Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters

Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field in 1930 stood silent for one hour in tribute to Tom Slick.

 

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick,” wildcatter Thomas B. Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield in 1912 and became known as the “King of the Wildcatters.” Today Cushing is the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” the trading hub for oil in North America – and the daily settlement point for prices, including West Texas Intermediate.

The owner of Spurlock Petroleum Company, Alexander Massey, enjoyed great success in the Kansas oilfields after finding oil or natural gas in 25 consecutive wells. In 1904, Massey hired an inexperienced 21-year-old “lease man” named Thomas Baker Slick for a 25 percent share in all the leases the young man could secure. They went to Tryon, Oklahoma, to look for oil.

Derricks at the capitol building in the Oklahoma City oilfield in the 1930s.

When Oklahoma’s “King of the Wildcatters” Thomas B. Slick suddenly died from a stroke at age 46 in 1930, the oil derricks in the Oklahoma City field stood silent for one hour in tribute. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Massey later recalled that Slick, born in Shippenville, Pennsylvania, in 1883, showed a talent for securing petroleum leases. “Tom would go out and lease most of a territory as yet unproved or doubtful as to oil prospects,” Massey noted. “But he’d spread as clean a bunch of leases before a capitalist as you’d wish to see…He certainly knew what a good oil lease was.”

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Spurlock Petroleum Company spudded an exploratory well on the farm of M.C. Teegarden near Tryon. As Slick continued securing leases that eventually totaled more than 27,000 acres, drilling generated excitement in the local newspaper and with other Oklahoma wildcatters. 

Portrait of oil wildcatter Thomas Slick, circa 1920.

Once known as “Dry Hole Slick” by many, on March 12, 1912, Thomas B. Slick discovered Oklahoma’s giant Cushing oilfield.

However, at a depth of 2,800 feet with no signs of oil, Spurlock Petroleum and owner Massey ran out of money. Tom Slick’s first well was a dry hole. It was the first of many.

Dry Hole Slick

In 1907, after another dry hole near Kendrick, Oklahoma, Slick left the employ of Massey and headed for Chicago, Illinois. Charles B. Shaffer of the Shaffer & Smathers Company hired Slick for $100 per month (and expenses) to find and secure promising oil leases.

Slick traveled to Illinois, Kentucky, western Canada, and eventually, back to Oklahoma. While leasing for Shaffer & Smathers, the young oilman drilled at least ten dry holes in Oklahoma, earning his unenviable nickname, “Dry Hole Slick.”

Range and township oil well lease maps

An example of township leases similar to those negotiated by Tom Slick, from the Atlas of North Central Oklahoma 1917 Oil Fields and Landowners: Oklahoma, M. P. Burke, 1917.

The Bristow Record newspaper reported that Slick, “continues to gamble on wild cat stuff. Few men have stuck to the wildcatting longer and harder than Slick and associates. It is said he has spent $150,000 mostly on dry holes.” Now also known as “Mad Tom” Slick, he tried his luck again just 35 miles down the road, in Cushing.

As “Mad Tom” pursued new leases in 1912, publications like the Cushing Independent encouraged readers to take advantage of leasing opportunities. “Land owners have everything to gain and no risk to themselves in making leases,” the newspaper reported on January 25.

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“It costs from $8,000 to $10,000 to put down a single hole,” the newspaper noted. “Unless the promoters can get the leases they want they will not chance their money here, while other localities are eager to give leases and even bonuses in money to get prospecting done.”

 

The Cushing Democrat added, “We would repeat that we believe it to the best interests of the individuals and all that these leases be granted…And just a word of warning. If you make a lease see that the lessees name is not left blank, but that the name of Thomas B. Slick is there.”

Slick and Charles Shaffer spudded a wildcat well on the farm of Frank M. Wheeler in January 1912.

Cushing Gusher and Crafty Moves

On March 12, 1912, the Wheeler No. 1 well struck oil, producing about 400 barrels a day from a depth between 2,319 and 2,347 feet. It marked Tom Slick’s first gusher — and a giant oilfield discovery. Slick was so secretive about his find that he even cut the phone line to the Wheeler house to prevent word from spreading.

Knowing that exploration companies and speculators would descend in droves on the town once word got out, Slick protected his investment. Just how he did so would be described by a frustrated competing lease man to his boss:

You see, sir, Slick and Shaffer roped off their well on the Wheeler farm and posted guards and nobody can get near it…I got a call yesterday at the hotel in Cushing from a friend who said they had struck oil out there. A friend of his was listening in on the party line and heard the driller call Tom Slick at the farm where he’s been boarding and said they’d hit.

Pump stations in Cushing, Oklahoma, where Tom Slick made oil discoveries.

Pump stations in the Cushing oilfield, 1910-1918, from the Oklahoma Historical Society. More than 50 refineries once operated in the Cushing area about 50 miles west of Tulsa. Pipelines and storage facilities have since made it “the pipeline crossroads of the world.”

Well, I rushed down to the livery stable to get a rig to go out and do some leasing and damned if Slick hadn’t already been there and hired every rig. Not only there, but every other stable in town. They all had the barns locked and the horses out to pasture. There’s 25 rigs for hire in Cushing and he had them all for ten days at $4.50 a day apiece, so you know he really thinks he’s got something.

I went looking for a farm wagon to hire and had to walk three miles. Some other scouts had already gotten the wagons on the first farms I hit. Soon as I got one I beat it back to town to pick up a notary public to carry along with me to get leases — and damned if Slick hadn’t hired every notary in town, too.

Eleven days later the news had spread. As a leasing frenzy grew the Tryon Star reported, “Our old friend Tom Slick the oilman has struck it rich…Slick has been plugging away for several years and has put down several dry holes…He deserves this success and here’s hoping that it will make Tom his millions.”

New King of the Wildcatters

Tom Slick’s No. 1 Wheeler was the discovery well for the prolific Drumright-Cushing oilfield, which produced for the next 35 years, reaching 330,000 barrels every day at its peak.

The Drumright, Oklahoma., historical society's museum at the historic Santa Fe Depot.

Oklahoma’s Drumright Historical Society Museum includes the town’s 1915 Santa Fe Railroad Depot, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Slick was suddenly a very rich man. After his dramatic success in Drumright and Cushing, he began an incredible 18-year streak of discoveries in some of the nation’s most prolific oilfields. In the Seminole area oilfields of Pioneer, Tonkawa, Papoose, and Seminole.

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Slick secured leases and drilled wells that consistently paid off. His oil gushers were spectacular: No. 4 Eakin — 10,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Laura Endicott — 4,500 barrels per day; No. 1 Walker — 5,000 barrels per day; No. 1 Franks — 5,000 barrels per day (see Greater Seminole Oil Boom).

Reflecting on his fortunes late in his career, he noted, “If I strike oil everyone calls it Tom Slick’s luck, (but) I call it largely judgment based upon experience. Some folks don’t recognize good luck when they meet it in the middle of the road. So I have been fortunate, or lucky, whichever you call it, but I’ve also done a lot of calling good luck to bring it my way.”

Wildcatters and Ford Model Ts crowd a muddy main street in Seminole, Oklahoma

Newly discovered oilfields of the mid-1920s brought prosperity — and traffic jams — to Seminole, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy the Oklahoma Oil Museum.

Slick’s leases in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas produced millions of barrels of oil. Production from his wells reached 35,000 barrels of oil a by 1929, and he was proclaimed the largest independent oil operator in the United States with a net worth estimated from $35 million and up to $100 million.

By 1930, in the Oklahoma City field alone, Slick had 45 wells being drilled, more than 30 wells completed, and the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels of crude daily. Across the Mid-Continent, stories of Tom Slick’s business acumen and integrity grew with his fortune.

It was often told how Slick once closed a $100,000 deal for a prized Seminole lease on a street corner. He met the owner on the street and inquired, “What do you want for that lease’ ‘A hundred thousand dollars,’ replied the owner. ‘It’s a sale, bring in your deeds,’ said Slick.”

Portrait of wildcatter tom slick at outdoor plaza

Thomas B. Slick is among those honored at an outdoor plaza at the Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, in Norman.

Thomas B. Slick’s death from a stroke in August 1930 at the age of 46 abruptly ended a career that had helped supply an energy hungry nation with the petroleum it needed to grow.

“Oil derricks in the Oklahoma City Field stood silent for one hour in tribute,” reported the Oklahoma Historical Society. Slick’s biggest strike came a week after he died when his Campbell No. 1 well in Oklahoma City produced 43,200 barrels of oil per day.

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Stories about the “King of the Wildcatters” and his oilfield discoveries would spread across the Mid-Continent. Thomas B. Slick, — no longer known as “Mad Tom” or “Dry Hole Slick” — joined other Oklahoma petroleum industry leaders honored at the Conoco Oil Pioneers of Oklahoma Plaza.

By the end of the 20th century, more than one-half million Oklahoma oil and natural gas wells were drilled since an oilfield discovery at Bartlesville in 1897 (learn more in First Oklahoma Oil Well). 

More about Slick and his extraordinary oilfield career can be found King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930 by Ray Miles, professor of history and dean of the college of liberal arts at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana.

In 1933, Slick’s friend and business partner, Charles Urschel, was kidnapped and held for ransom. Once released, Urschel assisted the FBI in catching his abductors, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was sentenced to life in Alcatraz.

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Recommended Reading:  King of the Wildcatters, the Life and Times of Tom Slick, 1883–1930. (2004); The Oklahoma City Oil Field in Pictures (2005); The Oklahoma Petroleum Industry (1980). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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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. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/wildcatter-tom-slick. Last Updated: November 30, 2022. Original Published Date: December 1, 2004.

 

Oil Boom at Pithole Creek

Rise and fall of Pithole, Pennsylvania, presaged chaotic early years of U.S. exploration and production industry.

 

Discoveries at Pithole Creek in Pennsylvania created a headline-making boom town for America’s new oil exploration industry, which began with Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 well drilled at a creek near Titusville. As others drilled deeper into geological formations, an 1865 well at Pithole brought America’s earliest gushers, adding to the “black gold” fever sweeping the country.

The Drake well at Oil Creek led to a rush of exploration at other local streams in the remote Allegheny River Valley. In 1864, businessman Ian Frazier found oil at Cherry Creek. After making a quick $250,000, he looked for another opportunity in the hills and valleys providing oil to new Pittsburgh refineries making kerosene for lamps.

Rare photo of Pithole creek giant wooden oil storage tanks circa 1865.

The new petroleum industry’s infrastructure struggled and transportation technology evolved as oil tanks crowded Pithole, Pennsylvania. In 1865, Samuel Van Syckel constructed the first oil pipeline, a two-inch iron line linking an oil well to a railroad station about five miles away. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Frazier hired a diviner to search along Pithole Creek, which smelled like “sulfur and brimstone,” according to historian Douglas Wayne Houck. “He went to the creek and followed the diviner around until the forked twig dipped, pointing to a specific spot on the ground,” Houck noted in 2014.

With the science of petroleum geology still in the future, the young U.S. oil industry already had begun drilling its first “dry holes.”

Pennsylvania Oil Geysers

Although Ian Frazier’s United States Oil Company’s steam powered, cable-tool derrick first drilled a dry hole,  a second well erupted spectacularly on January 7, 1865, producing 650 barrels of oil a day. The Frazier well, proclaimed by historian Houck as the first U.S. oil gusher, brought a flood of drillers and speculators to Pithole Creek.

Two more wells erupted black geysers on January 17 and January 19, each flowing at about 800 barrels of oil a day (invention of a practical blowout preventer was still half a century away).

The Titusville Herald proclaimed Pithole as having “probably the most productive wells in the oil region of Pennsylvania, Houck explained in his Energy & Light in Nineteenth-Century Western New York.

United States Oil Company subdivided its property and began selling lots for $3,000 per half-acre plot. 

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Fortunes were being made and lost in the oil regions — see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.”

As the news spread through Venango County, “everyone came to the Pithole area to try their luck,” noted one reporter. Many were Confederate and Union war veterans. And as more successful wells came in, about 3,000 teamsters rushed to Pithole to haul out the barrels of oil. It was hard to keep up.

A diorama recreation of Pithole, Pennsylvania, hotels and businesses and muddy streets circa late 1860s.

Managed by the Drake Well Museum, the Pithole Visitors Center includes a diorama of the vanished boom town. Photo by Bruce Wells.

There were many reasons behind the Pithole oil boom, including a flood of paper money at the end of the Civil War. Many returning Union veterans had currency and were eager to invest — especially after reading newspaper articles about oil gushers and boom towns. Thousands of veterans also wanted jobs after long months on army pay.

By May 1865, the town was home to 57 hotels, many shops, and its own daily newspaper. It had the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania — handling 5,500 pieces of mail a day.

Lady Macbeth

In December 1865, Shakespearean tragedienne Miss Eloise Bridges appeared as Lady Macbeth in America’s first famously notorious oil boom town.

Actress Eloise Bridges in 1865.

Shakespearean tragedienne Eloise Bridges in 1865.

Bridges appeared at Murphy’s Theater, the biggest building in a town of more than 30,000 teamsters, coopers, lease-traders, roughnecks, and merchants. Three-stories high, the building had 1,100 seats, a 40-foot stage, an orchestra, and chandelier lighting by Tiffany.

Bridges was the acclaimed darling of the Pithole stage. Eight months after she departed for new engagements in Ohio, the oilfield at Pithole ran dry; the most famous U.S. boom town collapsed into empty streets and abandoned buildings.

Pennsylvania oil region visitors today walk the grass streets of the first oil boom ghost town.

First Oil Pipeline

As Pithole oil tanks overflowed (and tank fires from accidents and lightening strikes increased), oil shipper Samuel Van Syckel conceived an infrastructure solution that became an engineering milestone.

In 1865, his newly formed Oil Transportation Association put into service a two-inch iron line linking the Frazier well to the Miller Farm Oil Creek Railroad Station, about five miles away.

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“The day that the Van Syckel pipe-line began to run oil a revolution began in the business. After the Drake well it is the most important event in the history of the Oil Regions,” declared Ida Tarbell about the technology in her 1904 book, History of the Standard Oil Company.

A park and oilfield boiler center at Pithole Creek, PA.

Today, visitors can walk the grassy paths of Pithole’s former streets and see vintage equipment, including antique steam boilers. Volunteers “mow the streets.” Photo by Bruce Wells.

With 15-foot welded joints and three 10-horsepower Reed and Cogswell steam pumps, the pipeline transported 80 barrels of oil per hour — the equivalent of 300 teamster wagons working for 10 hours. Convinced their livelihood was threatened, teamsters attempted to sabotage the oil pipeline until armed guards intervened.

Unfortunately for Van Syckel, Pithole oil storage tanks continued to catch fire even as the Frazier well production began to decline. Other wells were beginning to run dry when in 1866, fires spread out of control and burned 30 buildings, 30 oil wells and 20,000 barrels of oil.

“Pithole’s days were numbered,” concluded historian Houck about the fire, which was documented by early oilfield photographer John H. Mather. “Buildings were taken down and carted off. A few people hung around until 1867.”

Samuel Van Syckel plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum

The American Petroleum Institute in 1959 dedicated a plaque on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum as part of the U.S. oil centennial.

From beginning to end, America’s famous oil boom town had lasted about 500 days. Pithole was  added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 20, 1973.

Today, a visitors’ center added in 1975 is maintained by the Drake Well Museum. The center contains exhibits, including a scale model of the city at its peak and a small theater. Volunteers “mow the streets” on the hillside so that tourists can stroll where the petroleum boom town once flourished.

Among the Pennsylvania oil region’s earliest — and most infamous — investors was the actor John Wilkes Booth (see the Dramatic Oil Company).

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Oil Town Aero Views

During the late 19th century, “bird’s-eye views” became a widely popular way to map U.S. cities and towns. Artist Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler created many of the best panoramic views that he also called “aero views .” The wealthy Pennsylvania oil regions attracted his attention. In 1885, the Fowler family moved to Morrisville, where he worked for the next 25 years. 

An 1896

An 1896 “aero view” map of Titusville, Pennsylvania, by Thaddeus M. Fowler, courtesy Library of Congress.

Fowler drew maps of Titusville, Oil City, and many petroleum-related boom towns in West Virginia, Ohio — and Texas, where he created dozens of views of cities from 1890 to 1891. But by far, most of his work features Pennsylvania cities between 1872 and 1922 — almost 250 now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Learn more in Oil Town “Aero Views.

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Recommended Reading:  Energy & Light in Nineteenth-Century Western New York (2014); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pennsylvania, Images of America (2000); The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny (2007); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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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. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Boom at Pithole Creek.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/pithole-creek/. Last Updated: November 25, 2022. Original Published Date: March 15, 2014.

 

Oil Queen of California

The remarkable woman who took control of the Los Angeles oil market.

 

“A woman with a genius for affairs – it may sound paradoxical, but the fact exists. If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets.” – July 21, 1901, San Francisco Call newspaper.

Emma A. McCutchen Summers would become a woman to be reckoned with in the early Los Angeles petroleum industry. A refined southern lady who graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, Summers moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to teach piano. (more…)

First Kansas Oil Well

Natural gas discoveries and an 1892 oil well at Neodesha revealed giant Mid-Continent fields.

 

Small amounts of oil found in 1892 at Neodesha in eastern Kansas would be called the first commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi River — although the driller had been searching for natural gas. The search for the state’s petroleum resources had begun decades earlier.

In 1860, George Brown, a newspaperman in Kansas Territory, recalled stories about an oil spring in Lykins County. Brown, who had arrived a few years earlier from the Pennsylvania oil regions, gathered a few partners and drilled three shallow wells one mile east of Paola.

One year earlier, America’s first commercial oil well had been drilled near Titusville, Pennsylvania, creating a new kind of entrepreneur that began searching for oil seeps in other states. Refineries wanted the “rock oil” to make a popular lamp fuel, kerosene.

School bus at Kansas Oil Museum and derrick of oil discovery well in Neodesha.

The Norman No. 1 Well Museum in Neodesha, Kansas, preserves the state’s extensive oil heritage. Top photo by Tim Wells.

After two failed attempts — dry holes — the third well had reached about 100 feet deep on Baptist Indian Mission grounds owned by David Lykins when it produced a few barrels of oil. But the Civil War ended his quest for oil riches.

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Although other exploration companies returned to Lykins County (renamed Miami County in 1861) after the war, it would be almost two decades before Kansas became a producing state — thanks to a natural gas discovery.
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Making Tulsa “Oil Capital of the World”

Among the great Oklahoma oilfield discoveries, the 1905 Glenn Pool helped Sinclair, Getty and others get started.

 

Greater than even the 1901 Spindletop discovery in Texas, Oklahoma Territory’s Glenn Pool field produced a “light and sweet” oil from the Creek Indian Reservation. It would help make Tulsa the “Oil Capital of the World.”

On a chilly fall morning in 1905 — two years before Oklahoma became a state — oil was discovered on the Glenn family farm south of Tulsa. The well launched a drilling boom that greatly exceeded the first Oklahoma oil well of 1897 at Bartlesville; hundreds of wells were soon producing so much oil that the entire region was soon called the Glen Pool (or Glenn Pool), now the Tulsa suburb Glenpool.

Greetings from Tulsa "Oil Capital of the World" old postcard.

By 1920, Tulsa is home to 400 petroleum companies, two daily newspapers, seven banks, four telegraph companies — and 10,000 telephones.

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Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory

Businesswoman prospered in booming turn-of-century Pennsylvania oilfields.

 

In 1899, Mary Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” prospered in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield. Mrs. Alford’s oilfield nitro factory cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin every day.

The 85,000-acre Bradford oilfield in in north-central McKean County, Pennsylvania, and south-central Cattaraugus County, New York, remains an important part of U.S. petroleum heritage.  There are many reasons, including Mary Alford’s pioneering oilfield career at the turn of the century.

“A light golden amber to a deep moss-green in color, the ‘miracle molecule ‘ from the Bradford field is high in paraffin and considered one of the highest grade natural lubricant crude oils in the world,” according to the Penn-Brad Oil Museum and historical oil well park.

In Bradford, Pennsylvania, Mrs. Alford's nitro factory is featured in a newspaper article from 1899.

Penn-Brad Museum Museum Director Sherri Schulze in 2005 exhibited a laminated (though wrinkled) page from a newspaper published in 1899. “This was done by a student many years ago,” she said. “It was a school project done by one of Mrs. Alford’s descendants.”

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