In the early 1950s, Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company marketed 300,000 shares of stock for $1 each.


Decades before Alaska became a state, many petroleum exploration companies drilled expensive dry holes in the remote U.S. territory. The Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company was among them.

Although drillers completed the first Alaska Territory commercial oil well in 1902, significant oilfield production did not arrive until 1957, two years before statehood.

 Alaska Oil & Gas Development

Before switching to a rotary rig in 1954, the Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company drilled its Eureka No. 1 using this Walker-Neer Manufacturing Company cable-tool “spudder.” Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum.

The July 1957 discovery well by Richfield Oil Corporation — later known as ARCO — successfully drilled near the Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula. The first well, which produced 900 barrels of oil a day from 11,215 feet, revealed a giant oilfield.

Many Alaskans already had been wildcatting for black gold.

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Among those searching for petroleum riches, Alaska Oil & Gas Development accepted the financial challenges of exploring unproven territory. William A. O’Neill and a former oilfield roughneck incorporated the company on October 31, 1952.


“Bill O’Neill, a local mining engineer and University of Alaska regent, and partner C.F. ‘Tiny’ Shield, a giant of a man, believed they could find oil in the Copper River Basin,” explained Jack Roderick in his 1997 book, Crude Dreams: A Personal History of Oil & Politics in Alaska.

“Before coming to Alaska in the early 1920s, Shield had been a cable-rig ‘tool pusher’ in Montana, Texas and California,” he added.

Within a year, Alaska Oil & Gas Development began drilling near “mud volcanoes” — sulfuric residues bubbling up from the valley floor — and near mud cliffs embedded with giant marine fossils, Roderick reported.

Alaska Oil & Gas Development

The Eureka No. 1 well with its Walker-Neer cable-tool rig at its remote site just off Glenn Highway about 125 miles northeast of Anchorage. Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum.

Far from any oil or natural gas producing well in North America, the well site — known as a rank wildcat — was at Eureka Roadhouse, about 125 miles northeast of Anchorage, just 200 feet off the Glenn Highway (part of Alaska Route 1).

Risky Business

Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company offered 300,000 shares of stock at $1 per share, advertising in newspapers:

The money realized from the sale of this stock is being used to purchase equipment and finance operations for oil exploration in the Eureka-Nelchina location. The location of the first exploratory drill hole has been chosen by our consulting geologist after a geological survey of the area.

Alaska Oil & Gas Development

The Walker-Neer cable-tool rig reached about 2,500 feet deep before drilling was temporarily suspended at the site. A Texas geologist suggested converting to a rotary rig for greater depth. Photo courtesy the Anchorage Museum.

Drilling at the Eureka Roadhouse site began on September 20, 1953, using cable-tool technology — a Walker-Neer Manufacturing Company rig often called a spudder.

“By early 1954, the Eureka No. 1 well had been drilled down more than half a mile, but the antiquated equipment, making each day’s going tougher, eventually forced O’Neill and Shield to shut down the operation,” noted Roderick.

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The limitations of outdated cable-tool technology — and the onset of Alaska’s winter — delayed but did not deter the men. “Shield traveled to Texas, and while looking up some tool pusher buddies, contacted Fort Worth independent James H. Snowden,” Roderick explained.

Snowden sent a geologist to Alaska to investigate the well. “He reported that by converting the cable-tool rug to a rotary, the Eureka well could be deepened to 5,500 feet,”  Roderick reported.

By the summer of 1954, having switched the Walker-Neer spudder for a rotary rig, the Eureka No. 1 well reached about a mile in depth — but found no indications of oil.

Alaska Oil & Gas Development

Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company spudded a well in the Matanuska Valley northeast of Anchorage in June 1953. Map courtesy USGS.

O’Neill and Shield tried again, drilling a second well near Houston, Alaska, on the Alaska Railroad line. It ended as a dry hole as well.

According to Roderick, Alaska Oil & Gas Development plugged and abandoned both wells by 1957. Another company also had tried to find oil in the Matanuska Valley, but failed before it could drill even one well (see Chickaloon Oil Company).

With its funds exhausted, the Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company failed to file a required report and was “involuntarily dissolved” by regulators.

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In 1957, Richfield Oil Corporation made the first major discovery two years before Alaska statehood. The company struck the territory’s first commercial oil well at Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula.

Discovery of the Prudhoe Bay field on Alaska’s North Slope in 1968 made the 49th state a world-class oil and natural gas producer. Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in North America, in turn inspired the U.S. petroleum industry’s 1977 engineering marvel, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The stories of many exploration companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found in an updated series of research in Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?


Recommended Reading: Crude Dreams: A Personal History of Oil & Politics in Alaska (1997); Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska (2012); From the Rio Grande to the Arctic: The Story of the Richfield Oil Corporation (1972). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society; as an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “ Alaska Oil & Gas Development Company.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: November 22, 2023. Original Published Date: July 14, 2016.

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