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Shallow Impact

Tom Rodman, 70, stands in the West Texas spot where a meteor crashed some 50,000 years ago.

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.

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.

It was, in fact, the elder Barringer who first proposed the now-generally accepted theory that, since the craters in Arizona and Texas were of the same age, the trajectory of the meteorites that stuck them similar, and the makeup of the fragments collected near both sites identical, they likely resulted from a single meteorite that broke apart after entering the earth's atmosphere. The largest piece created the giant crater in the Arizona desert, while the other fell 600 miles away, near Odessa.

The day after arriving in Texas, the young Barringer telegraphed a message to his anxious father: "It is a meteor crater, beyond the shadow of a doubt." What he did not say was that land prices had begun to skyrocket with the recent discovery of massive oil and gas deposits in the region. The Texas and Pacific Land Trust, then owner of the 40-acre plot on which the crater was located, had no interest in selling.

Aside from occasional visits from scientists, the flicker of interest in the crater was short-lived. Concern over valuable fuel that might lie below the ground far outweighed thoughts of any rock that might have fallen from the sky.

Thus it would be almost two decades before attention was again focused on the tumbleweed-populated region southwest of Odessa. This time the interest was fanned by a University of Texas geology professor named E.H. Sellards and Dr. Lincoln La Paz of Ohio State. Recognizing the scientific importance, Sellards wrote a series of academic papers on the crater, urging fellow scientists throughout the country to visit Odessa and help launch a campaign for a thorough exploration that might unearth the mysteries hidden in the West Texas ground. Dr. La Paz helped things along greatly when, following an expedition to the crater, he publicly surmised that a meteorite as much as 170 meters in diameter lay beneath the surface.

Such a possibility generated a groundswell of new enthusiasm. Reacting to La Paz's suggestion, Ector County officials decided it was high time to start digging--and promoting. They arranged to lease the land and began to talk of improvements that would transform the crater into a tourist attraction to rival New Mexico's famed Carlsbad Caverns, complete with a subterranean elevator to allow visitors to descend into the earth for a close-up look at a one-of-a-kind phenomenon--the first intact meteorite ever discovered.

The state, county and the University of Texas contributed funding for the unusual and ambitious exploration project. The federal government pitched in, providing 35 employees from the Works Progress Administration. The local Humble Oil and Refining Company volunteered a magnetometer survey crew to help locate the stone that was believed to be imbedded somewhere below the surface.

By early 1940, one of the trenches dug in an effort to determine the course of the meteorite as it buried into the ground offered up the fossilized remains of a mammoth. Meteorite fragments, some weighing more than 100 pounds, became commonplace discoveries. Then, finally, at the depth of 164 feet, a drill struck something so hard that it shredded the steel teeth of a drilling bit. Convinced they had found the treasure that Dr. La Paz had promised, workers immediately began the second phase of their plan.

Using picks, shovels and jackhammers, workmen began the laborious task of digging a large shaft adjacent to the drill site. By design they carved out what amounted to 11 solid rock rooms--each deep enough for a man to stand upright--stacked one atop the other and connected by a series of descending ladders. Once the shaft reached the depth at which the drilling had stopped, they would tunnel sideways to finally get their first look at the giant rock from outer space.

Excitement spread throughout West Texas. Daily, anxious residents would drive into the countryside, sometimes carrying with them picnic baskets, to witness the progress being made and search the area around the crater for suddenly prized souvenirs from another world.

 

The enthusiasm soon disappeared, however, with the announcement that drillers had hit nothing more interesting than a hard strata of limestone. There was no giant stone from the solar system; Dr. La Paz had been wrong. In years to come, scientists with more sophisticated knowledge and equipment would agree that instead of burying deep into the ground, the meteorite had shattered upon impact, its fragments spewing miles beyond the crater itself.

With World War II fast approaching, people's attention quickly turned to more pressing matters. The Odessa meteor crater, bearing the man-made scars of the abandoned exploration, returned to obscurity.


"When I was a boy," Rodman recalls, "I spent a lot of time playing in the crater. My father, a rancher and oil-field equipment salesman, owned the land that surrounded it. I'd go over there, wander around, hunting rabbits and looking for arrowheads and meteorite fragments. There were a couple of large trees growing in the middle of the crater, and I would sit in their shade and think about what happened there, trying to imagine what that part of the world might have looked like when the meteorite came.

"Back then, the crater was pretty remarkable, perfectly shaped like a giant bowl. From the first time my father took me out there and explained what it was, I was fascinated."

By the time he reached high school age, Rodman was ignoring his parents' warnings and occasionally climbing down into the multistoried shaft that had been dug beneath the crater, there to enjoy the cool solitude the dark limestone chambers offered.

The time came, however, to put aside his boyhood musings of extraterrestrial visitors. Rodman left for college, then had a stint in the Army. By the time he returned, there was a law practice to build and a new family that demanded his time and attention. For years his historic old playground was little more than an afterthought.

On the occasional drives he would make out the unpaved road leading to the crater, what he found was a painful eyesore. The deep, jagged trenches dug during the frenzied exploration had never been filled. County builders, ever in search of limestone, had stolen away parts of the crater's rim to be crushed into roadbed materials. Rusting barrels and piles of brush signaled the fact the crater had become nothing more than a dumping ground. As a safety precaution, the entrance to the underground shaft had been bolted shut, the drill hole capped and welded closed.

Meteorite collectors became the most regular visitors. Midland's Richard Rose, 59, remembers hauling away a 252-pound piece that he found just a few hundred yards south of the crater back in 1979. "My dad and I both had metal detectors," he remembers, "and we'd found several one- and two-pound pieces that particular day. Then, late in the afternoon, my detector went nuts. I figured I'd crossed over a buried oil barrel or some old piece of oil-field equipment. But 2 feet below the surface, there was this meteorite about the size of a sack of concrete." He and his father managed to lift the stone into the trunk of his dad's car. Later, the retired oil and gas engineer recalls, he sold it to a German dealer for enough money to purchase himself a sports car. "I've heard," he says, "that it finally wound up in a Japanese museum."

Rodman tells of an Arlington, Virginia, collector who had been regularly trespassing on the family property and was ultimately confronted in an Odessa motel room where he had more than 300 pounds of meteorites that he'd gathered. "My dad told the sheriff he didn't want the man arrested," Rodman says. "He let the guy take half of what he'd found if he'd promise to get out of town and never come back."

A visiting scientist was horrified by what he saw, returning home to write an article in which he described the historic location as the victim of "Odessa-cration." It would be left to Rodman to do what he could to rescue the crater. It's a battle he's been fighting most of his adult life.

In the late '50s, his father leased the land on which it was located, and the family began a cleanup effort. Tom, eager to renew local interest in what he still felt could be developed into a significant tourist attraction, formed the Odessa Meteorite Society--a small group of geologists, teachers, amateur astronomers and local politicians whose collective purpose was to resurrect interest in the meteor crater.

 

It was no easy task. In 1958, according to a yellowed clipping from the Odessa American, the most successful fund-raiser was a Friday-night box supper sponsored by members of a local women's club, several of whom agreed to fry chicken and bake pies while at the same time frankly admitting they had never even heard of the crater.

Finally, in the fall of 1962, enough private funding had been accumulated to give the landscape a thorough cleaning, mend the fences that surrounded it, erect a large sign and build a small cinder block museum at the entrance to the crater. A trailer house was moved onto the property as residence for a full-time caretaker who would maintain the museum (where visitors could view a number of meteorites that had been found in and around the crater), keep the grounds and discourage late-night visits by vandals.

There was no great rush of sightseers, but at least the Odessa Meteor Crater was finally becoming presentable to those who did choose to visit.

Such was the status quo for several years, until the elderly caretaker wearied of the isolation and having nothing but rocks, wind and sand for neighbors. He quit, and a second caretaker moved onto the site, only to die of a heart attack after just four months.

Before the job could be filled for a third time, vandals had used the site's welcome sign for target practice, broken into the museum and made away with the largest pieces of the meteorite that were on display and spray-painted graffiti on the outside walls. Eventually, Ector County officials voted to tear down the abandoned and unsightly building, replacing it with a tin roof over the foundation and bolting a large picnic table into the concrete. In time, vandals would steal into the desert darkness and saw off the metal legs, making away with the table. Upkeep dwindled to occasional visits by a local funeral home director who had been contracted to mow the weeds as time from his regular job permitted.

Had Tom Rodman conceded defeat of his dream none would have faulted him. By the early '70s, the crater that was once designated a national landmark had landed on another list: The United States Department of Interior and National Park Service labeled it one of the nation's endangered historical sites.


"That kind of neglect should never have happened," says James Williams as he sits sipping iced tea at the kitchen table of his Odessa home. If the heat index hadn't already climbed past the century mark, he says, he'd be out near the crater doing what he's been doing almost daily for the past 20 years. Though careful never to trespass onto the land where the meteor crater itself is located, he has walked miles of flatland around it, metal detector in hand, searching for bits of celestial stone that sprayed across the landscape upon the meteorite's impact.

"I've dug up almost 6,000 pounds over the years," says the retired oil rig pumper, "some as far as two or three miles away from the crater itself." His largest find, dug from 4 feet below the surface, weighed 162 pounds. If one need proof of the widespread interest in the fall of the Odessa meteorite, he need only check the postmarks on the mail Williams receives. From throughout the nation and as far away as Japan, collectors write about the pieces he sells for $75 per pound. At a recent Phillips Fine Arts Auction in New York, bidding for what a catalog described as "Odessa nuggets," which weighed no more than 70 grams, started at $225.

"I don't do it for the money," Williams says as he shows off his personal collection. "I just got to the point where I didn't have any more room in my garage. The best pieces I've found--some large, some no bigger than your thumb--I've kept for myself. I just enjoy going out there, looking. I get the same thrill when I find a new piece that I did 20 years ago."

It is the awesome magnitude of the original blast that still causes him to shake his head as he speaks of it. "I've found meteorites as far as eight miles away from the crater," he says.

In a manner of speaking, Williams and Rodman are kindred spirits. "I have no doubt if the county really put its mind to it, the meteor crater could still become a tremendous tourist attraction," the elderly rock hound insists. "Over the years, scientists and astronomers have come here from all over the world to get a look at this place."

Just last June a group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin visited the crater to take core samples of the sediment that has filled the giant hole. "Once formed," says professor of geography Vance Holliday, "the crater acted much like a lake basin. By studying the sediment that has collected, we hope not only to better determine its age but also get some idea of the climate changes that occurred in the region over the years." He expects to have results of his tests late this year.

 

Holliday is but one of many in the scientific community fascinated by the crater. Last year, Baylor University's Strecker Museum published a paper that details the field notes and geologic maps prepared by Glen Evans during the original expedition he led in the late '30s.

In the summer of 1996, University of Washington astronomy professor Paul Hodge traveled to Odessa to study the size and distribution of the meteorite fragments that had spewed from the crater on impact. "The force," Hodge says, "must have created a mushroom cloud that looked like that following an atomic bomb blast." Additionally, his research revealed that the Texas meteorite is among the rarest variety found.

"Ninety percent of the meteorites discovered," he says, "are stony in nature, coming from the crust of a planetoid or asteroid. The one that fell near Odessa was composed primarily of iron and nickel, meaning that it came from the core of a planetoid which had to be something in the neighborhood of 4.6 billion years old and several hundred miles in diameter."

The publicity that accompanied Hodge's expedition afforded Rodman yet another chance to plead the crater's case. By then acting as head of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce's Meteor Crater Task Force, he urged the Ector County commissioners to apply to the National Park Service for grant money to make improvements to the site.

In 1997, county fathers voted to match a $7,500 grant offered by the national agency. Though modest, the funding was enough to provide the crater yet another face-lift. The unpaved road leading out to it was black-topped, caliche was brought in to remake the walking trails, a new picnic area was built, and a sign featuring a geological cross section of the crater was erected near the entrance.

The Odessa Meteor Crater was once again back in business, no longer with visions of traffic like that which streams to Carlsbad Caverns or Old Faithful or even its more famous relative out in the Arizona desert, but at least with a cared-for appearance. Though a step in the right direction, Rodman silently viewed the grant as only a stopgap measure.

Now, after a lifetime of urging, another advancement--this one a giant step--has revitalized Rodman's enthusiasm. State Representative Buddy West, who says he first visited the crater as a 12-year-old Odessa Boy Scout, recently sought and was granted a $500,000 state appropriation for improvements and maintenance of the historic site in his home district. To some political grousers it may sound like pork; to Tom Rodman it is a prayer answered. The funding, to be administered through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and managed by Ector County and the University of Texas-Permian Basin, will allow for the construction of a visitors' center-museum, housing for a full-time caretaker and necessary upkeep for the next two years.

Representative West, 64, who pitched both the scientific and historical importance of the site to the appropriation committee, says his efforts would never have succeeded had it not been for the lifelong commitment of Rodman. "This has been his dream for a long time," West says. "He had the vision. It just took the rest of us awhile to catch up to him."

Much of Rodman's time today is spent helping plan the displays that will greet vacationing families and school groups making field trips to the museum that will open in the fall. Hundreds of meteorites that have been housed by the local library will be returned to the site from which they came. Once open, it will be only the fourth meteor crater museum in the world, joining similar venues in Arizona, Germany and Africa.

"This," Rodman said as he recently watched construction workers pour the concrete foundation for the museum, "is finally going to make it the first-class attraction it has so long deserved to be."


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