Six years before Oklahoma statehood, the 1901 Red Fork oil discovery near Tulsa set the town on its journey to becoming “Oil Capital of the World.”

red fork oil

Dedicated during the 2007 Oklahoma centennial, a circa 1950s derrick commemorates the 1901 Red Fork discovery well. Photo courtesy Route 66 Historic Village.

Attracted to Indian Territory following an 1897 discovery at Bartlesville – read First Oklahoma Oil Well – two experienced drillers from the Pennsylvania fields found oil in the Creek Indian Nation on June 25, 1901.

They drilled with steam boilers powering cable tools, a technology still evolving from the start of U.S. petroleum industry in 1859 along Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

After leasing thousands of acres in the Creek Nation, John S. Wick and Jesse A. Heydrick spudded their well near the village of Red Fork, across the Arkansas River from Tulsa. It was not easy for the Pennsylvanians.

“At the beginning of the twentieth-century Oklahoma Indian lands were in the process of being transferred from communal tribal ownership to individual tribal member holdings,” explains the Oklahoma Historical Society. “This process, which made legal access to Indian property very uncertain, kept most oilmen away from areas under Indian control.”

The exploratory well was almost never drilled when the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway station agent at Red Fork “refused to accept a draft on their Pennsylvania backers to release their drilling equipment,” the society notes. A loan from two local doctors, John C. W. Bland and Fred S. Clinton, led to the well being drilled at Red Fork on the tribal allotment of Sue A. Bland, a Creek citizen and wife of Dr. Bland.

Although the Sue A. Bland No. 1 well announced its arrival by erupting high into the air, the discovery soon settled into production of 10 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 537 feet. Despite the low production, the Oklahoma Territory well attracted a  lot of national attention, drawing large numbers of exploration companies to the Tulsa area.

The Tulsa Democrat newspaper exclaimed, “Geyser of Oil Spouts at Red Fork” and “Oil Well Gusher Fifteen Feet High.” Within a week, Red Fork – once a quiet town of 75 people – was overrun by people clamoring for leases. Many of the newcomers settled in Tulsa, which in 1904 constructed its first bridge across the Arkansas River to accommodate wagon loads of oi field workers and equipment.

“The Red Fork discovery never produced a great amount of oil, with most of the wells being in the fifty-barrel-per-day range, but it did produce excitement and drilling activity,” explains Bobby Weaver of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“The discovery also prompted Tulsa citizens to begin a strong promotional campaign, with the result that by 1904 a much needed bridge had been built across the Arkansas River,” he adds. “This gave Tulsa access to the Red Fork Field and beyond and started that community on the road to becoming the predominant oil city in Oklahoma.”

The city’s petroleum industry future is assured in 1905 when a well is drilled below the Red Fork production sands and reveals a massive oilfield; the Glenn Pool production will far exceed Tulsa County’s earlier Red Fork discovery. Learn more in Making Tulsa the Oil Capital.

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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.