Community leaders in El Dorado were anxious for the town to live up to its name, especially after natural gas discoveries in several neighboring Kansas towns. It would be oil instead of gas that would do just that when an October 5, 1915, well east of Wichita launched a Kansas Oil Boom. 

kansas oil boom

A marker at the Stapleton No. 1 well commemorates the October 1915 discovery of the El Dorado, Kansas, oilfield, at the time one of the largest in the world.

One-hundred years later, an October 2015 article in El Dorado’s newspaper celebrated the mid-continent oilfield by telling its story.

“In 1915, about 3,000 people called the rural agricultural community of El Dorado home.” noted Julie Clements in the Butler County Times-Gazette. “They had no idea events toward the end of that year would begin something that would forever change not just El Dorado, but the state and an entire industry.”

Scientific Discovery

The science of geology played a vital role in the 1915 discovery of a Mid-Continent oilfield. Drilled by Wichita Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Cities Service Company, the October 5 discovery well revealed the 34-square-mile El Dorado oilfield in central Kansas.

The Stapleton No. 1 well produced 95 barrels a day from 600 feet before being deepened to 2,500 feet to produced 110 barrels of oil a day from the Wilcox sands. Other wells soon followed east of Wichita.

Discoveries a year earlier in nearby Augusta had prompted El Dorado city fathers to seek a geological study of the area, according to Larry Skelton of the Kansas Geological Survey.

By 1914 interest was growing in Butler county and south central Kansas. “A few positive finds had been made, but nothing exciting,” Skelton noted in “Striking It Big in Kansas” for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“Henry Doherty, founder of Cities Service in 1910, was seeking new gas reserves and opted for scientific exploration in lieu of wildcatting,” Skelton wrote in the November 2002 AAPG Explorer article.

oil history october

According to the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado, as Butler County wells multiplied, Oil Hill became the largest “company town” in the world, with some 8,500 residents. Photo courtesy Kansas Oil Museum.

Doherty hired geologists Charles Gould and Everett Carpenter in Oklahoma, sending them to Augusta, in Butler County. Gould had organized the Oklahoma Geological Survey in 1908 and served as its first director until 1911.

According to Skelton, the geologists mapped prominent anticlinal structures in Permian Age limestone. By late 1914, several Augusta exploratory wells found commercial volumes of natural gas. Several wells also found oil. These developments “chafed El Dorado city fathers.”

About 15 miles northeast of Augusta, El Dorado had unsuccessfully searched for hydrocarbons since the 1890s,” Skelton explained. The city now hired its own geologist, Erasmus Haworth, the state geologist and chairman of the University of Kansas geology department.

“He mapped a large anticline on the same formations used by Gould and Carpenter at Augusta and selected a site that proved to be a dry hole,” Skelton reported.

Undeterred, Cities Service subsidiary Wichita Natural Gas bought the town’s 790 leased acres for $800, verified Haworth’s work and began drilling in late September 1915. The Stapleton No. 1 well found oil within a week.

“Using scientific geological survey methodology for the first time, Cities Service had identified a promising anticline,” Skelton noted. “His field work outlined the El Dorado Anticline.”

Butler County’s geologic revelations encouraged Gulf Oil, Standard Oil, and other companies to secure leases around August and El Dorado. In addition to Henry Doherty, industry leaders like Archibald Derby, John Vickers and William Skelly established successful El Dorado oil-producing and refining companies.

According to the Kansas Oil Museum, as Butler County wells multiplied, Oil Hill became the largest “company town” in the world, with some 8,500 residents. Photo courtesy Kansas Oil Museum.

According to the Kansas Oil Museum, as Butler County wells multiplied, Oil Hill became the largest “company town” in the world, with some 8,500 residents. Photo courtesy Kansas Oil Museum.

“So the idea from that point forward, no oil company in the world would go and drill a well without seeking the advice of a geologist first,” proclaimed the executive director of the Kansas Oil Museum.

“Before 1915, geologists were seen in the same vein as witching and doodlebugs. They were just charlatans,” explained Warren Martin in a 2015 Butler County Times-Gazette article on the centennial of Stapleton No. 1. “It fundamentally transformed it from that point going forward. Geology was established as one of the great science industries.”

With the influx of thousands of workers, even Wichita accommodations were overwhelmed. Butler County’s population, about was 23,000 in 1910, nearly doubled in 1920. To house its workers, Empire Gas & Fuel Company (formerly Wichita Natural Gas) built a 64-acre town northwest of El Dorado.

kansas oil boom

The Kansas Oil Museum includes drilling and production equipment. The Kansas Oil Museum includes drilling and production equipment. The museum annually hosts a “Rockfest celebration of geology and oil and gas culture.”

Although Oil Hill and its more than 8,000 residents, swimming pool, tennis courts and small golf course would disappear by the late 1950s, at the time it was called the largest “company town” in the world.

When the United States entered World War I, development of Mid-Continent production escalated. In 1918 the El Dorado field produced almost 29 million barrels of oil, almost nine percent of the nation’s oil.

The Stapleton No. 1 well, which produced oil until 1967, today is visited by tourists – as is the Kansas Oil Museum, which includes 20 acres of rig displays, equipment exhibits and models of the region’s refinery history.

The museum, which annually hosts a “rockfest,” has added a 1970s Otek pump jack donated by Hawkins Oil Company. The unit, the largest one on the grounds, educates visitors about evolving production technologies. Visitors also stroll Main Street and explore buildings depicting a Kansas boom town like Oil Hill.
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