Shallow Impact

Why don't tourists flock to the meteor crater outside of Odessa? Because most don't know a bona fide Texas treasure from a hole in the ground.

ODESSA--On a recent summer afternoon, long after the temperature had climbed past the 100-degree mark and even the dust devils seemed to weave and dance with lackluster effort, it was all but impossible to imagine how things once were.

Standing amid the parched mesquites and the rhythmic nodding of the mechanical hobbyhorses that pump oil from somewhere deep beneath the Permian Basin, it's hard to believe that this part of West Texas, where precious rain is measured in tenths of inches, was once verdant swampland instead of hot, blowing sand and scrub brush. It seems impossible that there was a time when it was roamed not by jackrabbits and pickup trucks but hairy mammoths and three-toed horses.

Or that 50,000 years ago a meteor weighing as much as 300 tons flamed through the atmosphere and collided with a force scientists estimate surpassed the combined energy created by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tom Rodman, 70, stands in the West Texas spot where a meteor crashed some 50,000 years ago.
Tom Rodman, 70, stands in the West Texas spot where a meteor crashed some 50,000 years ago.
The Odessa Meteor Crater lacks the eye appeal that draws tourists to the Barringer Crater--even though the Odessa site is the second-largest in the United States.
Aerial photo courtesy of Tom Rodman
The Odessa Meteor Crater lacks the eye appeal that draws tourists to the Barringer Crater--even though the Odessa site is the second-largest in the United States.

Here, just seven miles outside the city limits, beyond the endless rows of fast-food restaurants, quiet residential neighborhoods, truck stops and drilling equipment businesses, is a geological wonder that remains a virtual secret. The Odessa Meteor Crater, discovered in 1926, may still fascinate the scientific community, but bypassing vacationers are more apt to stop in on one of the many live rattlesnake exhibits or the Confederate Air Force Museum along U.S. Highway 20 than visit a hole in the ground--even if it was carved out by some giant stone from the stars.

That is a troubling mystery 70-year-old Tom Rodman, a local oil and gas attorney who has been fascinated by the crater and its history since boyhood, cannot understand.

In the vernacular of today's hype-driven society, the Odessa Meteor Crater, for all its scientific importance, lacks the "eye appeal" that draws millions to the world-famous Barringer Crater--a gaping circular hole three-quarters of a mile wide and 600 feet deep--near the northern Arizona desert community of Winslow.

For those who do make the turnoff onto Meteor Crater Road, a vivid imagination is required to re-create the event that occurred so long ago. Where originally an oblong crater, 100 feet deep and 600 feet across, was torn from the earth by the crashing meteorite, spewing up 100,000 cubic yards of limestone rock to form the rim of the depression, little of that prehistoric damage remains visible today. While the rim is still distinctive, years of blowing sand and silt have left the crater itself no deeper than many of the man-made gravel pits that now dot the region.

Yet Rodman, an unabashed promoter of the site, still views it with a young boy's wonder. To him it is a bona fide Texas treasure. "You stand out there," he says, "looking at the huge boulders that form the rim, then walk down into the crater itself, and you can't help but feel the magnitude of the event that took place so many years ago. Out in the wide-open spaces, with a giant blue sky overhead, you find yourself trying to imagine what the impact must have been like, knowing that it devastated plant and animal life for miles and miles. And you can't help but wonder what destruction it would have caused had it hit in modern times. I find it all incredibly fascinating."

It has been his life's mission to have others share his enthusiasm. Daily, he leaves his coat and tie behind in his downtown law office, puts on a straw hat and spends his lunch hour out at the crater. There, he routinely replenishes the supply of free information brochures that are available at the entrance to the site, then walks along the paths that roam through the crater, picking up whatever trash the previous day's visitors might have left behind.

Clearly, to him it is sacred ground.

Local legend has it that a pioneer rancher named Virgil Graham found a fist-sized metallic rock while wandering in the area of the crater back in 1920. Thinking it nothing more than a geologic oddity, he later presented it to Odessa's first mayor, R.S. McKinney, who in turn judged it an ideal paperweight for his desk.

It was not until a couple of years later that A.C. Bibbins, a geologist visiting Odessa in search of land for oil exploration, stopped by the mayor's office, took notice of the heavier-than-usual rock and asked if he might send it to a friend at the United States Natural Museum for analysis. There, museum director George Merrill concluded that the stone included particles of iron, nickel, cobalt, copper, carbon, phosphorus and sulphur--all components and characteristics of a meteorite--and his findings were published in a 1922 edition of the American Journal of Science. In his article, he suggested that the West Texas "blow out" hole near where the sample was found might well be a meteor crater. If so, he wrote, it would be only the second such geological marvel on record in the United States.

The news created little local stir, but it did earn the attention of D.M. Barringer, a famed Philadelphia lawyer-geologist-mining engineer who earlier had leased the mineral rights and land where the famed Arizona crater was located. He immediately dispatched one of his sons for a firsthand look at the Texas location. Daniel Barringer, also a trained geologist, was told to determine if it actually was a meteor crater and, if so, to make discreet inquiries about purchasing the land. Frustrated that long and costly mining efforts in Arizona had failed to yield a mineral-rich, intact meteorite beneath the surface, the father hoped the second discovery might be the charmed one--that the giant, mineral-rich stone that had fallen in Texas might still be buried, awaiting excavation.

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