Tumultuous. Violent. Passionate. How could a little regulatory agency in Texas with the plain-jane name of the Railroad Commission evoke such words? In many ways, the story of the Railroad Commission is the story of Texas itself, and the state's rise from an isolated frontier to a major economic power. The Railroad Commission was founded in 1891 on a tide of populist resentment of the railroads. In the 20th century, it went on to wield legendary power over the supply and price of oil and natural gas.
Governor Jim Hogg, the man who more than anyone else was responsible for founding the Railroad Commission, defined the agency this way: “It is the best law that has been passed in Texas in many a day.” But opponents called the commission a “constitutional monstrosity,” “essentially foolish and essentially vicious.”
In a time of enormous change, the Railroad Commission of Texas stood at center stage of many of Texas’s most significant transformations. The story begins with oxcarts foundering on dirt roads pitted with tree stumps. The players include cotton farmers and cattle ranchers, railroad magnates and oil wildcatters, judges and lawyers, hot-oil runners, crusading newspaper reporters, and politicians from Austin to Washington.
The story of the Railroad Commission is also a story of ideas. It illuminates some of the most deeply held beliefs in Texas: the sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to economic freedom and personal liberty, and the responsibility of government to determine and protect the public good.