Ohio Offshore Wells
America’s “first offshore drilling” is generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – although historians in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio say otherwise.
Mercer County documents record oil wells pumping far out in the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys 20 years before drillers ventured into the waters of Caddo Lake.
Work on the Ohio reservoir that would become known as Grand Lake St. Marys – about 60 miles north of Dayton – began in 1837 to support construction of the Miami and Erie Canal near the towns of Celina and St. Marys. To maintain the canal’s water levels, the reservoir was excavated over nine years by more than 1,700 men earning 30 cents a day.
By 1845 the lake covered 17,500 acres to a depth of about seven feet. It was the largest man-made body of water in the world at the time and successfully supported the vital commerce of the Miami & Erie Canal.
Forty years later Ohio’s oil boom began.
In 1884, independent producers near Findlay discovered natural gas in a geologic formation known today as the Lima-Indiana trend. This formation stretched 260-miles across Ohio and Indiana. It would yield extraordinary quantities of natural gas and oil for decades.
Oilmen followed the Lima-Indiana Trend southwest to the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys near the Indiana border. Local companies like the Neeley-Clover Oil Co., Riley Oil Co., and Manhattan Oil Co. drilled successful wells right up to the reservoir’s shoreline, but going offshore presented a new set of challenges.
Contemporary accounts of over-water drilling describe the practice of building 14 foot square “cribs” upon which traditional cable-tool rigs and their steam engines and boilers could be supported. Cribs had evolved as necessary engineering solutions to building bridges, dams, and other water structures.
On Grand Lake St. Marys, oilmen built derricks atop such cribs. Pipelines carried the oil from producing wells to storage tanks on shore.
The 1898 Auglaize County Atlas identifies an abundance of oil wells surrounding the far eastern end of Grand Lake St. Marys and also shows wells built offshore.
The 1903 Ohio Geological Survey recorded, “By 1890 the productive territory had been pushed to the eastern border of the Grand reservoir, and a year later wells were being drilled in that body of water.”
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes, “In 1891, at the beginning of production in the water of Grand Lake St. Marys, wells were drilled within the canal reservoir mainly by small local companies…In less than ten years, more than 100 wells were drilled within the shallow waters of the lake.”
In 1915 the state of Ohio determined that with the canal no longer in use, Grand Lake St. Marys was repurposed as a public recreation and pleasure resort area, which it remains today.
A modern DNR map still plots the locations of the historic wells over the lake.
The Neely-Clover Oil Co. was an early driller on the lake that completed many successful wells. In Wildcatting from Pennsylvania to Texas, author Harold Neely writes, “Part of the leases they had were out in the lake that was known as the Grand Reservoir of St. Marys, and these leases were secured from the state of Ohio. They drove pilings and set the rig up on platforms and drilled these wells, one to ten acres, and quite a bit of this state land was productive.”
Riley Oil Co. drilled more than 100 wells in the reservoir, including the Riley-Mosher, which began producing in 1886 and still produced 35-barrels a day as late as 1910. By then, however, the boom was over.
In 1913 the New York Times reported the reservoir “contains more than 100 oil wells,” but oil men had moved on. Production on the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys lost its economic incentive when Spindletop’s astounding yield drove the price of Ohio crude below 15 cents a barrel.
The once plentiful derricks gradually disappeared into Ohio’s petroleum history.
Editor’s Note – For a more detailed look at this unique Ohio offshore history, be sure to read “The First Over Water Drilling: The Lost History Of Ohio’s Grand Reservoir Oil Boom” by Judith L. Sneed of Mooringsport, Louisiana.
Sneed originally presented her article in Shreveport during a March 26-29, 2003, Petroleum History Symposium, hosted by the Petroleum History Institute (PHI) of Oil City, Pennsylvania.
Sneed’s abstract – in the 2005 Oil-History Journal - notes: In 1911 Gulf Oil Company’s Ferry Lake No.1 well was completed over the waters of Caddo Lake, Louisiana. It has long been touted as the location of the world’s first over water oil well. This accolade, however, is not correct. Stand alone oil wells produced commercial quantities of oil over a small lake in Ohio as early as 1891. How did we lose this bit of history?
Also see “Offshore Petroleum History.”
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