Ernest O. Thompson

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Ernest Othmer Thompson​

In office
1929​ – 1932​
Preceded by Lee Bivins​
Succeeded by Ross D. Rogers​

Texas Railroad Commissioner​
In office
January 1, 1933​ – January 11, 1965​
Preceded by Pat Morris Neff ​
Succeeded by Byron M. Tunnell ​

Born March 24, 1892​
Alvord, Wise County, Texas​
Died June 28, 1966 (aged 74)​
Resting place Texas State Cemetery in Austin
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) (1) May Esther Peterson Thompson (married 1924-1952, her death)​

(2) Myda Bivins Thompson (widow of Miles Bivins)​

Children No children ​
Occupation Businessman; Attorney
Religion Episcopalian

Ernest Othmer Thompson (March 24, 1892 – June 28, 1966) was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army during World War I, a mayor of Amarillo, Texas, an attorney, a businessman invested in hotels, office buildings, and petroleum, and a 32-year member of the regulatory Texas Railroad Commission. He was recognized as an authority on oil and natural gas production and conservation.[1]


Thompson was born to Lewis Oliver Thompson and the former Flora Lee Agnes Murray in his native Alvord, a rural community in Wise County in what is now in the northwestern portion of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. When he was ten, his family moved to Amarillo, where the senior Thompson, operated a drug store. Thompson was already a successful entrepreneur even as a teenager.[2]

He graduated from Amarillo High School and attended Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, and later the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a law degree.[1] While at UT, he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Military service

During the Great War, Thompson became an expert in machine gun tactics. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, he worked out a mass machine-gun firing technique and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, having received a battlefield promotion from General John J. Pershing himself.[1] At twenty-six, Thompson was the youngest lieutenant colonel in the Army.[2] After the cessation of hostilities, Thompson remained in Europe to direct the stockpiling of German weapons with the Army of Occupation.[1]

In 1919, he was among the organizers of the American Legion. In 1936, Thompson was named colonel of the Texas National Guard. He was promoted to commanding general in 1952 and was thereafter known as "General Thompson” though his biographer refers to him as a "colonel".[2]

Business and personal life

On his return from Europe to Amarillo, he practiced law and owned the Amarillo and Herring hotels. Thompson patronized the western artist Harold Dow Bugbee (1900-1963), a curator of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in nearby Canyon in Randall County, south of Amarillo. He also built the first multi-story office building in Amarillo, called simply the Amarillo Building.[1]

In 1924, Thompson married the former May Esther Peterson (1880-1952), a Wisconsin native and a star of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City who was twelve years his senior. The couple met in the First Methodist Church of Amarillo, where Thompson was her escort for a performance. In addition to the hotel suite in Amarillo, the couple lived in the capital city of Austin during much of the time that Thompson served on the Railroad Commission. They also maintained a summer home in Estes Park, Colorado. They had no children.[3] Mrs. Thompson died suddenly on her 72nd birthday.[3]

Thompson the next year married Myda Truscott Bivins (1892-1978), the widow of Miles G. Bivins, a prominent Amarillo cattleman.​ ​

Election as mayor

Though Thompson was a Democrat, the Bivins family became prominent Texas Republicans as the state adopted a two-party system. Former state Senator Miles Teel Bivins (1947-2009), whom President George W. Bush appointed as the United States Ambassador to Sweden, was a grandson of Miles G. and Myda Bivins.​

Thompson was elected to the nonpartisan position of mayor of Amarillo in 1928 on a platform advocating the reduction of utility rates. On taking office in 1929, he established a competing municipal natural gas company and launched a successful consumer boycott of telephones to persuade the companies to lower rates.[2] He also launched a major capital improvements campaign. He served as mayor for two two-year terms, until 1932, when he was appointed by Governor Ross Shaw Sterling (1875-1949), a founder of the future Exxon Company, to the Texas Railroad Commission. A vacancy occurred when commissioner and former Governor Pat Morris Neff (1871-1952) resigned to become the president of Baylor University in Waco.

On the commission, Thompson built his reputation as an oil and gas expert. He was elected to full six-year terms in 1936, 1942, 1948, 1954, and 1960. He resigned two-thirds into his last term, and Governor John Connally, named Byron M. Tunnell (1925-2000), former state House Speaker as Thompson’s successor. Tunnell's departure from the House paved the way for Benny Frank "Ben" Barnes (born 1938) to become the youngest Speaker in Texas House history.[4]

Meanwhile, Ross D. Rogers followed Thompson as mayor and served until 1941. At the time, Amarillo was hard hit by drought during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.[1]

Authority on oil

Under Thompson's guidance, the Railroad Commission developed conservation and production measures that brought order to the chaotic East Texas oil field in the 1930s, where oil prices fell from $1.10 to 10 cents a barrel.[1]​ ​ Thompson long opposed nationalization of the petroleum industry and worked to establish the Interstate Oil Compact, having served three terms as chairman of that group. He was one of the first to warn the industry against reliance on imported oil during times of war .[1]​ In 1937, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Thompson to the World Petroleum Conference in Paris, France. With the outbreak of World War II, Thompson briefly rejoined the Army before returning to Texas to ensure oil supplies for Allied forces.[1]

In 1951, Thompson was honored by the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the United States Oil and Gas Association (then known as the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and the American Petroleum Institute, which awarded him its "Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement."[1]​ ​

Promoting the Railroad Commission

​ Thompson did much to enhance the credibility of the Railroad Commission, which had been created in 1891 during the first administration of Governor James Stephen "Jim" Hogg (1851-1906). He tried to build public support for Railroad Commission services. At every opportunity, he promoted Texas oil and the idea that regulation would enhance, not hamper, the free-market. Regulations, however, increased the price of oil by holding back production but promised steady supplies in the future.[5]

Both the petroleum conservationists and the major oil companies received a system of mandated oil-production levels known as prorationing. The Railroad Commission determined how much oil could be produced monthly in accord with market demand. This practice permitted price-fixing by major oil companies and conservation of Texas’ reserves. The tens of thousands of independent oilmen who owned most of the East Texas fields opposed prorationing but were reconciled to Thompson’s system when they realized that the commission would allow narrow spacing of wells, a policy which favored the smaller independent producers.[2]

In 1944, Thompson moved to protect Texas interests by leading the opposition to the Anglo-American oil treaty in the Middle East. This pact would have formed a commission dominated by the major oil companies to assess post-war demand for Mideast oil and authorized production quotas. Thompson, along with United States Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, and the independent oil companies, opposed the idea of giving the major companies so much control over global marketing and production. The treaty eventually failed, but the competition from Mideast oil would continue.[5]​ ​

Two gubernatorial campaigns

​ Thompson twice ran for governor of Texas, losing the Democratic nomination both times to Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel (1890-1969). Thompson was believed to have been the leading candidate in 1938 until O’Daniel made his last-minute entry. O’Daniel won the nomination, 573,166 votes (51.4 percent ) to Thompson’s 231,630 (20.8 percent). The remaining 27.8 percent was divided among eleven other candidates.[6]

In the 1940 primary, held when the state had two-year gubernatorial terms, Thompson offered proposals of aid to labor, the establishment of a public utility commission, and a nickel-a-barrel oil tax to pay for the state's old-age pensions. He noted that Texas oil was not limitless and was taxed less than was oil in several other states. Nevertheless, Thompson again finished second to O’Daniel, 645,646 (54.3 percent) to 255,923 (21.5 percent). Also in the race was controversial former Governor Miriam Amanda Wallace "Ma" Ferguson (1875-1961), who received 100,578 votes (8.5 percent). The remaining 15.7 percent was divided among four other candidates.[6]​ ​


The Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building in downtown Austin is an 11-story art deco complex built in 1940. It housed the former Austin Daily Tribune newspaper, which was published from 1939 to 1942. The state purchased the building in 1945.

Thompson served as a member of the Board of Regents of the Texas Tech University System, then known as Texas Technological College in Lubbock and his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute. He was a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, the Masonic lodge, the Shriners, and the Amarillo Rotary Club.[1]

On his retirement from the Railroad Commission, the legislature designated the former Austin Daily Tribune Building as the Ernest O. Thompson Building.[4] Located at Colorado and West Tenth streets, it was the tallest building constructed in Austin during the 1940s.[7]

After Thompson’s death, the Texas Historical Commission placed a marker to his memory in the 610-acre Thompson Park, which the city of Amarillo named for him.[1]

In 1954, James Anthony Clark penned the biography of Thompson, Three Stars for the Colonel: A Biography of Ernest O. Thompson, published by Random House in New York City.[8]

Thompson is interred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.[2] In 2001, he Thompson was included among the "100 Most Influential People of the High Plains," as compiled by The Amarillo Globe-News.[1]​ ​ Overall, Thompson’s main legacy is perhaps his dogged attempt to keep his state's oil-based wealth within Texas.[2] In 1957, Sam Rayburn of Texas, the long-term U.S. House Speaker, told a U.S. Senate committee which was investigating a shortage of American oil production at the time, that “in my humble opinion, the general knows more about oil than any [other] man in the world." Thompson used the occasion to explain how Texas policies had deliberately reduced production to benefit the independent oil producers. The lack of production, moreover, he maintained, was "a myth."[9]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 History Makers: Gen. Ernest O. Thompson. The Amarillo Globe-News (May 19, 2000; no longer on-line).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Ernest Othmer Thompson. Texas State Cemetery. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  3. 3.0 3.1 May Thompson. Texas State Cemetery. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 RRC Chronology 1960-1979. Texas Railroad Commission; no longer on-line.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hazardous Business - The Power Years. The Texas State Library. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gubernatorial election returns. Texas Almanac. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  7. Ernest O. Thompson Building, Austin. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  8. James A. Clark (1954). Three Stars for the Colonel: The Biography of Ernest O. Thompson, Father of Petroleum Conservation. Retrieved on December 15, 2019.
  9. Oil: Not so Villainous. Time magazine (February 25, 1957; no longer on-line).

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