Oil discovery in Neodesha

Students visit the Norman No. 1 Well Museum in Neodesha, Kansas, to learn about the November 28, 1892, gusher — and about their state’s modern petroleum industry.

The first U.S. oil discovery in 1859 near Pennsylvania oil seeps attracted the attention of entrepreneurs who knew of similar seeps in their states. As the Civil War neared, a newspaperman in Lawrence, Kansas, recalled a story about an oil spring.

But newspaperman George Brown and his partners did not produce much oil in their 1860 Lykins County effort. “The operation was interrupted, and eventually closed, by the Civil War,” explains historian Larry Skelton of the Kansas Geological Survey. “Though not finding oil in large quantity, this was the first oil well in Kansas.”

About three decades later, the first true Kansas oil production came on November 28, 1892. After 22 days of drilling near Neodesha (and oil seeps) the Norman No. 1 well produced commercial quantities of oil. It was drilled by William Mills – who had been searching for natural gas.

Although the well was capped since the desired gas was not found, Skelton reports that Mills, “took a sample of the oil to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to see if he could raise interest in that more oil-savvy area and returned to Kansas with John Galey and James Guffey who definitely were interested.”

They returned to Kansas to “shoot” the well at Neodesha “with 30 quarts of nitroglycerine hauled by wagon from Webb City, Missouri,” Skelton writes in his 2006 article,”A Brief History of the Kansas Oil and Gas Industry,” for the Petroleum History Institute.

The Norman No. 1 is considered by many Kansans to be America’s first significant oil well west of the Mississippi River (Colorado historians cite their state’s Florence oilfield, discovered a decade earlier).

Both oilfields were among the earliest in the western United States – although rivaled by the April 1892 discovery of the Los Angeles City field near present-day Dodger Stadium – and eclipsed in 1901 by the “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop, Texas.

Neodesha Discovery reveals Mid-Continent Oilfields

Beginning with a production of just four barrels of oil a day, from 832 feet deep, the Kansas discovery well was the first to uncover the vast Mid-Continent petroleum region, which includes oil and natural gas fields extending into Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

Norman No. 1 was the state’s first to produce commercial quantities of oil; it was joined by others to meet demand for refining oil into kerosene for lamps – and soon, gasoline.

Oil discovery in Neodesha

Oil flowing from the Kansas well “signaled the beginning of production from the immense Mid-Continent field.”

The 1892 oil gusher at Neodesha ushered in a new era for the small town and the entire state.

By 1904, Kansas was producing four million barrels of crude oil per year and, in 1925, ranked fifth among the states in oil production,” notes the Kansas Historical Society.

“William Mills arrived in Neodesha in 1892 and after examining several sites in the area, selected a garden plot belonging to T. J. Norman, a local blacksmith,” adds another historian. “On November 28, 1892, at just 832 feet, the steel bit chopped its way to find oil and the Norman No. 1 Oil Well.”

Mills immediately plugged the well and traveled east to show a sample to the experienced oilmen of Pennsylvania.

“It proved that Neodesha had the riches of oil and gas in their back yard, making the area the richest bed of prehistoric decay,” explains Neodesha’s oil museum.

The Neodesha discovery attracts the attention of men willing to risk large amounts of money on Kansas as a source of oil, the museum notes.

“The first of these were John W. Galey and James Guffey of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These veteran oilmen, with their talent for developing petroleum resources on a large scale, put southeastern Kansas on the road to success.”

Oil discovery in Neodesha

A rare photograph shows a Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha, Kansas. Built in 1897, it refined 500 barrels of oil per day – the first to process oil from the Mid-Continent field. From “Kansas Memory” collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Abandoned in 1919, the Norman No. 1 well was “overgrown along the banks of the Verdigris River until 1961, when a replica of the original derrick was erected on the old well site as a memorial,” notes the Kansas Historical Society.

A museum has been built in a city park surrounding the site – “a fitting recognition of Norman No. 1’s importance as one of the most significant oil discoveries in U. S. and Kansas history,” concludes the society.

Today, the Norman No. 1 well site – added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on August 28, 1974, and designated a U.S. National Landmark on December 22, 1977 – is at the northeast corner of Mill and First streets in Neodesha.

In  addition to the Kansas Historical Society’s photography collection, the W.A. Rankin Memorial Library also has photos of the Norman No. 1 well and the excitement it brought to Neodesha, notes the winter 2017 “Black Gold” article in Southeast Kansas Living magazine. The Norman No. 1 Museum and RV Park offers indoor and outdoor exhibits that include a replica of the original wooden cable-tool derrick.

Another famous Kansas Mid-Continent oilfield was discovered in 1915 using new scientific approaches. A few miles east of Wichita, the El Dorado field launched a true Kansas oil boom. The Stapleton No. 1 well was drilled by a subsidiary of Cities Service Company in Butler County.
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