Early search for oilfield near Reno inspired decades of unsuccessful gambling.


Although drilling for oil in Nevada began in 1907 southwest of Reno, the first oilfield was not discovered until 1954 after many unsuccessful exploratory well — “dry holes.” An early attempt for drilling the state’s first commercial oil well was an expensive, 1,890-foot-deep well in Washoe County southwest of Reno in 1907.

A second exploratory well was rumored to have been drilled northwest of town, but details about it and others are rare because drilling permits were not required until 1953.

Few more Nevada exploration wells were drilled until to the early 1950s, according to Larry Garside, research geologist for the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Modern drilling rig on public land in Nevada.

Half of the royalties from leasing and mineral development goes to the state of Nevada. Photo courtesy Nevada Bureau of Land Management.

“Rumors of oil discoveries and plans for oil development abounded in the early 1900s in Reno and several other Nevada towns,” Garside explained in a 1988 report. “Newspapers commonly had articles on the purported favorability of certain regions for oil.”

The geologist added that Nevada’s early twentieth century oil promotional activity coincided with development of the internal combustion engine and a phenomenal growth in the U.S. petroleum industry (see Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show).Exploring beyond the Reno area continued to prove fruitless, state geologist Garside reported.

An unsuccessful well was drilled by Western Pacific Railroad Company along the tracks near the siding of Sulphur in northwestern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. There was then little reported drilling until the 1920s, when unsuccessful wells were drilled in several areas.

Nevada Oil and Gas Well Map from 2001.

Since its first commercial well in 1954, Nevada has continued to be considered a frontier state for oil exploration of small oilfields, including, historic Railroad Valley in northeastern Nye County (bottom center). Map courtesy Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

On February 12, 1954, Shell Oil Company finally completed the first Nevada oil well that proved commercial. “Unfortunately, it took nearly half a century and 85 dry holes before the state’s complicated geology yielded a producing oil well,” Garside noted.

Shell’s Eagle Springs No. 1 well found oil in Railroad Valley in Nye County. The discovery well reached as deep as 10,360 feet before being completed at a productive interval between 6,450 and 6,730 feet.

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Despite the Eagle Springs oilfield producing 3.8 million barrels of oil by 1988, it was the state’s only oilfield for decades as more dry holes followed. “Although this discovery encouraged drillers and speculators to drill there and elsewhere in Nevada, the next field was not found for 22 years, during which time about 100 dry holes were drilled,” Garside reported in Petroleum Exploration and Production in Nevada.

The state’s second significant oil discovery came in 1976, when Northwest Exploration Company completed the Trap Spring No. 1 well in Railroad Valley, five miles west of the Eagle Springs oilfield. The Trap Spring well produced more than seven million barrels of oil over the next two decades.

The pace of Nevada oil discoveries accelerated considerably as exploration and drilling technologies improved. The Grant Canyon No. 3 well alone averaged 2,000 barrels of oil per day since production began in 1984. The well’s daily production reached as high as 4,300 barrels of oil in 1987 — the most of any onshore well in the continental United States.

According to the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, two more small oilfields were discovered in Railroad Valley in 1979 and 1981 (the first discovery outside of Railroad Valley was made in 1982). But the 1983 discovery of the Grant Canyon field in Railroad Valley tripled Nevada’s oil production.

By the end of the decade, more than a dozen Nevada oilfields produced about 50 million barrels of oil, the bureau notes, adding the Grant Canyon oilfield produced more than 20.7 million barrels of oil from three wells between 1983 through 2003. “The possibility of another Grant Canyon field is what keeps oil companies interested in Nevada,” noted one bureau geologist. The oil hot spot remains in Nye County’s Railroad Valley.

By 2015, Nevada continued to be considered a frontier state for petroleum exploration with 15 small oilfields in three areas of the state: Pine Valley in northern Eureka County, Railroad Valley in northeastern Nye County, and Deadman Creek in Elko County.


Recommended Reading:  Roadside Geology of Nevada (2017). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Nevada Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-nevada-oil-well. Last Updated: February 5, 2022. Original Published Date: February 8, 2016.


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