the Cosden Petroleum Company struck oil on the A. B. Connel ranch setting in motion a series of oil booms and busts. Twelve years later, the old red stone Ector County courthouse was torn down and its cornerstone opened in a public ceremony. Jessie Frame's son, Paul Frame, who was then the T&P agent, attended the ceremony to retrieve the contents his father had sealed away many years before. In addition to two poker hands, several letters and newspapers, the younger Frame found a letter from Kelley Hogg, written in 1904, that offers a glimpse of Odessa in its cow town days. Kelley Hogg knew Odessa well before it became an oil town. He worked for the T&P railroad for three years when he penned his letter to future residents.

Kelley was nineteen years old when he wrote "Hi, it is possible that when the corner stone of the courthouse is removed and this little tin box opened again, the town of Odessa instead of being what you might call a village may be a large city and a great railroad center, but old head please remember that I have born the same burdens that you are now bearing and had the same hell that you are now having. As I have long since been laid away, and my days and nights of loading trunks and carrying the U.S. mail are over, in other words, my race is run. I plead to thee to accept my deepest sympathy in these, your days of trouble. I have been in the service of this company for about three years, under Mr. F. B. Gilbet, chief dispatcher, Big Spring, Texas. Was discharged once while working at the little town of Midland for getting "boozy" and trying to be a bad man. We have some of the damndest whiskey you ever flopped your lip over. I would put a half pint in the box with this letter but these rounders around this burg would tear the cornerstone out of they should happen to get on to it in a short time as there are some of them that could smell it."

Kelley closed his 1904 letter to future generations by saying, "Before this letter is read and many years before, I expect to be with my old friends, and the agent in heaven where there are no railroads, where we will be enjoying eternal bliss, while you are plunking away, filling the places we vacated."

Glenn Justice
Copyright 2010
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