Offshore Ohio wells are drilled on a lake in the 1890s, perhaps the industry’s first. Mercer County says oil wells pumped far out in Grand Lake St. Marys.

 ohio offshore wells

Grand Lake St. Marys – hand-dug from 1837 to 1845 – originally was nine miles long by three miles wide. It supplied water to central Ohio’s Miami and Eric Canal until designated a “public recreation and pleasure resort” in 1915.

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.

ohio offshore wells

From “Our Post Card Past; Grand Lake St. Marys Ohio,” Mercer County Historical Society, Celina. Photo courtesy of Joyce L. Alig.

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 and Erie Canal. Forty years later Ohio’s first 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.

Ohio offshore wells and “Cribs”

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 these ohio offshore wells to storage tanks hastily constructed 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 of the Ohio offshore wells over the lake.

The Neely-Clover Oil Company 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 Company drilled more than 100 oil wells in the reservoir, including the Riley-Mosher well, which began producing in 1886 and still produced 35 barrels a day as late as 1910. By then, however, the Ohio offshore oil 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 — Joyce L. Alig, president of the Mercer County Historical Society, has edited or authored of 28 publications, including Our Post Card Past; Grand Lake St. Marys Ohio. She is working on a book about Mercer County’s petroleum history. Alig provided much of Ohio’s “offshore” history research for “The First Over Water Drilling: The Lost History Of Ohio’s Grand Reservoir Oil Boom,” a peer-reviewed article by Judith L. Sneed of Mooringsport, Louisiana.

ohio offshore wells

Louisiana’s Caddo Lake, circa 1911.

Sneed originally presented her article in Shreveport during a 2003 Petroleum History Symposium, hosted by the Petroleum History Institute (PHI) of Oil City, Pennsylvania.

Sneed’s abstract in the peer-reviewed 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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