gas well fire

Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

America’s fascination with “black gold” switched to natural gas for a time in 1906 after lightning ignited a natural gas well fire near a small Kansas town.

The flaming well of Caney, Kansas, towered 150 feet high and at night could be seen for 35 miles. It made headlines.

Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated readers as the technologies of the day struggled to put out the well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”

It would take five weeks to bring the well under control.

In the early 1900s large amounts of natural gas had been discovered between Caney and Bartlesville in Indian Territory. About 20 miles apart, the towns were connected by the Caney River.

Caney had been founded in 1869 as a trading post. Osage Indians frequently camped along the Little Caney River before being moved to present day Osage County, Oklahoma.

“Chief Black Dog of the Osage tribe blazed a trail ’30 horses wide’ along the Kansas-Indian Territory border and set a camp of the Osage tribe in the Caney vicinity,” reports the City of Caney. The region’s petroleum industry came to life thanks to the man who helped found Bartlesville.

In 1875, Jacob Bartles operated a trading post on the Caney River in the Cherokee Nation. He employed two ambitious young men, George Keeler and William Johnstone. They later started their own general store on the other side of the river. In 1897 – a decade before Oklahoma statehood – the two men drilled a well at a river bend near their store. Their Nellie Johnstone No. 1 well, today surrounded by Bartlesville’s Discovery One Park, was the First Oklahoma Oil Well.

“During the early 1900s some very large gas well completions were being made between Caney, Kansas and Bartlesville, Indian Territory,” explains one noted geologist and oil patch historian.

Boom Town Caney

Oil wells completed near Caney by 1903 resulted in oil tank farms, oil pumping stations and refineries being built in the area, according Jeff Spencer of Bellville, Texas.

Caney soon added several brick and glass plants fueled by natural gas.

“Glass manufacturing arrived in southeastern Kansas to take advantage of the large gas supplies,” Spencer notes in a 2007 article for the Petroleum History Institute journal Oil-Industry History. Between 1902 and 1906, three glass factories opened near Caney.

However, the risks of highly pressurized gas formations became evident on February 23, 1906, when lightning struck the New York Oil and Gas Company’s derrick four miles outside Caney.

gas well fire

Petroleum wealth brought industries to Caney, Kansas, and helped build McKinnley School, pictured circa 1909.

According to Spencer, the well had reached about 1,430 feet deep after three weeks of drilling. Estimates of the well’s gas flow at the time of the lightning strike were over 30 million cubic feet of gas a day. By the time the fire was extinguished, the flow had reached as high as 70 million cubic feet of gas a day.

“Residents of Caney could read their newspapers at night by the glow of the burning gas well and even though it was early March, trees and flowers bloomed near the well site,” notes Spencer, who updated his article in 2012.

“Nearby towns of Independence, Coffeyville, Bartlesville, and Caney all claimed the attraction,” he says. “Excursion trains brought thousands of tourists to the site.”

Citing a 1907 article he discovered in The Wide World Magazine, Spencer describes efforts to extinguish the blazing well.

He quotes author W.H.Cotton: “Appliances hitherto generally used in such emergencies were useless; some new schemes must be devised to cope with the situation.”

Spencer says special hoods were manufactured to smother the flaming well. Using a crane, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made with the first hood. A second hood was constructed and lowered over the flame. It too failed, as did several attempts with a third.

“A fourth hood had been built and delivered, but it was cumbersome, owing to its excessive weight,” Spencer reports. A larger crane would be needed.

Success finally came after retrying the third hood, says Spencer. He quotes Cotton, who said hundreds watched this test of oilfield technology: “All was breathless silence. Cameras were previously focused, and every possible preparation made to witness the event so looked for.”

Earlier, as article in the Chanute Tribune said there was some speculation the fire had been permitted to burn as a publicity stunt, Spencer says.

Cahege Oil & Gas

gas well fire

An undated postcard of an early oil well gusher near Caney, Kansas. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

More petroleum companies explored around Caney. As would happen many times in the industry’s competitive boom-and-bust cycles, few would prosper. Many more would not survive.

Some historians claim a young Harry Sinclair drilled his first oil well at Caney in 1905 before making a fortune at the Glenn Pool oilfield near Tulsa. See Making Tulsa the Oil Capital.

Among companies seeking fortunes at Caney in 1904, Cahege Oil & Gas Company of Carrollton, Missouri, leased 15,000 acres there. A local newspaper endorsed the company’s exploration effort, proclaiming, “we believe the stock-holders have a good thing ahead.”

Unfortunately, Cahege Oil & Gas’ two wells did not produce commercial quantities of oil or natural gas. It disappeared from financial records in 1905, the year before the Carney gas well fire. Read more in Cahege Oil & Gas Company.

Also read about another small Kansas town that prospered thanks to petroleum. The Stapleton No. 1 oil well in El Dorado utilized the increasingly important science of geology to reveal a massive Mid-Continent oilfield. The discovery led to another Kansas Oil Boom.

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