Persistence and deeper wells launched Utah’s petroleum industry in 1948.


After decades of expensive failed exploration attempts (and a few small producers), the first significant Utah oil well was competed on September 18, 1948, in the Uinta Basin. The Ashley Valley No. 1 well, about 10 miles southeast of Vernal, produced about 300 barrels a day from a depth of 4,152 feet.

“The honor of bringing in the state’s first commercial oil well went not to the ‘Majors’ but to an ‘Independent’ — the Equity Oil Company,” noted a Utah historian.

 The Uinta Basin drilling courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

The Uinta Basin witnessed Utah’s first drilling boom following a 1948 oil discovery. A modern boom would return thanks to coalbed methane gas. Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

“It is interesting to note that J.L. (Mike) Dougan, president and general manager of Equity Oil Company and a Salt Lake City resident, had been drilling for oil in Utah for over 25 years,” explained Osmond Harline in his article, “Utah’s Black Gold: The Petroleum Industry,” in the summer 1963 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly.

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Dougan beat out larger and better financed competitors, including Standard Oil of California, Pure Oil, Continental Oil, and Union Oil. Unlike the earlier attempts, Dougan had drilled far beyond the basin’s typical depth of 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet. His Utah discovery quickly launched a deep-drilling boom.

Within three months, eight more wells were drilled and development of the field followed. Production soon averaged just under one million barrels a year from about 30 wells as exploration companies began drilling 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet and even deeper into the Uinta Basin.


Early Oil Discoveries

Long before the first Utah oil well, signs of petroleum (natural oil seeps) had been noted by geologists near Rozel Point on the northern shore of Great Salt Lake as early as the mid-1850s.

Map of petroleum-rich Unita Basin and counties in Utah.

Petroleum rese4rves were found in Utah’s Uinta Basin as early as 1908.

“The exploratory period began in 1850 when Captain Howard Stansbury, while on a survey of the Great Salt Lake for the Army Corps of topographical engineers, discovered evidence of ‘petroliem’ along the northern shore of the lake,” explained Utah historian Walter Jones. The search would continue for decades.

In 1891, the Utah Oil Company, whose board included future Governor Simon Bamberger, drilled an unsuccessful 1,000-foot-deep well near Green River. Dozens of “dry holes” were drilled throughout the state by the 1900.

Finally, in March 1908, a former gold prospector named E.L. Goodridge completed an oil well in San Juan County, “and by the end of 1909 approximately seven oil companies had started work on no less than twenty-five wells near Mexican Hat,” Jones noted.

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The Mexican Hat oilfield never became a major oil producer, but it and another discovered nearby produced enough oil to supply small local refineries that operated intermittently for years.

Jones added in his 1990 article, The Growth of Utah’s Petroleum Industry, that in the 1920s enterprising petroleum operators began testing offshore drilling technologies at the Great Salt Lake. The Lakeside Oil Company drilled on the western shore of the lake — and an offshore rig was built on a pier near Rozel Point at the lake’s northern tip. 

However, the state’s petroleum industry was still decades away from its true beginning.

1935 Well Explosion

Long before the state’s first commercial well was completed, residents of St. George had hoped the “shooting” of Arrowhead Petroleum Company’s Escalante No. 1 wildcat well on March 6, 1935, would bring prosperity to their small town a few miles north.

petroleum history march

A 1935 attempt to find oil in Utah proved deadly. Photo courtesy Washington County Historical Society.

Unaware of impending danger, between 70 and 100 people gathered to watch as workers prepared to fracture a sand formation 3,200 feet deep. An explosion occurred at about 9:40 pm while six 10-foot-long torpedoes, “each loaded with nitroglycerin and TNT and hanging from the derrick, were being lowered into the well,” noted the Washington County Historical Society.

Ten people lost their lives and dozens were injured by the explosion, which “sent a shaft of fire into the night that was seen as far as 18 miles away.”

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The accident, still Utah’s worst petroleum-related disaster, was in investigated in The Escalante Well Incident by Clark N. Nelson Sr., who in 2007 wrote a personal perspective of the tragedy, “based upon historical accounts, photograph comparisons, abstract conclusions and assumptions, following a search for the former site.”

Mike Dougan’s 1948 Discovery

“Toward the end of World War II oilmen began to accelerate Utah’s petroleum operations once again,” Jones explained. “From 1945 through 1947 they succeeded in finishing the groundwork necessary to propel the state into a period of commercial oil production.” 

J.L. “Mike” Dougan, left, watches oil flow from his 1948 first Utah oil well

J.L. “Mike” Dougan, left, watches oil flow from his historic 1948 Ashley Valley No. 1 well about 10 miles southeast of Vernal, Utah. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

The focal point of drilling became the Uinta Basin, where a number of large companies searched. “From the late 1940s until 1957 almost all of Utah’s oil development occurred along the eastern border of the state from the Uinta Basin to the San Juan River,” reported Jones.

However, major oil companies like Standard Oil of California and Gulf continued to drill only expensive dry holes. The basin’s first commercial oil discovery came in September 1948 — a well drilled by Mike Dougan’s small, independent exploration company.

“Shortly thereafter, Utah was one of the top 15 oil producing states — a position it has held since,” Jones concluded.

By the early 2000s, the Uinta Basin’s coalbed methane in Utah and Colorado were becoming one of the major gas-producing regions in the United States. Energy service company Halliburton proclaimed about the basin:

Located on a remote desert plateau in Utah and Colorado, and is considered one of the major coalbed methane producing areas in the United States, Uinta is estimated to have between eight and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. Coal depths in this basin vary from 1,000 feet to 7,000 feet over a 14,450 square mile region.

Although coalbed methane production peaked three years earlier, in 2010 Utah produced more than 8.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas valued at  $1.7 billion.

With about 11,700  oil and natural gas wells in 2016, Utah produced more than 30.5 million barrels of oil that year, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, ranking the state’s oil production 11th in the nation.

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According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2022 Utah  produced about 15 percent of oil produced in the Rocky Mountain region. The state’s five refineries — all in the Salt Lake City area — had the capacity to process about 206,000 barrels of oil per day.

Utah’s 2022 natural gas production, mainly from Uintah County, accounted for about one percent of U.S. natural gas output. When production peaked in 2007, coalbed methane accounted for almost one-fifth of the state’s natural gas output, EIA added.

Oil Shale Pioneer

Utah was home to one of the earliest petroleum companies to attempt extracting oil from dense oil shale deposits. The Ute Oil Company made “the first attempt at oil shale exploitation” in 1917, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Learn more in Ute Oil Company — Oil Shale Pioneer. 


Recommended Reading: Utah Oil Shale: Science, Technology, and Policy Perspectives (2016); From the Ground Up: A History of Mining in Utah (2006). 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 (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 © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Utah Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: September 12, 2023. Original Published Date: October 15, 2018.

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