first Arizona oil well

Cover from a 1961 report of Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; painting by E. M. Schiwetz, courtesy Humble Oil Co.

After reports of oil seeps in the late 1890s, the search for commercial quantities of oil in Arizona began in 1902, one decade before statehood.

Joseph Heslet, a part-time prospector from Pennsylvania, drilled a few unsuccessful wells that showed traces of oil. His effort caught the attention of exploration companies, including several arriving from the 1901 giant oilfield discovery at Spindletop Hill in Texas. In 1905, a wildcat well was drilled in the Chino Valley, 20 miles north of Prescott, that reached a depth of 2,000 feet before being abandoned.

A well drilled in 1906 in Graham County by A. C. Alexander was abandoned as a dry hole at 1,400 feet. Other exploration attempts followed, most lacking knowledge of the emerging science of petroleum geology. There would be 50 more years of Arizona dry holes.

“A series of speculative ventures and explorations in oil drilling occurred over the ensuing decades, followed by the discovery of helium, an industrial gas that has become a major industry in the state,” noted a March 2004 article at Tucson.com. Better known for abundant copper deposits, it was the search for petroleum that led to helium discoveries in Arizona (also see Gas, Oil and Development Company in Kansas).

Kipling Petroleum Company discovered helium 20 miles east of Holbrook in Navajo County in 1950, but “commercial production of helium in Arizona began in 1961 with the state’s first helium extraction plant producing 9 billion cubic feet of gas over 15 years,” the article explained.

first Arizona oil well

Arizona’s first natural gas well in 1954 and first significant oil well in 1959 (from “Oil, Gas and Helium in Arizona, Its Occurrence and Potential,” page 47).

Arizona became the 30th petroleum-producing state on October 13, 1954, with a natural gas well.

Shell Oil Company completed the East Boundary Butte No. 2 well south of the Utah border on Apache County’s Navajo Indian Reservation. Natural gas was discovered as the well reached a depth of 4,540 feet.

“The first producing well in Arizona was drilled by Shell Oil Company in 1954 on a surface structure known as the East Boundary Butte anticline,” proclaimed a 1961 report by the Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That well found natural gas and a small amount of oil.

The Shell Oil well indicated gas production of 3,150 thousand cubic feet per day; daily oil production was 3.6 barrels of oil (plus 8.4 barrels of salt water per day) from part of the Pennsylvanian geologic formation, the Hermosa, according to the commission’s report, Oil, Gas and Helium in Arizona, Its Occurrence and Potential, which sought to encourage further exploration.

first Arizona oil well


A well site on the Navajo Reservation in Apache County, Arizona. The 16-million-acre reservation extends into New Mexico and Utah. Photo courtesy Shell Oil Co.

One candidate for the first Arizona oil well, according to the report, was Humble Oil Company’s No. 1 E Navajo well, drilled in 1958 near the Shell Oil natural gas well. Although initial oil production was from the same formation (Hermosa), “subsequent production showed increasing gas,” and by 1961 it was considered a natural gas well.

“Additional drilling on this structure resulted in completion of three more wells producing mostly gas with some distillate and oil,” noted Lee Feemster of the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company. “Oil and gas shows were encountered in the Hermosa, Mississippian, and Devonian but to date the production is confined to the Hermosa.”

In 1956, the Franco Western Oil Company drilled a well based on a seismic anomaly in the Mississippian formation and found more natural gas. A well completed a year later by Superior Oil Company also produced significant amounts of gas from the Hermosa producing zone.

first Arizona oil well

All of Arizona’s oil and natural gas fields are in the northeast corner of the state: (I) East Boundary Butte; (2) Bita Peak; (3) Toh-ah-tin; (4) Unnamed Paradox gas and distillate; (5) Dry Mesa; (6) Unnamed Devonian oil; (7) Pinta dome helium area.

“Encouraging shows of oil and gas were recorded in the Mississippian and Devonian in this test, Feemster noted in the commission report. It was his company, Texas Pacific Coal and Oil, that drilled a test well that finally found commercial quantities of oil in Arizona in 1959.

Founded in 1888, Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company had established the mining town of Thurber, Texas, and by the early 1900s provided almost half of the coal supply for Texas. The company’s Arizona oil discovery, the Navajo No. 1 well, was completed in the extreme northeastern part of the state.

The discovery well produced 240 barrels of oil per day from the Mississippian formation at a depth of 5,566 feet, according to Feemster, who added, “The nearest Mississippian production at that time was in the Big Flat field more than 100 miles north in Utah.”

In 1967, the Kerr-McGee Navajo No. 1 well revealed an oil-producing geologic anticline about 4,000 feet deep. That well joined the others producing on the Navajo Reservation in Apache County (reservation land includes 16 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah).

By 2012, the the Navajo Reservation’s Dineh-bi-Keyah – “The People’s Field” – would produce more than 18 million barrels of oil. Recognizing the importance of new horizontal drilling technologies, in 2013 the Arizona Geological Survey issued a report, Potential Targets for Shale-Oil and Shale-Gas Exploration in Arizona, as the state’s quest for more oil and natural gas deposits continued.

As of March 2016, Arizona had 32 oil and natural gas wells, according to the state commission. Of the 1,129 wells drilled in the state since 1954, almost 90 percent have been dry holes (2014 data). Apache County in the northeast corner of the state remains the only petroleum-producing county.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.