KILGORE — Many of the documents are still fresh and crisp. Some are yellowed with age, some in tatters. Others have been laminated as a stopgap against further deterioration.

Whatever their state, every one of the records stored in the Kilgore district office of the Texas Railroad Commission will be individually inspected in the coming year. About half will be set aside, ready to be scanned and uploaded to a massive public database — the history of the East Texas Oilfield digitized and open for business, free for any interested person or party.

Kilgore’s operation is the commission’s largest district office, and it’s the pilot for a statewide effort to begin after the project cuts its teeth on about 1.7 million records archived here since the 1930s and before.

“Kilgore is going to be our test office so we can learn our lessons,” said Roy Philips, the commission’s information services manager and records management liaison. It’s a natural starting point, the repository of all the physical documents tied to the top-producing field in the United States. “That’s really historically significant because that is one of the only, still-continuously-being-used oil fields in Texas.”

The Kilgore branch comprises Districts 5 and 6 of the Railroad Commission.

Today, the agency’s name is a misnomer: The commission (established late in the 19th century) stopped regulating railroads more than a decade ago. It remains the state’s authority over the oil-and-gas industry as well as surface mining operations of coal and uranium.

Five local employees have been at work on the archival project since June. The effort’s expected to continue through Aug. 31, 2020.

Piece by piece

It’s a vast undertaking.

“You can take a square inch of documents in the file drawer,” Philips said, “and you can extrapolate how many file drawers you have in how many filing cabinets.”

Each of the 1.7 million documents must be compared — one by one — against an existing online database of records that have already been put online, scanned from the files of the commission’s main office in Austin.

Not every duplicate will be discarded.

“If the image online is less than desirable, we will re-image that document again,” Philips noted. “Right now, the rate is looking at about 50% that’s going to be imaged and put online.”

Crunching the numbers, the ultimate project inventory in Kilgore will see about 800,000 records scanned in and tagged with key information such as a lease number, a well’s unique API identifier, the operator’s name and which hydrocarbon field is involved.

Once uploaded and searchable, Philips said, “People who want to look up records can use that metadata to look up images.”

The digital records will be readily available to anyone 24 hours a day, seven days-a-week.

How it’s used

“There are lots of applications,” Philips said.

For example, if a local farmer is plowing a field and uncovers a metal casing, odds are it’s from an old oil well.

Today, “He calls the district office. We send an inspector out to look at it, get a GPS reading.”

It then falls to Railroad Commission personnel to comb through yellowed records to trace the history. In time, much of the work will be reduced to keystrokes.

“Or you have a developer that’s going to build a subdivision. He wants to know if there are any plugged wells they’re going to be building homes over,” Philips said.

But simple curiosity also will lead to the records’ use, he said: “There are some people who like to look up those records just for historical significance. A family member owned the land years ago and they want to see if there are any royalty rights left on the property, things like that.”

There’s an educational opportunity as well, he noted.

“For the general public, this kind of shows how the oil and gas industry has grown from the 1930s to now. How many more wells are produced now than were back then? How many total are there? What areas produce more oil than another area? What areas produce more gas than another area?”

Already, the documents have opened a window onto another way of life as well.

Unexpected treasures

Amid completion reports, maps and memoranda, the office’s records contain a litany of letters and telegrams, the fastest means of communication available at one time. Even phones weren’t readily available to transmit questions and answers between the railroad commission and well operators.

“Consequently, it took a lot longer to complete a well than it does now,” Philips said. “Lots longer.”

Almost two months in to the archiving project, it’s early days, yet.

“Currently, they are reviewing the records that are in the district office,” Philips confirmed.

The project has an estimated price tag of $536,000.

Notably, “That’s coming out of the oil-and-gas regulation and clean-up fund,” according to Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission. Rather than relying on taxpayers, “It’s made up of fees paid by the oil-and-gas industry.”

In addition to the immediate practical applications for the public, the effort aims to streamline work at the district office and, eventually, other Railroad Commission operations.

“That’s one of the significant things about this project, too,” Philips said. “This helps the public, it helps industry, it also helps us because all our enforcement areas have all the records available online. It’s so much easier going online than digging through shelves of paper.

“Very worthwhile project. It is going to provide Texas history to the world, actually.”