Six years before Oklahoma statehood, the 1901 Red Fork oil discovery near Tulsa will help the town start its journey to becoming “Oil Capital of the World.” Read the rest of this entry »
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Six years before Oklahoma statehood, the 1901 Red Fork oil discovery near Tulsa will help the town start its journey to becoming “Oil Capital of the World.” Read the rest of this entry »
In the summer of 1921, the Signal Hill oil discovery will help make California the source of one-quarter of the world’s entire oil output. Soon known as “Porcupine Hill,” the town’s oil field 20 miles south of Los Angeles was producing almost 260,000 barrels of oil every day by 1923.
The Alamitos No. 1 well erupted “black gold” on June 23, 1921, announcing discovery of California’s prolific Long Beach oil field.
The natural gas pressure is so great the gusher climbed 114 feet into the air. The well produced almost 600 barrels a day when completed on June 25. It will eventually produce 700,000 barrels.
The first Texas oil boom arrives in the summer of 1894 when the Corsicana oilfield is discovered by a drilling contractor hired by the city to find water. Residents annually celebrate the 1894 discovery with a Derrick Day Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.
An oil well that produced less than three barrels a day transformed Corsicana, Texas, from a sleepy agricultural town into a petroleum and industrial center. It launched industries, including service companies and manufacturers of the newly invented rotary drilling rig.
Some consider the 1894 Corsicana oilfield discovery well, drilled on South 12th Street, the first commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi.
Although it was not the first oil well in Texas, the discovery soon led to others that established the state’s exploration and production industry. Corsicana reportedly built the first refinery west of the Mississippi. It also was home to Wolf Brand Chili.
Pawnee Royalty Company drilled the first Nebraska oil well in 1940 in Richardson County. The state legislature had offered a $15,000 bonus.
After more than a half century of dry holes, on May 29, 1940, Nebraska’s first commercial oil well was completed in the far southeastern corner of the state. The Pawnee Royalty Company made the discovery just west of Falls City in Richardson County.
“The first publicized report of oil in Nebraska had been an 1883 newspaper account of a ‘vein of petroleum’ discovered in the same county,” explains a Nebraska historical marker.
“Over the next 57 years the search for oil consumed thousands of dollars, and hundreds of wells were drilled throughout Nebraska,” adds the marker placed by the Nebraska Petroleum Council. “Traces of oil were reported at various locations across the state, but Nebraska did not have a producing well until 1940.”
Eager to become an oil-producing state, the Nebraska legislature had offered a $15,000 bonus for the first oil well in Nebraska to produce 50 barrels daily for 60 consecutive days.
In 1939 and 1940 the Pawnee Royalty Company had two encouraging but unsuccessful drillings near Falls City. A third well, Bucholz No. 1, was begun near the marker on April 22, 1940. On May 29 the well began producing and averaged 169-1/2 barrels daily for the first 60 days.
The discovery easily qualified for the Nebraska Legislature’s $15,000 bonus. Richardson County enjoyed an oil boom for three years. The Bucholz No. 1 was located just five miles east of the “vein of petroleum” reported in 1883.
Western Nebraska Oil
Modern Nebraska petroleum production comes from the southwestern panhandle – where a 1949 discovery well produced 225 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 4,429 feet.
This oil discovery ended 60 years of unsuccessful searching in western Nebraska, according to another roadside historical marker.
Marathon Oil completed the well, the Mary Egging No. 1, five miles southeast of Gurley in Cheyenne County.
The marker, on U.S. 385 between Sidney and Gurley, reports that interest in oil in western Nebraska first occurred in 1889, near Crawford, in the northwest corner of the Panhandle.
“The first recorded drilling operation there took place in 1903 near Chadron, also in the northern part of the Panhandle,” the marker explains.
“In 1917, the first exploratory well to drill in the southwest Panhandle, near Harrisburg, failed,” it adds. “Oil searchers sunk many other dry test wells in western Nebraska until success came in 1949.”
By 1966, wells in the western Nebraska oilfields produced more than 216 million barrels of oil.
“The pioneer efforts in this area have resulted in a major contribution to the economy of the state,” concludes the Nebraska State Historical Society.
New technologies, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, today bring renewed activity to the state. Independent oil and natural gas companies are testing the potential of the Niobrara Shale in Colorado, Wyoming – and southwestern Nebraska.
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West Texas petroleum history is made in 1923 when a well blessed by nuns reveals the size of the Permian Basin. A small Texas university owns the arid land deemed worthless by many experts.
The Permian Basin, once known as a “petroleum graveyard,” began to make U. S. petroleum history in 1920 with a discovery by W. H. Abrams in Mitchell County in West Texas. But when completed, his well produced just 10 barrels a day.
It would be another discovery well, the Santa Rita No. 1, that convinced wildcatters to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin from most of West Texas into the southeastern corner of New Mexico.
Although many experts still considered West Texas barren of oil, the Santa Rita well will produce for seven decades after tapping into the vast commercial oil production of the Permian Basin.
Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made its major oil strike May 28, 1923 – after 21 months of cable-tool drilling that averaged less than five feet a day. Read the rest of this entry »
Summer travelers interested in Pennsylvania petroleum history should not miss the annual celebration at Cherry Grove. Every June for more than 130 years, the small community has celebrated an 1882 oil discovery and drilling boom with the Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day.
Oil prices plunged in 1882 when oil production from a single Pennsylvania well was revealed.
The well’s true – and at that time massive – oil production had been a closely guarded secret in a small, Warren County township.
As the well’s owners quietly secured nearby leases, word finally spread about a secret May 17, 1882, discovery well that flowed with 1,000 barrels of oil per day.
“The hilltop settlement of Cherry Grove saw national history in the spring and summer of 1882 when the 646 Mystery Well ushered in a great oil boom,” explains one noted historian.
The sudden news about the mystery well, operated by the Jamestown Oil Company, sent shock waves through early oil market centers. The nation’s first commercial oil well in Titusville was just 25 years old.
“The excitement in the oil exchanges was indescribable,” notes an account of historian Paul H. Giddens. “Over 4,500,000 barrels of oil were sold in one day on the exchanges in Titusville, Oil City and Bradford.”
According to Giddens, the Cherry Grove discovery demoralized the market and drove the price down to less than 50 cents per barrel.
Despite the collapse of oil prices, hundreds of derricks appeared around Cherry Grove – and thousands of people moved there while the boom lasted.
Celebrating Cherry Grove
It was short lived, according to the dedicated volunteers of today’s Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day Committee, which hosts special oil patch events on the last Sunday of every June.
“Before the railroad could lay a new line to Cherry Grove, the boom went bust,” notes Walt Atwood, president of the Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day.
“Thousands of people moved on,” he adds. “Those who remained kept the memory of the Oil Excitement alive with reunions that became known as Old Home Day.”
In 1982 and again in 2007, a group of Cherry Grove Old Home Day regulars rebuilt a replica of the 646 Mystery Well. The volunteers worked with the township supervisors to secure grants and bring in a work crew from the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps.
The Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day annual oil patch event is open to the public with no admission fee. “Anyone who is interested in oil field history, or the history of Cherry Grove, is encouraged to participate to keep the history alive,” Atwood proclaims.
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Osage Indians awarded Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters a medal in 1920 for auctioning mineral leases. He did it from under their “Million Dollar Elm.”
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (his real name) Walters was the most famous auctioneer in all of Oklahoma history. In 1912, the Osage Indians hired him to auction mineral rights from their petroleum-rich reservation. Working for $10 a day, beneath a giant elm tree in Pawhuska, Ellsworth earned the tribe millions.
Born at Adrian, Illinois, in 1865, Walters was named in honor of Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteers, the first Union officer killed during the Civil War (shot while removing the Confederate flag from the roof of a Virginia hotel). Walters moved with his parents to the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, in 1866.
Although Walters became a deputy U.S. marshal at 19, he began gaining distinction as an auctioneer. He sold live stock, real estate and mineral leases in 2,250-square-mile Osage County.
Beginning in 1912 he sold Osage mineral leases in 160-acre blocks based on “headrights” from a 1906 tribal population count. In Pawhuska, between the Osage council house and the county courthouse, Walters called the auctions.
The bidders for the leases were a who’s who of leading Oklahoma independent producers. E.W. Marland biographer John J. Mathews quotes one impressed onlooker:
“You could stand on the edge of the crowd and see two or three of the biggest names in America squatting there on the grass, as common as an old shoe, and when they raised their hands it meant millions. That’s a fact!”
Another onlooker described hundreds of spectators and reporters who gathered to watch the bidding. Walters proved so effective at “extracting millions from the silk pockets of such newly minted oil barons as Frank Phillips, E.W. Marland, and William G. Skelly” that the Osages awarded him a medal. See also Million Dollar Elm.
“On February 3, 1920, before that day’s bidding began, the Osage tribe presented Walters with a medal to show their appreciation for all the wealth he’d drummed up for them in the shade of the Million Dollar Elm,” the witness reported.
By 1922, the National Petroleum News proclaimed that Walters had “Sold 10 Times As Much Property Under Hammer As Any Other Man” and his friends, the Osage, became “the richest people in the world.”
Beneath the Pawhuska elm on March 18, 1924, Walters secured a bid of $1,995,000 for one 160-acre tract. It was the highest price paid at that time, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Walters reportedly received more Osage gifts, including a diamond-studded badge and a diamond ring.
On April 22, 1926, hundreds gathered in his nearby hometown of Skedee for the dedication of a 25-foot “Bond of Friendship” monument. The unveiling revealed “painted bronze” statues of Walters and the chief of the Osage Nation shaking hands on a two-tiered sandstone and concrete base. The close friendship between Osage Chief (phonetically) Wah-she-hah and Walters was rare enough at the time to warrant an Oklahoma monolith.
Wah-she-hah translates to Star-That-Travels in the Osage language – but history and visitors to the Skedee statue remember him as Chief Bacon Rind.
Still standing in Skedee, the sculpture depicts the Chief Bacon Rind wearing his traditional otter-skin cap and a cloak. Walters wears a suit with trousers tucked into his boots and holds his hat in left hand.
By 1928, the famous “auctioneer of the Osage Nation” had sold $157 million in lease sales for his friends. But it wasn’t all good news.
Darker Side of “Headrights”
Sudden great wealth for the Osage people brought a bloody criminal conspiracy of unsolved murders that left dozens of Osage men, women, and children dead – killed for the “headrights” to their land.
“Osage mineral leases earned royalties that were paid to the tribe as a whole, with each allottee receiving one equal share, or headright, of the payments, notes Oklahoma Historical Society historian Jon D. May in Osage Murders.
“A headright was hereditary and passed to a deceased allottee’s immediate legal heir,” May adds. “One did not have to be an Osage to inherit an Osage headright.”
Estimates vary, but approximately 24 Osage Indians died violent or suspicious deaths during the early 1920s, when con men, bootleggers and murderers began a “Reign of Terror.”
William K. Hale was one of the worst. He was accused of repeatedly orchestrating murders, tried four times, and finally convicted of a single killing.
Sadly, Oklahoma news media ignored the reservation’s murders – and the murderers. Newspapers there and around the country instead featured scandalous stories of incredible Osage wealth squandered on Pierce-Arrows and gaudy fashion. As Osage Indians died, reporters mocked the tribe with sarcasm and caricatures.
In his 1994 book, Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation, Washington Post journalist Dennis McAuliffe notes little wonder that, “this period in our history hardly dances with awareness.”
Today, after almost a century, the Skedee “Bond of Friendship” monument is showing its age. The legacy of the once famous friendship offers some slight merriment for one contributor to Roadside America:
“The lesson imparted here is that white and red can be harmonious – if you just add a little green…Atop a blocky concrete pillar stands the Chief and the Colonel, facing each other, shaking hands. The work is primitive for such well-oiled honorees: the pillar is plastered cinder block around old oil pipes, while the Chief and the Colonel appear to be made of Play-Doh spray-painted silver. The distended lower half of the Chief, in particular, looks as if he’s carrying a space alien seed pod that is about to burst.”
According to more dependable sources, Chief Bacon Rind, “a statuesque man at six feet four inches,” perhaps the most photographed of all Native Americans.
The Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration noted the chief was frequently asked to pose for the prominent artists of the day “and created an image of the romantic ideal of the American Indian.”
Skedee’s population peaked in 1910. Today only about 50 residents call Skedee home. The aging monument draws few crowds. Chief Bacon Rind died in 1932 and Colonel Ephriam Ellsworth Walters followed in 1946.
Nonetheless, for those who choose to look deeper, the heart of Skedee can be found in the center of town. Walters, an amateur poet, had his hopes for the future carved into the monument’s base:
…I will build for them a landmark,
That the coming race may see,
All the beauties of the friendship,
That exists ‘tween them and me…
And explain it to grandchildren,
as they sit upon their knee.
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Early 1920s wildcat wells created two Arkansas oil and natural gas boom towns – and launched the state’s petroleum industry, which continues today in 27 counties.
The first Arkansas well that yielded “sufficient quantities of oil” was the Hunter No. 1 of April 16, 1920, in Ouachita County, according to the Arkansas Geological Survey. Natural gas was discovered a few days later by Constantine Oil and Refining Company north of the present-day El Dorado field in Union County. But it was a January 1921 well in the same field that marked the true beginning of commercial oil production in Arkansas.
When the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil in 1921, it catapulted the population of nearby El Dorado, Arkansas, from 4,000 to 25,000. The discovery, 15 miles north of the Louisiana border, was the state’s first commercial oil well. “Twenty-two trains a day were soon running in and out of El Dorado,” noted the Arkansas Gazette. An excited state legislature announced plans for a special railway excursion for lawmakers to visit the oil well in Union County.
Meanwhile, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt arrived from Texas with $50. He joined the crowd of lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were being made and lost.
H.L. Hunt, who had borrowed the $50, got his start as an independent oil and natural gas producer in El Dorado.
Hunt’s expertise at the poker table earned him a stake and he eventually purchased a one-half acre parcel lease. There he drilled his Hunt-Pickering No. 1 well, which after coming in as a producer, was ultimately not profitable.
Hunt persevered and in four years had acquired substantial El Dorado and Smackover oilfield holdings. By 1925, he was a successful 36-year-old oilman with wife Lyda and three young children living comfortably in a fine three-story El Dorado home. He will add to his oil patch successes a decade later in East Texas. See H.L. Hunt and the East Texas Oilfield.
EL Dorado Oilfield revealed
Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick was plainly visible from the town, according to historians A.R. and R.B. Buckalew. They write that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity, but did not produce oil in commercial quantities. There was no market for natural gas at the time, the authors explain in their book, The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.
Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”
The authors add, “among those who gambled their savings with Busey at this time were Wong Hing, also called Charles Louis, a Chinese laundry man, and Ike Felsenthal, whose family had created a community in southeast Union County in earlier years.”
With no oil production nearby, investing in the “wildcat” well was a leap of faith. Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, contributed the hefty sum of $1,000.
On January 10, 1921, the well had been drilled to 2,233 feet and reached the Nacatoch sand. A small crowd of onlookers and the drilling crew – after moving a safe distance away – watched and listened.
“The spectators, among them Dr. Busey, watched with an air of expectancy,” note the historians.
The rumbling grew in intensity, “shaking the derrick and the very ground on which it stood as if an earthquake were passing,” the authors report.
“Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” they add.
“Drilling had ceased and bailing operations had begun to try to bring in the well. At about 4:30 p.m., as the bailer was being lifted from its sixth trip into the deep hole, a rumble from deep in the well was heard.”
The gusher blows through the derrick and “bursts into a black mushroom” cloud against the January sky. The Busey No. 1 well produced 15,000,000 to 35,000,000 cubic feet of gas and from 3,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil and water a day.
Petroleum brings Prosperity to Arkansas
Thanks to the El Dorado discovery, the first Arkansas petroleum boom was on. By 1922, there were 900 producing wells in the state.
“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions,” notes the Union County Sheriff’s Office. “Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”
The 68-square-mile field will lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. Prior to the discovery, the area’s economy relied upon cotton and the timber industry “that thrived in the vast virgin forests of southern Arkansas.”
“It was a scene never again to be equaled in El Dorado’s history, nor would the town and its people ever be the same again,” the authors conclude. “Union County’s dream of oil had come true.”
In 2002, El Dorado gathered 40 local artists to paint 55 oil drums donated by the local Murphy Oil Company. Preserving the town’s historic assets, including boom-era buildings, remains a major goal of the local group, Main Street El Dorado, which was the “2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner” of the National Trust Main Street Center.
Second Oil Boom: The Smackover Discovery
Prior to the January 1921 El Dorado discovery, the region’s economy relied almost exclusively on the cotton and the timber industries. Six months after the Busey-Armgstrong No. 1, another giant oil field discovery 12 miles north will bring national attention – and lead to the incorporation of Smackover.
A small agricultural and sawmill community with a population of 131, Smackover had been settled by French fur trappers in 1844. They called the area “Sumac-Couvert”, meaning covered with sumac or shumate bushes.
According to historian Don Lambert, by 1908 Sidney Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town. He believed that oil lay beneath the surface.
“On July 1, 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well (Richardson No. 1) produced a gusher from a depth of 2,066 feet,” Lambert reports. “Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled, with a success rate of ninety-two percent. The little town had increased from a mere ninety to 25,000 and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention”
The oil-producing area of the Smackover field covered more than 25,000 acres. By 1925, it had become the largest-producing oil site in the world. The field will produce 583 million barrels of oil by 2001.
Visit the Arkansas Natural Resources Museum in Smackover – the heart of the Smackover field. The museum includes a five-acre Oilfield Park with operating examples of oil producing technologies used in south Arkansas oil fields from the 1920s to today.
Today, 27 of Arkansas’ 75 counties produce oil natural gas. As of 2010, more than 40,800 wells have been drilled since 1921’s Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well in Union County.
According to geologists, the Fayetteville Shale, a 50-mile-wide formation across central Arkansas, promises large quantities of natural gas – and a new petroleum boom for the state. But the unconventional natural gas reservoir requires hydraulic fracturing.
Unlike traditional fields containing hydrocarbons in porous rock formations, shale holds natural gas in a fine-grained rock or “tight sands.” Until recently, most shale formations were not considered profitable areas for production.
Prior to the Civil War, America’s search for oil prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and wildcatters to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.
This was land reserved for Native Americans by Congress and home to its indigenous people as well as the “Five Civilized Tribes” – Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw, which had been relocated from the Southeast.
Each of the Five Civilized Tribes established national territorial boundaries, constitutional governments, and advanced judicial and public school systems. The Indian Territory included present-day Oklahoma north and east of the Red River, as well as Kansas and Nebraska. Read the rest of this entry »
Following an 1859 oil discovery in Pennsylvania, young U.S. oil exploration companies began reaching the West Coast, attracted by California’s natural oil seeps. Some made small but historic discoveries of “black gold” soon after the Civil War. The state’s oilfield first gusher arrived in 1876 – and launched an industry.
Pico Canyon produced limited amounts of crude oil as early as 1855, but there was no market for the oil, which was found near oil seeps about 35 miles north of Los Angeles. In northern California, an 1865 well near oil seeps in Humboldt County also could be considered the first California oil well.
This well, drilled by Old Union Matolle Company after the Civil War, produced oil near Petrolia and attracted early oil companies to the Petrolia oilfield. A state historical marker (no. 543) dedicated on November 10, 1955 declares:
California’s First Drilled Oil Wells – California’s first drilled oil wells producing crude to berefined and sold commercially were located on the north fork of the River approximately three miles east of here. The Old Union Mattole Oil Company made its first shipment of oil from here in June 1865 to a San Francisco refinery. Many old well heads remain today.
Although the “Old Union well” initially yielded about 30 barrels of high quality oil, “production soon slowed to one barrel per day and the prospect was abandoned,” explains K.R. Aalto, a geologist at Humboldt State University. The Humboldt County well in what became the oilfield, “attracted interest and investment among oilmen because of the abundance of oil and gas seeps throughout that region,” Aalto notes in his 2013 Oil-Industry History article.
Meanwhile in Pico Canyon, Charles Mentry of the California Star Oil Works Company drilled three wells in 1875 and 1876 that showed promise. The first West Coast oil gusher arrived with his fourth well and helped established a major oil company.
Drilling with a steam-powered cable-tool rig in an area known for its many oil seeps, Mentry discovered the Pico Canyon oilfield north of Los Angeles. California’s first truly commercial oil well, the Pico Well No. 4 gusher of September 26, 1876, launched other industries, including constructing a pipeline and an oil refinery for producing kerosene. Read the rest of this entry »
After decades of dry holes drilled from one corner of the state to the other, in 1951 new technologies and determination – true grit – brought North Dakota’s first oil discovery. Photo courtesy BakenBlog.com.
The exploratory well on the farm of Clarence Iverson northeast of Williston endured blizzards and was “shot” with perforation tools several times before finally producing oil on April 4, 1951.
The discovery in Mr. Iverson’s wheat field launched the first drilling boom of the North Dakota Williston Basin.
At about one in the morning on April 4, after four months of hard drilling and with snow piled high from recent blizzards, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well produced oil.
Amerada Petroleum’s 1951 discovery – the first commercial oil well in North Dakota – will help reveal a prolific petroleum basin stretching from North and South Dakota, Montana, and into Canada.
Although this wildcat drilling attempt had been regarded with great skepticism, within two months of the strike 30 million acres were under lease. A 2008 article in the Bismarck Tribune, quotes Sid Anderson, the former state geologist, who was a college student at the University of North Dakota when oil was discovered.
“It was brand new, then, and pretty exciting times,” said Anderson. The amber-colored oil in the area was of such high quality, Anderson recalled, that “you could have run a diesel with it straight from the well.”
The Williston Basin will produce more than five billion barrels of oil by 2008.
“This was the first major discovery in a new geologic basin since before World War II,” James Key writes in Word & Picture Story of Williston & Area.
By 1952, Standard Oil of Indiana was building a 30,000 barrel per day refinery, he notes. Forty-two oilfield service and supply companies had opened offices in Williston. In June, Service Pipeline Company announced it would build a pipeline to the Standard refinery.
Key adds that although the Williston Basin is named after the city of Williston, it was first exposed in 1912 by Dr. W. T. Thom, Jr. , “a sophomore studying geology when he happened into a creek bed in the area of the Cannonball River. It was his discovery of coral that led him to believe that the area was once inundated by an ancient sea.”
On June 17, 2014, North Dakota oil production surpassed one million barrels per day thanks to development of the Bakken shale formation in the western part of the state. State officials reported North Dakota produced 1,001,149 barrels of oil a day from a record 10,658 wells. Industry journalists, proclaiming the milestone a sign America was freeing itself from foreign oil, referred to the state as “Saudi Dakota.”
North Dakota Dry Holes
The earliest permit issued for oil exploration in North Dakota came from the state geologist in 1923. By the late 1930s, petroleum companies were working with a growing North Dakota Geological Survey to improve the science behind exploration, which often featured difficult formations, including granite, thwarting drilling technologies of the day.
According to historian Clarence Herz, despite repeated failures, companies continued to come to North Dakota and spend large amounts of money on leases and drilling.
“There were no indications from any of the wells they drilled that they were even close to production, but that did not deter them,” says Herz, adding that the expensive lessons even resulted in positive developments.
“A more skilled labor force and continuous technological innovation that included the use of explosives, acid and newly invented scientific instruments meant an acceleration of the drilling process as wells were not only being drilled faster, but deeper and at a much higher cost,” Herz explains.
One such invention came from two Frenchman, Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger,” he adds. “Schlumberger was fast becoming a household name in the oil industry for the development of an electrical resistivity well log created by the French brothers in 1927.
Although it failed to find oil in the 1930s, the California Oil Company used technological and scientific breakthroughs like rotary drilling and seismometers to reach a depth previously unheard of in the state. A well spudded in October 1937 had to be abandoned in August 1938 when the drill pipe twisted off in the hole almost two miles deep. Attempts to “fish” the pipe out failed.
California Oil’s failure did not stop exploration in other areas of the state, Herz says, citing a report noting that most major oil companies sent men to North Dakota to investigate and in many instances to buy leases. It took the Carter Oil Company three months with modern equipment to drill nearly 5,000 feet – and end up with a dry hole in 1940. Two years later the company still had not found any oil.
Herz reports that after World War II, “From one corner of the state to the other companies leap-frogged one another in anticipation of being the first to identify an oil producing zone.” Continental Oil Company in cooperation with the Pure Oil Company moved into North Dakota in the spring of 1949 after having leased about 1.5 million acres.
In September 1950, Magnolia Petroleum Company became the latest company to drill a North Dakota dry hole. Drilled to a depth of 5,556 feet, it hit granite and was plugged and abandoned. Soon, however, men from all over the country will come to work on North Dakota drilling rigs.
The Discovery Well
Throughout the entire discovery period dry holes were not looked at as failures, but as learning experiences as valuable geologic and technical knowledge was gained from each attempt, Herz explains.
An independent oilman and investor, Thomas W. Leach was a former chief geologist for an Oklahoma oil company who was convinced oil could be found. In the late 1930s he had convinced Standard Oil Company of California to drill a 10,281-foot well there. It was a dry hole that cost the company almost a million dollars.
After World War II, where he served as a Captain of U.S. Army Artillery, Leach returned to North Dakota and continued leasing land. The geologist eventually convinced Amerada Petroleum of Tulsa that success could be found in the Nesson Anticline about 50 miles northeast of Williston.
A site was selected on Clarence Iverson’s family farm near Tioga and drilling began on September 3, 1950, Herz says. There was little to report until January 1951, “except the depth of the bit, the conditioning of the mud, and the occasional tripping pipe.”
Following a January 29 blizzard that shut down the well, drilling continued until total depth – 11,744 feet – was reached on February 4, 1951. No oil was found. It was decided to try “shooting” the well.
“The practice of perforating a well, or using explosives to perforate the rock, is not new,” says Herz. Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts first used his “Roberts Torpedo” in 1865. The practice was successful and soon the dry holes of Pennsylvania were turned into producers by “shooting” the well with nitroglycerin torpedoes. Read more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History.
On March 1, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well was “shot” from 11,706 feet to 11,729 feet using Lane-Wells Koneshot, Herz reports. Still no oil was found.
According to Herz, perforation became a standard practice whereby multiple charges attached to a gun were lowered into the wells casing. Once into place the charges were fired, perforating the well at small intervals, hopefully releasing the oil from the rock.
“The Koneshot was a type of perforating gun that used a shaped charge. It was another innovation,” he says, adding that it “contained shaped charges in a spiral placement in a steel housing at a three-inch centerline distance from each other.”
The design was an improvement over some of the early perforators, notes Herz. Learn more history about perforating with shaped charges in Downhole Bazooka.
Work on the Iverson well was again halted the week of March 5 by another blizzard. The well would remain idle for several weeks until the snow choked roads could be cleared for passage. With the well plugged back to a depth of 11,669 feet, the work stopped to make repairs and prepare for another perforation.
The well was again perforated, this time from 11,630 feet to 11,640 feet with four holes per foot.
At 12:55 a.m. on the April 4, 1951, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 began producing about 240 barrels of oil a day. The state of North Dakota finally had its first discovery well.
According to a 2008 Associated Press article, at first Clarence Iverson wasn’t pleased when seismologists exploded dynamite in his wheat fields looking for oil. His son Cliff, who was 20 when oil was found on the family farm, remembers his father smiling when oil surfaced.
“He worried a lot about his water wells,” Cliff said of his father. The farm became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Upper Midwest after oil was discovered there. “They came from as far as Minnesota and all over North Dakota and Montana,” he added. “People knew it was history in the making, and it changed a lot of people’s lives.”
The Clarence Iverson No. 1 well alone produced 585,000 barrels oil for 28 years. Clarence Iverson died in 1986, a wealthy man “who never got used to all that money.”
The Bakken Shale
The earliest producing wells of the Bakken shale formation were drilled in the early 1950s on Henry O. Bakken’s farm less than five miles from the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well.
Occupying about 200,000 square miles within the Williston Basin, the oil shale of the Bakken formation may be the largest domestic oil resource since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, according to many experts. But petroleum industry efforts to extract shale oil using conventional vertical wells historically have proven difficult.
“The Clarence Iverson well produced from the Silurian, Duperow and Madison formations, but not the Bakken, according to Kathy Neset, a geologist who moved to Tioga from New Jersey in 1979. “There are several oil-producing formations at different depths within the larger Williston Basin.”
The Bakken formation frustrated a lot of geologists for years, “because they knew the oil was there but they didn’t have the technology to extract the oil,” Neset adds in a 2012 article, Famous Bakken Formation Named For North Dakota Homesteaders.
The Bakken formation first produced in 1953 from a well named after Henry Bakken, the landowner. Like the Williston discovery well, it was also drilled by Amerada Petroleum. This first shale well was on the Nesson Anticline, now known as a “sweet spot” of the Bakken, home to natural fractures in the rock, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation, Inc.
Although North Dakota has been an oil producing state since 1951, only during the past decade has the Bakken oil boom made it the fourth largest oil producing state in the country and one of the largest onshore plays in the United States.
“The Bakken is a shale oil play. It is conventional, light-sweet crude oil, trapped 10,000 feet below the surface within shale rock,” the foundation explains. The Bakken shale play consists of three layers – an upper layer of shale rock, a middle layer of sandstone/dolomite, and a lower layer of shale rock. The middle sandstone layer is what is commonly drilled and fracked.
“Production was mainly from a few vertical wells – until the 1980s when horizontal technology became available,” adds a 2008 article in the Oil Drum. “Only recently after the intensive application of horizontal wells combined with hydraulic fracturing technology did production really take off.”
U.S. Geological Survey has estimated 3.0 billion barrels to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in America’s portion of the Bakken formation, elevating it to a “world-class” accumulation. The Geological Survey’s 2008 assessment of the Bakken shale’s potential is a 25-fold increase in the amount of “technically recoverable” oil compared to the agency’s 1995 estimate of just 151 million barrels of oil.
According to state statistics, oil production from the Bakken in North Dakota has steadily increased from about 28 million barrels in 2008, to 50 million barrels in 2009 to approximately 86 million barrels in 2010.
“The Bakken formation is producing an ever-increasing amount of oil for domestic consumption while providing increasing royalty revenues to American Indian tribes and individual Indian mineral owners in North Dakota and Montana,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salaza concluded 2011.
A 1911 April Fool’s day oil gusher at the Clayco No. 1 well near Electra, Texas, will bring prosperity and later the title of “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.”
Electra was a small farm town barely four years old when the black gold excitement began on April 1, 1911. It became oil fever when “Roaring Ranger” came in neighboring Eastland County in 1917. When a third drilling boom began at Burkburnett in 1918, even Hollywood noticed.
Among other things, these oilfield discoveries brought prosperity to North Texas, launched hundreds of petroleum companies, fueled America’s Model T Fords (and victory in World War I), convinced Conrad Hilton to buy his first hotel, and inspired the movie “Boomtown,” which would win an Academy Award.
As early as 1913, newly discovered Mid-Continent oilfields like Electra were producing almost half of all the oil in Texas. Refineries began to appear in Wichita Falls in 1915 when Wichita County alone reported 1,025 producing wells.
Nearby, the McClesky No. 1 well in Eastland County struck oil in October 1917. The “Roaring Ranger” in Ranger reached a daily production of 1,700 barrels. Within two years eight refineries were open or under construction and Ranger banks had $5 million in deposits.
“Roaring Ranger” gained international fame for Ranger as the town whose oil wiped out critical oil shortages during World War I, allowing the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.” Read the rest of this entry »
Indiana natural gas discoveries of the late 1880s revealed the vast Trenton Field, which extended across the state into Ohio. Abundant gas supplies soon attracted manufacturing industries to the Midwest.
Discoveries of natural gas in Eaton and Portland quicky ignited Indiana’s historic gas boom. New exploration and production will dramatically change the state’s economy.
The “Trenton Field” as it would become known, spread over 17 Indiana counties and 5,120 square miles. It was the largest natural gas field known in the world. Within three years, more than 200 companies were drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas.
Replacing Coal Gas
In 1859, the same year that “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake drilled the country’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, there were already 297 “manufactured gas” (known as coal gas) companies in the 33 United States. Read the rest of this entry »
A series of major oil discoveries at Sour Lake, Texas, near the world-famous gusher of 1901 at Spindletop Hill, will help turn the Texas Company into Texaco.
Originally known as Sour Lake Springs because of its sulfurous spring water popular for its healing properties, a series of oil discoveries brought wealth and new oil companies to Hardin County in southeastern Texas.
As the science of petroleum geology evolved, some experts predicted oil was trapped at Sour Lake similar to Beaumont’s Spindletop field, which produced from a salt dome.
According to Charles Warner in Texas Oil & Gas Since 1543, in November 1901 an exploratory well found “hot salt water impregnated with sulfur between 800 and 850 feet…and four oil sands about 10 feet thick at a depth of approximately 1,040 feet.”
Warner noted that the Sour Lake Springs field’s discovery well came four months later when a second attempt by the Great Western Company drilled “north of the old hotel building” in the vicinity of earlier shallow wells.
“This well secured gusher production at a depth of approximately 683 feet on March 7, 1902,” Warner reported. “The well penetrated 40 feet of oil sand. The flow of oil was accompanied by a considerable amount of loose sand, and it was necessary to close the well in from time to time and bail out the sand, after which the well would respond with excellent flows.”
As more discoveries followed, Joseph “Buckskin Joe” Cullinan and Arnold Schlaet were among those who rushed to the area from their offices in Beaumont.
The Texas Company
The most significant company started during the Spindletop oil boom was The Texas Company, according to one historian.
“Cullinan worked in the Pennsylvania oil industry and later went to Corsicana, Texas, about 1898 when oil was first discovered in that district where he became the most prosperous operator in the field,” reported Elton N. Gish in his “History of the Texas Company and Port Arthur Works Refinery.”
Cullinan formed the Petroleum Iron Works, building oil storage tanks in the Beaumont area – where he was introduced to Schlaet.
“When the Spindletop boom came in January 1901, Mr. Cullinan decided to visit Beaumont,” Gish noted. Schlaet managed the oil business of two brothers, New York leather merchants.
“Schlaet’s field superintendent, Charles Miller, traveled to Beaumont in 1901 to witness the Spindletop activity and met with Cullinan, whom he knew from the oil business in Pennsylvania. He liked Cullinan’s plans and asked Schlaet to join them in Beaumont.”
According to Texaco, Cullinan and Schlaet formed the Texas Company on April 7, 1902, by absorbing the Texas Fuel Company and inheriting its office in Beaumont.
Texas Fuel had organized just one year earlier to purchase Spindletop oil, develop storage and transportation networks, and sell the oil to northern refineries.
By November 1902, the new Texas Company was establishing a new refinery in Port Arthur as well as 20 storage tanks, building its first marine vessel, and equipment for an oil terminal to serve sugar plantations along the Mississippi River.
Fee No. 3 Discovery Well
The Texas Company struck oil at Sour Lake Springs in January 1903, “after gambling its future on the site’s drilling rights,” the company explained. “The discovery, during a heavy downpour near Sour Lake’s mineral springs, turns the company into a major oil producer overnight, validating the risk-taking insight of company co-founder J.S. Cullinan and the ability of driller Walter Sharp.”
Their 1903 Hardin County discovery at Sour Lake Springs – the Fee No. 3 well – flowed at 5,000 barrels a day, securing the Texas Company’s success in petroleum exploration, production, transportation and refining.
High oil production levels from the Sour Lake field and other successful wells in the Humble oilfield (1905), secured the company’s financial base, according to L. W. Kemp and Cherie Voris in Handbook of Texas Online.
“In 1905 the Texas Company linked these two fields by pipelines to Port Arthur, ninety miles away, and built its first refinery there. That same year the company acquired an asphalt refinery at nearby Port Neches,” they noted.
“In 1908 the company completed the ambitious venture of a pipeline from the Glenn Pool, in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), to its Southeast Texas refineries,” added Kemp and Voris. “As early as 1905 the Texas Company had established marketing facilities not only throughout the United States, but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Panama.”
The telegraph address for the company’s New York office is “Texaco” – a name soon applied to its products.
The company registered its first trademark, the original red star with a green capital letter “T” superimposed on it in 1909. The letter remained an essential component of the logo for decades. By 1928 the company operated more than 4,000 gasoline stations in 48 states.
The Texas Company officially renamed itself Texaco in 1959. It purchased Getty Oil Company in 1984. On October 9, 2001, Chevron Corp. and Texaco agreed to form a merger that created ChevronTexaco, renamed simply Chevron in 2005.
Although the Sour Lake Springs oil boom soon was surpassed by other Texas discoveries, Sour Lake proudly promotes itself as the birthplace of the Texaco.
Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” wildcatter Tom Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield in 1912 and became known as the “King of the Wildcatters.” Today Cushing is the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” the trading hub for oil in North America – and the daily settlement point for prices, including West Texas Intermediate.
Looking for Leases
The owner of Spurlock Petroleum Company, enjoyed great success in the Kansas oilfields after finding oil or natural gas in 25 consecutive wells.
In 1904, Alexander Massey hired an inexperienced 21-year-old “lease man” named Thomas Baker Slick for a 25 percent share in all the leases the young man could secure. Massey and his new employee set out for Tryon, Oklahoma, to look for oil.
Massey later recalled that Slick, born in Shippenville, Pennsylvania, in 1883, showed a talent for securing petroleum leases.
“Tom would go out and lease most of a territory as yet unproved or doubtful as to oil prospects,” Massey noted. “But he’d spread as clean a bunch of leases before a capitalist as you’d wish to see…He certainly knew what a good oil lease was.”
Near Tryon, Oklahoma, Spurlock Petroleum Company spudded a wildcat well at M.C. Teegarden’s farm. Slick continued securing leases that eventually totaled more than 27,000 acres. Drilling generated excitement in the local newspaper and with other wildcatters.
However, at a depth of 2,800 feet, Spurlock Petroleum and owner Massey ran out of patience and money. Tom Slick’s first well was a dry hole – the first of many.
Dry Hole Slick
In 1907, after another dry hole near Kendrick, Slick left the employ of Massey and departed Oklahoma, headed for Illinois.
In Chicago, Charles B. Shaffer of the Shaffer & Smathers Company hired Slick for $100 per month (and expenses) to find and secure promising oil leases. Slick traveled to Illinois, Kentucky, western Canada, and eventually, back to Oklahoma.
While leasing for Shaffer & Smathers in Oklahoma, the young oilman drilled at least ten dry holes and earned the unenviable nickname, “Dry Hole Slick.”
The Bristow Record newspaper reported that Slick, “continues to gamble on wild cat stuff. Few men have stuck to the wildcatting longer and harder than Slick and associates. It is said he has spent $150,000 mostly on dry holes.”
Now also known as “Mad Tom Slick,” he tried his luck again just 35 miles down the road, in Cushing.
As Slick pursued new leases in 1912, the Cushing Independent encouraged its readership to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Land owners have everything to gain and no risk to themselves in making leases,” it reported on January 25. “It costs from $8,000 to $10,000 to put down a single hole. Unless the promoters can get the leases they want they will not chance their money here, while other localities are eager to give leases and even bonuses in money to get prospecting done.”
The Cushing Democrat added, “We would repeat that we believe it to the best interests of the individuals and all that these leases be granted…And just a word of warning. If you make a lease see that the lessees name is not left blank, but that the name of Thomas B. Slick is there.”
Slick and Charles Shaffer spudded a wildcat well on the farm of Frank M. Wheeler in January 1912.
Cushing Gusher and Crafty Moves
On March 12, 1912, the Wheeler No. 1 well struck oil, producing about 400 barrels a day from a depth between 2,319 and 2,347 feet. It marked Tom Slick’s first gusher – and a giant oilfield discovery.
Slick was so secretive about his find that he even cut the phone line to the Wheeler house to prevent word from spreading, notes one historian. Knowing that oilmen and speculators would descend in droves on the town when the word got out, he protected his investment.
How Slick did it is described by a frustrated competing lease man to his boss:
You see, sir, Slick and Shaffer roped off their well on the Wheeler farm and posted guards and nobody can get near it…I got a call yesterday at the hotel in Cushing from a friend who said they had struck oil out there. A friend of his was listening in on the party line and heard the driller call Tom Slick at the farm where he’s been boarding and said they’d hit.
Well, I rushed down to the livery stable to get a rig to go out and do some leasing and damned if Slick hadn’t already been there and hired every rig. Not only there, but every other stable in town. They all had the barns locked and the horses out to pasture. There’s 25 rigs for hire in Cushing and he had them all for ten days at $4.50 a day apiece, so you know he really thinks he’s got something.
I went looking for a farm wagon to hire and had to walk three miles. Some other scouts had already gotten the wagons on the first farms I hit. Soon as I got one I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases – and damned if Slick hadn’t hired every notary in town, too.
Eleven days later the news had spread. As a leasing frenzy grew the Tryon Star reported, “Our old friend Tom Slick the oilman has struck it rich…Slick has been plugging away for several years and has put down several dry holes…He deserves this success and here’s hoping that it will make Tom his millions.”
King of the Wildcatters
Tom Slick’s No. 1 Wheeler was the discovery well for the prolific Drumright-Cushing oilfield, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels every day at its peak.
Slick was suddenly a very rich man. After his dramatic success in Cushing, he began an incredible 18-year streak of discoveries in some of the nation’s most prolific oilfields. His leases in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas produced millions of barrels of oil.
In the famed oilfields of Pioneer, Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole, Slick secured leases and drilled wells that consistently paid off, time after time.
His gushers were spectacular: No. 4 Eakin – 10,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Laura Endicott – 4,500 barrels per day; No. 1 Walker – 5,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Franks -5,000 barrels per day. See Greater Seminole Oil Boom.
Reflecting on his fortunes late in his career, Slick noted, “If I strike oil everyone calls it Tom Slick’s luck, (but) I call it largely judgment based upon experience. Some folks don’t recognize good luck when they meet it in the middle of the road. So I have been fortunate, or lucky, whichever you call it, but I’ve also done a lot of calling good luck to bring it my way.”
By 1929, Tom Slick’s estimated crude oil production was up to 35,000 barrels daily. He was known as the largest independent oil operator in the United States with a net worth estimated between $35 million and $100 million.
By 1930, in the Oklahoma City field alone, Slick had 45 wells being drilled, more than 30 wells completed, and the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of crude daily. Across the Mid-Continent, stories of Tom Slick’s business acumen and integrity grew with his fortune.
It was told how Slick once closed a $100,000 deal for a prized Seminole lease on a street corner. He met the owner on the street and inquired, “What do you want for that lease’ ‘A hundred thousand dollars,’ replied the owner. ‘It’s a sale, bring in your deeds,’ said Slick.”
Thomas B. Slick’s death from a stroke in August 1930 at the age of 46 abruptly ended a career that had helped supply an energy-hungry nation with the petroleum it needed to grow.
“Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field stood silent for one hour in tribute,” reports the Oklahoma Historical Society. Slick’s biggest strike came a week after he died. His Campbell No. 1 well in Oklahoma City came in at 43,200 barrels per day.
Today, such stories of Tom Slick’s life are told again and again. Across the Mid-Continent, he is no longer known as “Dry Hole Slick.” Instead, Thomas B. Slick is remembered as a “King of the Wildcatters.”
In Oklahoma alone, more than 470,400 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled since the first discovery well near Bartlesville on April 15, 1879, notes the Oklahoma Geological Survey (read First Oklahoma Oil Well). In 1933, Tom Slick’s friend and business partner, Charles Urschel, was kidnapped and held for ransom. Once released, Urschel assisted the FBI in catching his abductors, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was sentenced to life in Alcatraz.
The substance of this article comes from King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930 by Ray Miles, professor of history and dean of the college of liberal arts at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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The Oklahoma oil industry began in 1897. By the 1920s, leases sold in the shade of a “Million Dollar Elm” brought prosperity to the Osage Nation. Production from Osage County alone launched the careers of Frank Phillips, J. Paul Getty, Bill Skelly, E.W. Marland, Harry Sinclair – and Clark Gable.
In the spring of 2003, the Osage nation opened a “Million Dollar Elm” casino a few miles from its council house at Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The name came straight from Osage reservation petroleum history. Multimillion dollar lease auctions once took place in the shade of a giant elm next to the council house.
Osage County, at more 2,250 square miles, is the largest county in Oklahoma – larger than Delaware or Rhode Island. On the grounds atop Agency Hill between the county courthouse and the Osage tribal council house, today stands a symbolic elm where auctions regularly took place on hot summer afternoons.
Soon after Oklahoma statehood, more Osage discoveries brought thousands to Bartlesville, Hominy, Fairfax, Grainola and Burbank. All the oilfields produced a high-quality, easily refined oil.
First drilled in 1920, the Burbank field and several others soon became one of the richest in Oklahoma. At its peak, the Burbank oilfield produced more than 70,000 barrels a day from more than 1,800 wells. Phillips Petroleum made a fortune there.
Other petroleum companies got their start in Osage oilfields, including Conoco (originally Marland Oil), Skelly Oil, Carter Oil (later incorporated into Standard Oil), and Gypsy Oil Company (later Gulf).
Traces of oil had long been noted in the area, including slicks on creeks and oil seeps. The southern end of the Flint Hills, which ranges down from Kansas, has rocks 298 million years old, according to Jenk Jones Jr. of the Tallgrass National Preserve in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company made the first drilling deal with the Osage Tribe, Jones notes. The company received rights to all drilling in the Osage Nation for 10 years, beginning in 1896. The next year the territory’s first commercial producer was hit, the Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well, in what is now a park in Bartlesville Read more in First Oklahoma Oil Well.
Jones says that all of Osage County was open for bidding after 1916 – just in time for the greatest years of the Osage boom, triggered by demands of World War I and the postwar growth in automobiles.
“To get a sense of how the oil business exploded in the Osage, there were about 6,000 barrels produced in 1900, more than 11 million in 1914. The Osage boom and a vast leap in the number of automobiles coincided remarkably well,” Jones explains.
During the height of the drilling boom from 1919 to 1928 northwest of Tulsa, more than $202 million was paid to the tribe in oil and natural gas royalties, bonuses, interest and land rentals.
“The Osage fields were an oilman’s dream,” says Jones. “The oil was a high-grade, with a good conversion to gasoline ratio. It was easily refined, with a very high percentage of kerosene. It was free of sulfur and asphalt.”
Million Dollar Auctioneer
According to Corey Bone of the Oklahoma Historical Society, the profitable auctions of Osage mineral rights were based on “headrights” from a 1906 tribal population count.
“Unlike other landholders, the Osage were able to retain collective ownership of subsurface mineral rights, rather than having to accept allotments to individual owners,” Bone explains. “Instead, tribal members received ‘headrights’ that assured them an equal share of mineral rights sales equivalent to income from 658 acres.”
She adds that a headright could not be sold, but an individual could sell his or her surface rights. “An average Osage family of a husband, wife, and three children would receive more than $65,000 a year in 1926,” she notes. “By 1939 Osage individuals had received a total of more than $100 million in royalties and bonuses.”
Beginning in 1912, the auctioneer for the Osage oil lease sales, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters, worked for about $10 a day but netted millions of dollars for the tribe (named after the first Union martyr at the start of the Civil War, “Colonel Elmer Ellsworth” was Walters’ real name).
The “Million Dollar Auctioneer” would become famous from the Osage lease bids in Pawhuska. In 1926, a statue of Walters and Osage Chief Bacon Rind was dedicated in his nearby hometown of Skedee.
“He knew the oilmen intimately and was an expert at getting them to raise bids,” Jones explains. “So subtle were their signals that L.E. Phillips reportedly ‘bid’ $100,000 for a lease by brushing a fly away from his nose.”
The elm’s name was not given by tribal leaders – but by reporters and magazine writers who were dramatizing the events when founders of the world’s greatest oil companies came in person to bid. It truly earned its name when 18 tracts brought bonuses of $1 million on a single day, November 11, 1912.
On March 18, 1924, Walters secured a bid of $1,995,000 from Josh Cosden, at that time the highest-paid price for a 160-acre tract. By 1928 Walters had earned around $157 million for the Osage tribe. He presided over the lease auctions throughout the 1930s. Read more in Million Dollar Auctioneer.
A large cast of national characters are linked to the Osage oil boom. Future president Herbert Hoover, an orphan, spent summer months in Pawhuska after his uncle Major Lahan J. Miles was appointed agent to the Osages in 1878.
Southeast of Pawhuska the town Pershing was an oil boom town named for Gen. John J. Pershing, leader of U.S. forces in Europe during World War I.
Tom Mix, future silent film star, was a town marshal in Dewey just east of the Osage County border. The Wild West show of the 101 Ranch in Kay County west of the Osage gave him the boost that sent him to Hollywood. Clark Gable worked as a roustabout in the Osage oilfields, especially around Barnsdall and Pershing, before heading to Hollywood.
Memories of what took place beneath the Osage Nation elm did not fade after the original tree died in the 1980s. The latest elm, dedicated during a September 15, 2006, ceremony, grows new roots into the historic site. Thousands of visitors today gamble at six Osage Nation “Million Dollar Elm” casinos.
Special thanks to research found in “Osage County History” by Jenk Jones Jr., presented March 1, 2003, at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve docent reorientation in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
In 2011, Oklahoma City-based Chaparral Energy working on new ways to increase production from Osage oilfields that could bring $11 billion to Osage County and provide the Osage Nation with $1.2 billion in royalty payments over the next 30 years.
Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones made a fortune in oilfields, patented a sucker rod design, created a better workplace for employees at his factory, and ran on the progressive Republican ticket in 1897 to be elected mayor of Toledo, Ohio.
As the country weathered an 1890s financial crisis, Jones brought a new business philosophy to Toledo. Immensely popular, he was reelected again in 1899, 1901 and 1903 – and served until dying on the job in 1904.
“Golden Rule” Jones, according to one Toledo historian, was the “best known, best liked and best hated mayor of all time who tried to govern a city by the one and only rule by which he governed his factory.”
His principle was simple: “Therefore Whatsoever Ye Would That Men Should Do Unto You, Do Ye Even So Unto Them.”
Long before his political career as a progressive reformer, Jones spent decades working in Pennsylvania boom towns, including the infamous Pithole.
Jones, who will return to Ohio a successful oilman and found the Acme Sucker Rod Company in 1892, first earned his nickname when he posted the biblical admonition for his factory employees.
An advocate of eight-hour workdays to increase employment opportunities, Jones introduced higher wages, paid vacations and five percent bonuses.
But years earlier Jones was experiencing the unpredictable nature of the Pennsylvania and Ohio petroleum fields.
Lima Oilfield Discovery
Southwest of Toledo, between Findlay and Lima, the “Great Oil Boom” of northwestern Ohio had begun on May 19, 1885. A cable-tool driller looking for natural gas found oil instead. Benjamin Faurot’s discovery revealed the Lima oilfield, soon to be the largest in the world.
“Benjamin Faurot struck oil after drilling into the Trenton Rock Limestone formation a depth of 1,252 feet,” notes the Allen County Historical Society, adding he organized the Trenton Rock Oil Company. “The ensuing rush brought speculators who drilled hundreds of wells in the Trenton Rock (Lima) oilfield that stretched from Mercer County north through the Wood County in Ohio and west to Indiana.” Read the rest of this entry »
The only giant Michigan oil and natural gas field was discovered in January 1957 on the dairy farm of Ferne Houseknecht. Her first oil well revealed the 29-mile-long “Golden Gulch.”
The story of the discovery of Michigan’s only giant oilfield is the stuff of dreams and legends, says one historian.
After decades of dry holes or small oil discoveries, the Houseknecht No. 1 discovery well of January 7, 1957, revealed the massive oil and natural gas field.
It took more than two years of drilling, but the Houseknecht No. 1 well discovered Michigan’s largest oilfield – the “Golden Gulch” Albion-Pulaski-Scipio Field.
The 3,576-foot-deep well near Scipio Township in Hillsdale County in southwestern Michigan produced from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone.
Local lore says that the well’s namesake, Ferne Houseknecht, had been told by a spiritualist that there was oil under her farm.
She convinced her uncle, Clifford Perry, to help drill a well one joint of pipe at a time between other farm projects.
“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oil field legends,” explains Michigan oil and gas historian and author Jack Westbrook. Read the rest of this entry »
Three days after Christmas in 1930, a major oil discovery on the farm of the widow Lou Della Crim revealed the extent of the mighty East Texas oilfield.
Some say a gypsy predicted the oil discovery for Malcolm Crim. Others say it was because his mother, Lou Della “Mama” Crim, was a pious woman.
On December 28, 1930, Mrs. Crim’s eldest son struck a gusher on her Rusk County, Texas, farm. The Lou Della Crim No. 1 well initially produced 20,000 barrels of oil every day.
“On Sunday morning, December 28, while Mrs. Crim was attending church, the Lou Della Crim well blew in,” says Joe White, director of the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore. The oil strike was about nine miles north of an earlier discovery on another widow’s farm. Read the rest of this entry »
After 22 days of drilling near Neodesha, Kansas, the Norman No. 1 well comes in.
This November 28, 1892, oil discovery is considered by many Kansans to be America’s first significant oil well west of the Mississippi River. Colorado historians site their state’s Florence oilfield, discovered a decade earlier.
Both oilfields were among the earliest in the western United States – although rivaled by the April 1892 discovery of the Los Angeles City field near present-day Dodger Stadium – and eclipsed in 1901 by the “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop, Texas.
Beginning with a production of just four barrels of oil a day, from 832 feet deep, the Kansas discovery well was the first to uncover the vast Mid-Continent petroleum region, which includes oil and natural gas fields extending into Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
Norman No. 1 was the state’s first to produce commercial quantities of oil; it was soon joined by others to meet demand for refining oil into kerosene for lamps – and soon, gasoline. The very first Kansas oil well was drilled in Miami County as early as 1860. Read the rest of this entry »
Her first Los Angeles oil well was drilled near today’s Dodger Stadium. By 1901, Miss Emma Summers will have fourteen oil wells and control the oil markets.
A woman with a genius for affairs – it may sound paradoxical, but the fact exists.
If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets.
– July 21, 1901, San Francisco Call newspaper.
She would become a lady to be reckoned with in the rough and tumble world of the Los Angeles oil patch.
Emma A. (McCutchen) Summers, a refined southern lady who graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to teach piano.
Like many others, Summers was soon caught up in the excitement of California’s new petroleum exploration industry.
With her home not far from where Edward Doheny had discovered the Los Angeles City field just a year before.
A struggling prospector, Doheny had made his 1892 discovery near tar seeps after noticing black stains on wagon wheels passing by. See Discovering the Los Angeles Oilfield.
Summers invested $700 for half interest in a well just a few blocks from Doheny’s historic producer. Read the rest of this entry »
Although a proper turn-of-the-century lady, she cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine every day.
Mrs. Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” was an astute businesswoman in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield. Read the rest of this entry »
The stage was set in 1854 for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps.
On November 10, lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sold to George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth land at the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Earlier, Joel Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) had collected and sold medicinal “Seneca Oil” from an oil seep on acreage near the company’s sawmill. Read the rest of this entry »
Ninety-nine years ago, a Texas oilfield was discovered halfway between Abilene and Dallas. The October 17, 1917, wildcat well in Eastland County made headlines worldwide. “Roaring Ranger” erupted in a geyser of oil – and revealed an oilfield that would help win World War I.
Ranger’s town leaders had been eager to find oil, especially after newspaper accounts of a 1911 oilfield discovery at Electra to the north. A decade earlier in southeastern Texas, the famous “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop had launched the modern U.S. petroleum industry.
As the county’s farmers struggled with severe drought, Ranger officials hoped to strike “black gold” with the help of William K. Gordon, vice president of the Texas and Pacific Coal Company in nearby Thurber. After one failed attempt with a shallow well, Gordon agreed to drill a second well up to 3,500 feet deep.
Using a cable-tool rig, Gordon and contractor Warren Wagner spudded their well on July 2, 1917, on the McCleskey farm about two miles south of Ranger. After more than three months of drilling, the J.H. McCleskey No. 1 well roared in from a depth of 3,432 feet.
When completed, “Roaring Ranger” initially produced 1,600 barrels of oil a day of high gravity oil. Later gushers yielded up to 10,000 barrels of oil daily. Within 20 months, Texas and Pacific Coal Company stock jumped from $30 a share to $1,250 a share. The company reorganized as the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.
Eastland County oil discoveries brought economic booms to Ranger, Cisco, Desdemona (today a ghost town) and Eastland. The Abilene Reporter-News reported Ranger’s population swelled from less than 1,000 to more than 30,000 – mostly men. The drilling boom “started the rush to Ranger that brought about the development of one of the greatest oilfields in the country,” proclaims historian Damon Sasser.
“By 1919, the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company had 22 oil wells being drilled and there were also eight refineries open or under construction,” Sasser adds. More freight was unloaded in Ranger by the railroad than at any other place upon its line, including stations in Fort Worth, Dallas and New Orleans.
The flood of people also brought Texas Rangers to enforce laws. When jails in Ranger overflowed, the lawmen handcuffed prisoners to telephone poles. “The Texas Rangers were no strangers to the town – years earlier, the city actually sprang up around an old Texas Ranger camp, hence the name Ranger,” Sasser notes.
Independent operators opened other nearby oilfields, including the Parsons, Sinclair-Earnest and Lake Sand fields. Production from the Breckenridge oilfield in neighboring Stephens County was 10 million barrels of oil by 1919. It peaked at more than 31 million barrels of oil in 1921.
“Roaring Ranger” and the region’s production had proved essential to the Allied victory in World War I. When the armistice was signed in 1918, a member of the British War Cabinet declared, “The Allied cause floated to victory upon a wave of oil.”
Among the veterans visiting booming Eastland County after the war was a young Conrad Hilton, who visited Cisco intending to buy a bank. When he witnessed the long line of roughnecks waiting for a room at the Mobley Hotel, he decided to buy the hotel (learn more in Oil Boom Brings First Hilton Hotel).
Although Ranger’s boom ended in the early 1920s when excess oil production caused wells to fail, the discoveries confirmed existence of a large petroleum-producing region, the Mid-Continent, which includes hundreds of oilfields reaching from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Established by the Ranger chamber of commerce in 1982, the “Roaring Ranger” Museum – inside the original Texas and Pacific Railway’s depot – exhibits drilling equipment, historic photos and a vintage cable-tool rig.
Ranger residents annually celebrate their 1917 gusher with an oil festival and parade down Main Street. When the parade crosses the historic train depot’s tracks, it passes a small, gray granite marker dedicated to the “First Oil Well Drilled in Eastland County.”
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Tales of a Wyoming “tar spring” would inspire Mike Murphy of Pennsylvania to drill the state’s first significant oil well in 1883. Civil War veteran Philip Shannon explored more of the Salt Creek oil seeps outside of Casper. His 1890 Shannon No. 1 well revealed a 22,000-acre oilfield.
But the story of Wyoming’s oil patch really begins with Washington Irving.
In 1837, Washington Irving published “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville: or, Scenes beyond the Rocky Mountains of the Far West.”
Eastern readers were spellbound by the account of a four-year exploration by Capt. Benjamin Bonneville and detailed accounts of life on the fur-trapping trail.
In the unforgiving lands that would one day become the Wyoming Territory, Capt. Bonneville traveled down the Popo Agie River and in 1832 made note of a natural resource that would one day bring a new industry to the state of Wyoming: “In this neighborhood, the captain made search for ‘the great Tar Spring,’ one of the wonders of the mountains, the medicinal properties of which he had heard extravagantly lauded by the trappers,” he noted. Read the rest of this entry »
The first Hilton Hotel came in 1919 when Conrad Hilton, intending to buy a Texas bank, witnessed the booming Ranger oilfield. “He can keep his bank!” declared Hilton before buying a motel overflowing with roughnecks in nearby Cisco.
On October 17, 1917, the McClesky No. 1 well hit an oil-bearing sand at 3,432 feet deep and launched the world-famous Ranger oilfield boom.
Thanks to “Roaring Ranger,” in just 20 months the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company – whose stock had skyrocketed from $30 to $1,250 a share – was drilling 22 wells in the area. Eight refineries were soon open or under construction, and the city’s four banks had $5 million in deposits.
The Ranger oilfield and other nearby North Texas discoveries gained international fame by eliminating critical oil shortages during World War I – allowing the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.” Read the rest of this entry »
Here is the story of Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt, and “Dad” Joiner, “Doc” Lloyd – and the Great Depression, and one of the U.S. petroleum industry’s greatest discoveries.
With a crowd of more than 4,000 landowners, leaseholders, stockholders, creditors and spectators watching – the Daisy Bradford No. 3 well erupts. It is on October 3, 1930, that a production test is done – resulting in a gushing column of oil.
Incredible to most geologists, another wildcat well 10 miles to the north – the Lou Della Crim No. 1 – will begin flowing on December 28, 1930. See Lou Della Crim Revealed.
A month later and 15 miles still farther north, a third wildcat well, the Lathrop No. 1, comes in with another gusher of “black gold.”
At first, the great distance between these discoveries convinced geologists, petroleum engineers – and virtually all of the major oil companies – that the wildcat wells had found separate oilfields.
However, and to the delight of many small, struggling farmers who owned the land, it finally became apparent the three wells were all part of one giant oilfield.
In 1905, when Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt was just 16 years old, he left his Illinois farm family and headed west. Along the way, he worked as a dishwasher, mule team driver, logger, farmhand, and even tried out for semi-pro baseball. In his travels, he learned to gamble and played cards in bunkhouses, hobo jungles and saloons.
The Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well came in on January 10, 1921, and quickly catapulted the population of El Dorado from 4,000 to over 25,000. A young Hunt joined the drilling fenzy that followed. He began with $50 in his pocket (see First Arkansas Oil Wells).
Read the rest of this entry »
Community leaders in El Dorado were anxious for the town to live up to its name, especially after natural gas discoveries in several neighboring Kansas towns. It would be oil instead of gas that would do just that when an October 5, 1915, well east of Wichita launched a Kansas Oil Boom.
One-hundred years later, an October 2015 article in El Dorado’s newspaper celebrated the mid-continent oilfield by telling its story.
“In 1915, about 3,000 people called the rural agricultural community of El Dorado home.” noted Julie Clements in the Butler County Times-Gazette. “They had no idea events toward the end of that year would begin something that would forever change not just El Dorado, but the state and an entire industry.”
The science of geology played a vital role in the 1915 discovery of a Mid-Continent oilfield. Drilled by Wichita Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Cities Service Company, the October 5 discovery well revealed the 34-square-mile El Dorado oilfield in central Kansas.
The Stapleton No. 1 well produced 95 barrels a day from 600 feet before being deepened to 2,500 feet to produced 110 barrels of oil a day from the Wilcox sands. Other wells soon followed east of Wichita.
Discoveries a year earlier in nearby Augusta had prompted El Dorado city fathers to seek a geological study of the area, according to Larry Skelton of the Kansas Geological Survey.
By 1914 interest was growing in Butler county and south central Kansas. “A few positive finds had been made, but nothing exciting,” Skelton noted in “Striking It Big in Kansas” for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
“Henry Doherty, founder of Cities Service in 1910, was seeking new gas reserves and opted for scientific exploration in lieu of wildcatting,” Skelton wrote in the November 2002 AAPL Explorer article.
Doherty hired geologists Charles Gould and Everett Carpenter in Oklahoma, sending them to Augusta, in Butler County. Gould had organized the Oklahoma Geological Survey in 1908 and served as its first director until 1911.
According to Skelton, the geologists mapped prominent anticlinal structures in Permian Age limestone. By late 1914, several Augusta exploratory wells found commercial volumes of natural gas. Several wells also found oil. These developments “chafed El Dorado city fathers.”
About 15 miles northeast of Augusta, El Dorado had unsuccessfully searched for hydrocarbons since the 1890s,” Skelton explained. The city now hired its own geologist, Erasmus Haworth, the state geologist and chairman of the University of Kansas geology department.
“He mapped a large anticline on the same formations used by Gould and Carpenter at Augusta and selected a site that proved to be a dry hole,” Skelton reported.
Undeterred, Cities Service subsidiary Wichita Natural Gas bought the town’s 790 leased acres for $800, verified Haworth’s work and began drilling in late September 1915. The Stapleton No. 1 well found oil within a week.
“Using scientific geological survey methodology for the first time, Cities Service had identified a promising anticline,” Skelton noted. “His field work outlined the El Dorado Anticline.”
Butler County’s geologic revelations encouraged Gulf Oil, Standard Oil, and other companies to secure leases around August and El Dorado. In addition to Henry Doherty, industry leaders like Archibald Derby, John Vickers and William Skelly established successful El Dorado oil-producing and refining companies.
“So the idea from that point forward, no oil company in the world would go and drill a well without seeking the advice of a geologist first,” proclaimed the executive director of the Kansas Oil Museum.
“Before 1915, geologists were seen in the same vein as witching and doodlebugs. They were just charlatans,” explained Warren Martin in a 2015 Butler County Times-Gazette article on the centennial of Stapleton No. 1. “It fundamentally transformed it from that point going forward. Geology was established as one of the great science industries.”
With the influx of thousands of workers, even Wichita accommodations were overwhelmed. Butler County’s population, about was 23,000 in 1910, nearly doubled in 1920. To house its workers, Empire Gas & Fuel Company (formerly Wichita Natural Gas) built a 64-acre town northwest of El Dorado.
Although Oil Hill and its more than 8,000 residents, swimming pool, tennis courts and small golf course would disappear by the late 1950s, at the time it was called the largest “company town” in the world.
When the United States entered World War I, development of Mid-Continent production escalated. In 1918 the El Dorado field produced almost 29 million barrels of oil, almost nine percent of the nation’s oil.
The Stapleton No. 1 well, which produced oil until 1967, today is visited by tourists – as is the Kansas Oil Museum, which includes 20 acres of rig displays, equipment exhibits and models of the region’s refinery history.
The museum, which annually hosts a “rockfest,” has added a 1970s Otek pump jack donated by Hawkins Oil Company. The unit, the largest one on the grounds, educates visitors about evolving production technologies. Visitors also stroll Main Street and explore buildings depicting a Kansas boom town like Oil Hill.
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The first Florida oil well was drilled in 1943 by Humble Oil Company by present day Big Cypress Preserve. The state paid a $50,000 bonus for the discovery.
Among its records for dry holes, Florida’s first – but certainly not last – unsuccessful attempt to find commercially viable oil reserves began in 1901, not far from the Gulf Coast panhandle town of Pensacola.
Two test wells were drilled, the first to 1,620 feet and the second a hundred feet deeper. Both were abandoned. Whether that wildcatter was following science or intuition, contemporary accounts of his efforts reveal only a small historical footnote: “Florida’s first dry holes.”
Twenty years later, as America’s oil demand continued to soar, oil still had not been found in Florida. The state’s panhandle still looked promising – despite a growing list of failed drilling ventures.
Indian legends and a wildcat stock promoter’s claim of oil inspired yet another attempt near today’s Falling Waters Park, about 100 miles east of Pensacola. A tall, wooden derrick and steam-driven rig were used to drill.
At a depth 3,900 feet, a brief showing of natural gas excited area residents with a false report of a possible gusher. Undeterred, the oilmen continued to drill to a depth of 4,912 feet before finally giving up. No oil of commercial quantity was found and the well was capped in 1921. Another dry hole. Read the rest of this entry »
The first Louisiana oil well discovered the giant Jennings oilfield in 1901 and launched the Pelican State’s petroleum industry. About a quarter million oil and natural gas wells have been drilled since.
Nine months after an historic discovery at Spindletop Hill, Texas, in 1901, oil erupted 90 miles to the east in Louisiana. W. Scott Heywood – already successful at Spindletop – revealed the Jennings oilfield with a 7,000-barrel-a-day well on September 21. Read the rest of this entry »
On September 12, 1866, Lyne Taliaferro Barret brought in the first Texas oil well. His Nacogdoches County discovery produced just 10 barrels a day and failed. It lay dormant for nearly two decades until 1887 when others returned to the small oilfield.
In December 1859, less than four months after Edwin Drake’s celebrated discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, a similarly determined wildcatter named Lyne (Lynis) Taliaferro Barret began searching in an East Texas area known as Oil Springs.
Barret’s interest in finding this newly prized commodity was no doubt prompted by its lucrative $20 a barrel selling price – and his certainty that Texan oil was waiting for him.
Indians and early East Texas settlers had long known the Oil Springs area for its seepage and used the crude for its purported medicinal benefit for both themselves and their livestock.
The invention of kerosene in 1846 prompted demand for “illuminating oil” and inspired a boom in drilling and speculation soon after the first American oil well in August 1859. Barret was eager to profit from the new opportunity. He joined the chase for oil, but prudently continued to operate his successful mercantile partnership in Melrose, Texas.
Read the rest of this entry »
After decades of expensive failed exploration attempts, the first Utah oil well finally was competed on September 18, 1948, in the Uinta Basin.
“The honor of bringing in the state’s first commercial oil well went not to the “Majors” but to an “Independent” – the Equity Oil Company,” notes Osmond Harline in a summer 1963 article in Utah Historical Quarterly.
The Ashley Valley No. 1, about 10 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah, produced about 300 barrels a day from 4,152 feet, Harline explains. “It is interesting to note that J.L. (Mike) Dougan, president and general manager of Equity Oil Company and a Salt Lake City resident, had been drilling for oil in Utah for over 25 years.”
Dougan beat out larger and better financed competitors, including Standard Oil of California, Pure Oil, Continental and Union Oil. The Utah discovery launched a deep-drilling boom. Unlike the earlier attempts, Dougan had drilled beyond the basin’s typical depth of 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet. Read the rest of this entry »
American oil history begins in a valley along a creek in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. Today’s U.S. petroleum exploration and production industry is born on August 27, 1859, near Titusville when a well specifically drilled for oil finds it.
A scientist hired by a group of investors four years earlier, reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than the refined coal then in use. As America expanded westward, public demand for “rock oil” or “coal oil” skyrocketed.
Organized on March 23, 1858, the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut invested in this highly speculative pursuit of oil.
The New Haven company replaced one they had organized in New York in 1854, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, today considered America’s first oil company. Seneca Oil will drill the historic first commercial U.S. oil well.
Although small amounts of oil had been found (and bottled for medicine) as early as 1814 in Ohio and in Kentucky in 1818, these had been drilled seeking brine water. Pioneers relied on salt to preserve meat. They often drilled using a “spring pole.” Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
Seneca Oil’s investors were rewarded when former railroad man Edwin L. Drake brought in the first commercial oil well at 69.5 feet near Oil Creek in Venango County. Read the rest of this entry »
Self-taught geologist Patillo Higgins will become the “Prophet of Spindletop” after founding the Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Company in 1892. He is part of America’s petroleum history – remembered for his role in discovering the giant Spindletop oilfield near Beaumont, Texas.
“Pattillo Higgins believed that oil lay beneath his feet at Spindletop,” reported the Gladys City Chronicles. “He had a feeling that drilling a well on top of this salt dome (and others like it) would produce oil, and lots of it.”
Higgins was convinced that an area known as “Big Hill” – Spindletop – four miles south of Beaumont, had oil, despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary.
As geologists would soon learn, salt domes are surrounded by oil, and one of the largest was Spindletop Hill, south of Beaumont, notes a local museum. Read the rest of this entry »
A 1918 oil discovery on a small farm along the Red River launches another North Texas drilling boom. Burkburnett and its “World’s Wonder Oilfield” will inspire a popular 1940 Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable, who was working in nearby Oklahoma oilfields at the time of the discovery.
A wildcat well comes in on S.L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on July 29, 1918. The subsequent drilling boom along the Red River will make Burkburnett famous – two decades before “Boom Town,” the 1940 motion picture it inspires.
At the time of the Fowler No. 1 well’s discovery, future moviestar Clark Gable is a teenage roustabout in an Oklahoma oilfield. The well is completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, founded in 1907 – and named by President Theodore Roosevelt, who two years earlier hunted wolf along the Red River with rancher Burk Burnett.
Although Wichita County had been producing oil since 1912 (thanks to a shallow water well west of town) Fowler’s decision to drill a well on his farm – an attempt called “Fowler’s Folly” by some – will bring an oil boom to Wichita County.
Fifty-six drilling rigs are at work just three weeks after his oil strike at 1,734 feet deep. Six months later, Burkburnett’s population has grown from 1,000 to 8,000. A line of derricks two-miles long greets visitors.
The Burkburnett oilfield joins earlier discoveries in nearby Electra (1911) and Ranger (1917) that will make North Texas a worldwide leader in petroleum production. See Pump Jack Capital of Texas.
By the end of 1918, Burkburnett oil wells are producing 7,500 barrels per day. By June 1919, there are more than 850 producing wells in “the world’s wonder oilfield.”
Nineteen local refineries are soon processing the crude oil. The town’s unpaved streets are lined with newly formed stock offices, brokerage houses, and autos stuck in the mud.
Twenty trains are running daily between Burkburnett and nearby Wichita Falls. Yet another highly productive Wichita County oilfield is then discovered, bringing more prosperity for North Texas.
But eventually, the oil boom dies out. Affected by the Great Depression, Burkburnett’s population declines during the 1930s.
By 1939, the town has a population of less than 3,500. At the same time, the movie “Boom Town” is adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine article, “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett.”
The 1940 MGM feature stars Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr and Claudette Colbert. It is nominated for two Academy Awards.
At the time of the 1918 Burkburnett discovery well, Clark Gable was a 17-year-old roustabout working with his father William Gable, a service contractor, in an oilfield outside Bigheart, Oklahoma.
In 1922, Gable would collect an inheritance from his grandfather and leave working in the Oklahoma oil patch for good.
Clark Gable’s father is reported to have said, “I told the stubborn mule if he left me this time, he need never come back.”
Today, Burkburnett’s population exceeds 10,000, thanks to agriculture, continued production from its historic oilfield – and the 1941 establishment of nearby Sheppard Air Force Base.
Among Burkburnett’s tourist attractions are the Bluebonnet Festival in April – and the Felty Outdoor Oil Museum.
A footnote of the North Texas oil boom is the “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” in Wichita Falls. Just 40 feet tall with 118 square feet per floor, it has survived since 1919.
The building is a monument of the boom town era – and a Philadelphia con man who convinced oilmen (who were desperate for office space) to approve fraudulent blueprints.
J. D. McMahon disappeared after collecting $200,000 and completing his promised “skyscraper.” The fine print his investors overlooked noted a scale in inches – not feet.
“Apparently too busy to keep an eye on construction, investors ultimately found themselves owners of a building that looked more like an elevator shaft than high-rise office space,” notes Carlton Stowers, author of “Legend of the World’s Littlest Skyscraper.”
“The completed building’s outside dimensions were a closet-sized 11 feet by 19 feet. Stairwells that led to the upstairs floors occupied 25 percent of the interior,” Stower says. “Dallas and Houston may have sparkling skyscrapers so tall that they require oxygen in the penthouses, but has Ripley’s Believe It or Not ever paid them attention?”
The brick building has become a Wichita Falls landmark. Today it attracts oil-patch knowledgeable tourists. The city also is headquarters for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
In the late 1940s, as sterotypes about Texans shifted from millionaire Longhorn cattle ranchers to millionaire oilmen, people started calling “Diamond Glenn” McCarthy the “King of the Widlcatters.”
Some historians say the $21 million hotel McCarthy opened in 1949 put Houston on the map – and the character Jett Rink in the 1952 novel Giant was based on him.
McCarthy’s oil patch career began with a 1935 well 50 miles east of Houston. On July 21, he and partner R.A. Mason brought in the No. 1 White well with initial production of almost 600 barrels of oil a day. The well extended the already productive Anahuac field three miles to the north.
By 1945, McCarthy went on to discover 11 new oilfields and extend others. In Brazoria County a year later he drilled the highest-pressure gas well drilled to that time. Described as a “bombastic, plucky Irishman best known for building the famous Shamrock Hotel,” the Texas independent oilman would be featured on the February 13, 1950, cover of TIME magazine.
Born in Beaumont, Texas, on December 25, 1907, Glenn H. McCarthy worked as a water boy at the age of eight in the Beaumont oilfields, where father Will McCarthy worked for a wage of fifty cents a day, according to HoustonHistory.com. The family moved to Houston in 1917. Read the rest of this entry »
Alaska’s petroleum history began long before statehood in 1959. The first Alaska oil well with commercial production arrived in 1902 in rugged territory where oil seeps had been known for years.
Despite limited cable-tool technologies of the day, the Alaska Steam Coal & Petroleum Syndicate produced oil near the remote settlement of Katalla on Alaska’s southern coastline. The oilfield there also led to construction of Alaska Territory’s first refinery.
The Katalla discovery well, drilled on private land owned by the Alaska Development Company, marked the first unsteady steps of Alaska’s petroleum industry.
“Among Alaska’s vast resources, gold and oil were the rich twins that put the territory on the map near the turn of the last century,” notes Tricia Brown in Katalla: Alaska’s First Oil Well.
“Gold discoveries had been made in the interior and at Nome when, in September 1902, the Alaska Development Company, known as the English Company, made the first commercial oil discovery at Katalla, 47 miles southeast of Cordova,” she explains.
Enthusiastic reporting about Alaska Steam Coal & Petroleum Syndicate’s success brought investors and competing exploration companies. Newspaper articles – often wildly exaggerating the Katalla discovery – encouraged a rush of entrepreneurs looking for opportunities similar to the famous gold rush.
“A special dispatch from Valdez announces an immense oil gusher was struck at Cotella [Katalla], on the Southern Alaska Coast, at a depth of 200 feet, reported the New York Times in a vivid (but inaccurate) article. “The gusher took everything away with it, rising nearly 200 feet before it could be capped.”
Adding that the Alaska Steam Coal & Petroleum Syndicate had announced its intention of “refining the oil on the spot,” the Times article concluded that an important new industry had arrived in the territory. A January 1903 article in the St. Paul Globe gushed even more.
“Oil experts who have just returned to Tacoma from the oilfields of southern Alaska declare that they will rival the fields in Pennsylvania in the matter of production within a short time,” exclaimed the Minnesota newspaper.
Such accounts of Alaska Steam Coal & Petroleum Syndicate’s success attracted new companies, including the Alaska Petroleum and Coal Company (1903), Amalgamated Development Company, and the Alaska Oil & Refining Company.
The “oil fever” centered on Alaska Development Company’s 826-acre Katalla patent along Oil Creek and Arvesta Creek as cable-tool rigs multiplied there. “I expect to see, next year, a dozen big outfits actively at work developing the oil fields surrounding the city,” wrote John F.A. Strong, publisher of the Katalla Herald, in 1907.
“I gave it out that the Alaska Petroleum and Coal Company stood ready to give every encouragement to oil men to come here, and we are ready to let oil developers have from 40 to 80 acres each to begin work upon, on the most liberal terms,” added the future governor of the Alaska Territory.
Where Rails meet Sails
Katalla was on Controller Bay and accessible by water if the weather was right. This was rough country, but planned railroad service from Alaska’s prolific interior copper mines promised new opportunities.
As the Alaska Pacific Railway and Terminal Company started building its line, Katalla promoted the venture by declaring, “Katalla, Where the Rails Meet the Sails!” Drilling on the original patent continued and a number of successful wells continued to produce “Pennsylvania quality” crude oil.
And yet before the year ended, Katalla residents would be reduced to subsisting on salt pork and porcupine after storms cut off supplies from the outside. “Ship After Ship Undertakes to Land Relief but in Vain – Six Weeks of the Roughest of Weather,” reported the The Marshfield, Oregon, newspaper.
Violent storms in late 1907 isolated Katalla and destroyed the breakwater along with an 1,800-foot dock under construction by the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. The village of Cordova about 50 rugged miles west of Katalla was was chosen to be the new terminus and thereby the Katalla oilfield’s nearest railhead.
Katalla was further isolated when the Army’s Washington to Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System also changed its destination to Cordova. Without a railroad or telegraph, Katalla’s population dropped from a peak of 5,000 residents to 770 residents. Then prospects for Alaska’s first oil boom town got even worse.
Concerned that overdevelopment of oil supplies on federal lands would diminish the United States’ petroleum reserves, President William Howard Taft intervened. On November 2, 1910, he issued an executive order preventing further exploration and drilling in the Alaska Territory.
Only Katalla’s privately owned 826-acre patent remained open amidst all of Alaska’s vast petroleum potential of almost 425 million acres. Despite this setback, the Alaska Oil & Refining Company rebounded by building Alaska’s first refinery.
First Oil Refinery
The refinery on Katalla Slough serviced local needs for gasoline, kerosene and lubricants. Once a week, the company shipped 60 100-gallon drums to Cordova. Products traveled to markets by boat, barge – or towed in floating tanks.
Alaska Oil & Refining operated the refinery until 1915, when the St. Elias Oil Company took over the company’s assets. Petroleum exploration was still limited to the original 826 acres permitted by Taft’s executive order.
St. Elias Oil advised investors of expansion plans to “increase the output of the refinery…pumping four wells, anticipating four more within the year. Will install tanks at Katalla to facilitate immediate shipment.”
The company drilled three successful wells (and three dry holes) that helped keep the refinery running as the rest of Alaska imported in excess of 732,000 gallons of illuminating oil and 373,000 gallons of lubricants.
Nonetheless, Katalla’s population dropped to 87 hardy souls by 1920. Congress then passed the Mineral Leasing Act to finally open the rest of Alaska to petroleum exploration.
“All the Alaska oil lands were withdrawn in 1910, and patent has been granted to only one claim, which is in the Katalla field,” noted a 1921 report of the U.S. Geological Survey. “This condition persisted until the passage of the recent oil and gas leasing act of February 25, 1920. The provisions of this law applying to Alaska appear to be liberal and will permit prospecting the fairly accessible localities near the Pacific where seepages have been found.”
The 1921 report, “Preliminary report on petroleum in Alaska,” also noted areas with oil seeps “now give promise of being of commercial importance. There are, however, some indications of oil in the extreme northern part of Alaska, a region at present almost inaccessible.”
That same year St. Elias Oil sold out to Chilkat Oil Company and the federal government issued about 400 new exploration permits. But few came to Alaska and none to the Katalla oilfield for the next 65 years. The Alaskan Crude Corporation drilled briefly there in 1985 but suspended operations.
While Alaska’s oil industry struggled, California’s had been booming; by 1921 annual oil production exceeded 77 million barrels with oil selling for just $1.73 per barrel (oil prices would stay below $2 a barrel until 1948). At those prices, transporting oil from Alaskan oilfields made no economic sense. Chilkat Oil’s refinery continued to deliver Katalla oilfield products to nearby customers.
Alaska’s first refinery burned on Christmas eve of 1933, taking with it the fortunes of Chilkat Oil Company and the town of Katalla. The refinery had produced a total of about 6.5 million gallons of distillates, but there would be no more.
With no economic engine, Katalla was soon abandoned – with only 12 residents by the 1940s. When a 9.2 magnitude earthquake raised the land around Katalla by eight feet in 1964, the town’s old waterfront disappeared. “It put the last nail in the coffin,” according to the Anchorage Press. Katalla became a ghost town.
Although Katalla’s heritage as home of the first Alaska oil well and refinery was acknowledged in 1974 by the National Register of Historic Places, the town’s 30 years of oil production actually amounted to less than what Alaska’s North Slope would yield in a single day.
Despite its fate, Katalla proved petroleum production was possible in Alaska Territory – but transporting oil to market was difficult and expensive. When Atlantic Richfield and Humble Oil companies discovered the North Slope’s Prudhoe Bay field in 1968, the largest oilfield in North America inspired the industry’s modern engineering marvel, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Since 1897, when the first oil well in Bartlesville, many historic Oklahoma oilfields have been discovered: Glennpool, Cushing, Three Sands, Healdton, Oklahoma City and others – including 20 “giants.” Few have had the tremendous economic impact as the late 1920s oilfields and the greater Seminole oil boom.
The 1897 Bartlesville discovery, which came one decade before statehood, was the First Oklahoma Oil Well. Other discoveries followed, including the giant Red Fork Gusher of 1901, which helped in Making Tulsa “Oil Capital of the World.”
Then the greater area Seminole oil boom eclipse them all.
When the No. 1 Hogg well found oil in 1917, the discovery south of Houston ended a streak of dry holes dating back to 1901 – when former Texas Governor J.S. “Big Jim” Hogg first thought oil might be there and leased the land.
Gov. Hogg, the Lone Star State’s 20th governor, would die in 1906 and not see the latest Texas drilling boom he helped launch.
However, the family of Gov. Hogg would benefit from his unwavering belief in finding oil in region with a geology similar to the already famous “Lucas Gusher.” Read the rest of this entry »
An early attempt for the first Nevada oil well was an 1,890-foot-deep dry hole drilled in Washoe County southwest of Reno in 1907. Another well was rumored to have been drilled northwest of town, but details about it and others are rare because drilling permits were not required until 1953. Read the rest of this entry »
A Fort Worth wildcatter named W.A. “Monty” Moncrief drilling in East Texas in January 1931 will help reveal what turns out to be the largest U.S. oilfield.
As the Great Depression worsened and East Texas farmers struggled to survive, a third wildcat well miles from the earlier discoveries ultimately revealed a massive oilfield, which remains the largest in the lower-48 states.
On January 26, 1931, in Gregg County, Fort Worth independent oilman W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well. It produced 320 barrels of oil per hour (7,680 barrels a day) from a depth of 3,587 feet. Read the rest of this entry »
Along Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the wooden derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well erupted in flames in 1859, perhaps America’s first oil well fire.
This historic well, which caught fire on October 7, was completed at 69.5 feet deep the previous August 27 by a determined “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake.
To increase efficiency, Drake had invented (but did not patent) a “drive pipe.” He and his driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, used steam-powered cable-tool technology, an advancement from the ancient spring-pole.
Maligned by many as “Drake’s Folly,” the discovery well’s initial oil production came from a hand-operated water pump borrowed from a local kitchen.
Drake – who had received his military title in letters addressed to him by his employers, the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut – will become known as the father of the American petroleum industry. Titusville and Oil City today annually celebrate his 1859, find. Visitors to the Drake Well Museum in Titusville can tour a reconstructed cable-tool derrick at its original location along Oil Creek. Read the rest of this entry »
The Glen Pool discovery of “light and sweet” oil on the Creek Indian Reservation in 1905 will make Tulsa the “Oil Capital of the World.”
On a chilly fall morning in 1905 – two years before Oklahoma becomes a state – oil is discovered on the Glenn farm south of Tulsa.
Soon, there are hundreds of wells producing so much oil that the land is called the Glen Pool (or Glenn Pool), now the Tulsa suburb Glenpool.
This November 22 oilfield discovery launched a drilling boom that soon made Tulsa famous worldwide.
With daily production soon exceeding 120,000 barrels, Glenn Pool exceeded Tulsa County’s earlier “Red Fork Gusher” – and the giant Spindletop discovery near Beaumont, Texas, four years earlier. Read the rest of this entry »
Since 1955, the Chief Roughneck award has recognized one individual whose accomplishments and character represent the highest ideals of the oil and natural gas industry.
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