by Bruce Wells | Apr 14, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
“Bond of Friendship” memorial dedicated in 1926 preserves the history of Osage oil leases.
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (his real name) Walters was the most famous auctioneer in all of Oklahoma history. In 1912, the Osage Indians hired him to auction mineral rights from their petroleum-rich reservation. By 1920, they had awarded him a gold medal for his skillful sales of Osage oil leases.
Walters, paid just $10 a day, earned the tribe millions of dollars while working beneath a giant elm tree in Pawhuska. In April 1926, the Osage dedicated a “Bond of Friendship” statute to him in nearby Skedee.
Born at Adrian, Illinois, in 1865, Walters was one year old when his parents moved to the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. He was named in honor of Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteers — the first Union officer killed at the start of the Civil War (shot while removing the Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia).
Although Walters became a deputy U.S. marshal at 19, he began gaining distinction as an auctioneer. He sold live stock, real estate and mineral leases in 2,250-square-mile Osage County.
Beginning in 1912, Walters sold Osage mineral leases in 160-acre blocks based on “headrights” from a 1906 tribal population count. In Pawhuska, between the Osage council house and the county courthouse, Walters called the auctions while standing in the shade of what became known as the “Million Dollar Elm.”
Newspaper ad courtesy of Colonel Walters’ great-great-granddaughter Hope Litvinoff. Her grandmother in 1926 helped unveil a statue in Skedee, Oklahoma, honoring Walters and the chief of the Osage Nation.
The bidders for the leases were a who’s who of leading Oklahoma independent producers. E.W. Marland biographer John J. Mathews quotes one impressed onlooker: “You could stand on the edge of the crowd and see two or three of the biggest names in America squatting there on the grass, as common as an old shoe, and when they raised their hands it meant millions. That’s a fact!”
Another onlooker described hundreds of spectators and reporters who gathered to watch the bidding. Walters proved so effective at “extracting millions from the silk pockets of such newly minted oil barons as Frank Phillips, E.W. Marland, and William G. Skelly” that the Osages awarded him a medal.
“On February 3, 1920, before that day’s bidding began, the Osage tribe presented Walters with a medal to show their appreciation for all the wealth he’d drummed up for them in the shade of the Million Dollar Elm,” the witness reported.
Born in 1865, Colonel E.E. Walters wasn’t actually a Colonel. He was named in honor of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War, complete with rank. Currier and Ives engraving, 1861. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
By 1922, the National Petroleum News proclaimed that Walters had “Sold 10 Times As Much Property Under Hammer As Any Other Man” and his friends, the Osage, became “the richest people in the world.”
Beneath the Pawhuska elm on March 18, 1924, Walters secured a bid of $1,995,000 for one 160-acre tract. It was the highest price paid at that time, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Walters reportedly received more Osage gifts, including a diamond-studded badge and a diamond ring for his auctions of Osage oil leases.
On April 22, 1926, hundreds gathered in Walter’s longtime home of Skedee for the dedication of a 25-foot “Bond of Friendship” monument. The unveiling revealed “painted bronze” statues of Walters and the chief of the Osage Nation shaking hands on a two-tiered sandstone and concrete base.
In the early 1920s, Colonel E.E. Walters stood in the shade of a soon famous Elm tree to auction mineral leases, including a $2 million bid for a single 160-acre Osage lease. Detail from a photo in Oil! Titan of the Southwest by Carl Coke Rister, 1949.
The close friendship between Osage Chief (phonetically) Wah-she-hah and Walters was rare enough at the time to warrant an Oklahoma monolith. Wah-she-hah translates to Star-That-Travels in the Osage language – but history and visitors to the Skedee statue remember him as Chief Bacon Rind.
Still standing in Skedee, the 1926 sculpture depicts the Chief Bacon Rind wearing his traditional otter-skin cap and a cloak. Walters wears a suit with trousers tucked into his boots and holds his hat in left hand. At the statue’s unveiling, the popular “auctioneer of the Osage Nation” had sold $157 million in lease sales for his friends. But it wasn’t all good news.
Dark Side of “Headrights”
Sudden great wealth for the Osage people brought a bloody criminal conspiracy of unsolved murders that left dozens of Osage men, women, and children dead – killed for the headrights to their land.
Osage Chief Bacon Rind and Colonel E.E. Walters in an undated photo.
“Osage mineral leases earned royalties that were paid to the tribe as a whole, with each allottee receiving one equal share, or headright, of the payments, notes Oklahoma Historical Society historian Jon D. May in Osage Murders.
“A headright was hereditary and passed to a deceased allottee’s immediate legal heir,” May adds. “One did not have to be an Osage to inherit an Osage headright.” Estimates vary, but approximately 24 Osage Indians died violent or suspicious deaths during the early 1920s, when con men, bootleggers and murderers began a “Reign of Terror.”
William K. Hale was one of the worst. He was accused of repeatedly orchestrating murders, tried four times, and finally convicted of a single killing. The best-selling 2018 book Killers of the Flower Moon by journalist David Grann investigated the disturbing and tragic stories.
On April 22, 1926, hundreds gathered in Skedee, Oklahoma, for the unveiling of the 25-foot “Bond of Friendship” monument honoring the chief of the Osage Nation and the state’s greatest auctioneer of mineral rights.
Sadly, Oklahoma news media ignored the reservation’s murders – and the murderers. Newspapers there and around the country instead featured scandalous stories of incredible Osage wealth squandered on Pierce-Arrows and gaudy fashion. As Osage Indians died, reporters mocked the tribe with sarcasm and caricatures.
Like the town, the “Bond of Friendship” of Skedee, Oklahoma, has deteriorated since 1926. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.
In his 1994 book, Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation, Washington Post journalist Dennis McAuliffe noted little wonder that, “this period in our history hardly dances with awareness.”
After almost a century, the Skedee “Bond of Friendship” monument began showing its age. The legacy of the once famous friendship has provided some slight merriment for at least one contributor to Roadside America:
Although a traditionalist in customs, Chief Bacon Rind’s leadership earned his people millions from oil and natural gas resources.
“The lesson imparted here is that white and red can be harmonious — if you just add a little green…Atop a blocky concrete pillar stands the Chief and the Colonel, facing each other, shaking hands. The work is primitive for such well-oiled honorees: the pillar is plastered cinder block around old oil pipes, while the Chief and the Colonel appear to be made of Play-Doh spray-painted silver. The distended lower half of the Chief, in particular, looks as if he’s carrying a space alien seed pod that is about to burst.”
According to more dependable sources, Chief Bacon Rind, “a statuesque man at six feet four inches,” perhaps the most photographed of all Native Americans.
The Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration noted the chief was frequently asked to pose for the prominent artists of the day “and created an image of the romantic ideal of the American Indian.”
Chief Bacon Rind died in 1932 and Walters followed in 1946. The population of Skedee peaked in 1910; a century later fewer than 50 residents remained. The tall but weathered monument remains in the center of town.
Walters, an amateur poet, had his hopes for the future carved into his hometown monument’s base:
…I will build for them a landmark,
That the coming race may see,
All the beauties of the friendship,
That exists ‘tween them and me…
And explain it to grandchildren,
as they sit upon their knee.
Preserving Osage Oil Stories
In 2018, an Osage writer decided to look deeper into Walter’s life and times. Already an author of several books about Osage history, Anna Marie Jefferson a year later published her 2019 book, Colonel E. Walters: Auctioneer for the Osage Lease Sales During the early 20th-Century. Her research includes local newspaper accounts and rare images from his career.
Osage writer Anna Marie Jefferson published a book about the Colonel Walters in 2019.
Jefferson, who grew up in Osage County, remembered visiting the statue as a child in neighboring Pawnee County. “As an Osage (Sac and Fox/Pawnee as well) I was unaware of who Colonel E. Walters was, the man on top of the memorial.”
Familiar with Osage leader Bacon Rind, Jefferson began researching the life of Walters and his famed long career as a skilled auctioneer.
“When traveling the Osage, sometimes one needs to go just beyond the county lines to find early Osage Nation,” she explained in her book’s introduction. “Such is the case with the Bond of Friendship monument in the small town of Skedee, Oklahoma.”
Recommended Reading: The Underground Reservation: Osage Oil (1985); Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2018); Colonel E. Walters: Auctioneer for the Osage Lease Sales During the early 20th-Century (2019). 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 email@example.com. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Million Dollar Auctioneer.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/million-dollar-auctioneer. Last Updated: April 14, 2023. Original Published Date: March 27, 2015.
by Bruce Wells | Apr 10, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
Oilfield discoveries at El Dorado and Smackover in 1920s launched the Arkansas petroleum industry.
Arkansas oil wells of the 1920s created boom towns, launched the state’s exploration and production industry, and boosted the career of a young wildcatter named Haroldson Lafayette Hunt.
The first Arkansas well that yielded “sufficient quantities of oil” was the Hunter No. 1 of April 16, 1920, in Ouachita County, according to the Arkansas Geological Survey. Natural gas was discovered a few days later in Union County by Constantine Oil and Refining Company.
A January 1921 well drilled in the same Union County field at El Dorado marked the true beginning of commercial oil production in Arkansas.
Surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, seven miles north of El Dorado – in equally historic Smackover – exhibits the state’s petroleum history.
When the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil in 1921, the oilfield discovery soon catapulted the population of El Dorado from 4,000 to 25,000 people. The well, 15 miles north of the Louisiana border, was the state’s first commercial oil well.
“Twenty-two trains a day were soon running in and out of El Dorado,” noted the Arkansas Gazette. An excited state legislature announced plans for a special railway excursion for lawmakers to visit the oil well in Union County.
Meanwhile, Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt arrived from Texas with $50. He joined the crowd of lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were being made and lost.
H.L. Hunt borrowed the $50 and got his start as an independent oil and natural gas producer in El Dorado. People said it was his expertise at the poker table that earned him enough to afford a one-half acre parcel lease. He drilled his Hunt-Pickering No. 1 well, which at first produced some oil, but ultimately proved unprofitable.
Hunt persevered, and within four years acquired substantial El Dorado and Smackover oilfield holdings. By 1925, he was a successful 36-year-old oilman with wife Lyda and three young children living in a three-story El Dorado home. He would significantly add to his oilfield successes a decade later in Kilgore, Texas (learn more in East Texas Oilfield Discovery).
Giant Oilfield at El Dorado
Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick was plainly visible from the town, according to historians A.R. and R.B. Buckalew. They write that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity, but did not produce oil in commercial quantities.
There was no market for natural gas at the time, the authors explained in their 1974 book, The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.
The Garrett Hotel, where H.L. Hunt checked in with 50 borrowed dollars – and launched his career as a successful independent producer.
Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”
The authors added, “among those who gambled their savings with Busey at this time were Wong Hing, also called Charles Louis, a Chinese laundry man, and Ike Felsenthal, whose family had created a community in southeast Union County in earlier years.”
With no oil production nearby, investing in the “wildcat” well was a leap of faith. Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, contributed the hefty sum of $1,000. On January 10, 1921, the well had been drilled to 2,233 feet and reached the Nacatoch Sand. A small crowd of onlookers and the drilling crew — after moving a safe distance away — watched and listened.
“The spectators, among them Dr. Busey, watched with an air of expectancy,” noted the historians. “Drilling had ceased and bailing operations had begun to try to bring in the well. At about 4:30 p.m., as the bailer was being lifted from its sixth trip into the deep hole, a rumble from deep in the well was heard.”
The rumbling grew in intensity, “shaking the derrick and the very ground on which it stood as if an earthquake were passing,” the authors report. “Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” they added.
The gusher blows through the derrick and “bursts into a black mushroom” cloud against the January sky. The Busey No. 1 well produced 15,000,000 to 35,000,000 cubic feet of gas and from 3,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil and water a day.
Petroleum brings Prosperity
Thanks to the El Dorado discovery, the first Arkansas petroleum boom was on. By 1922, there were 900 producing wells in the state.
Civic leaders raised funds to preserve El Dorado’s historic downtown – and add an Oil Heritage Park at 101 East Main Street.
“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions,” noted the Union County Sheriff’s Office. “Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”
The 68-square-mile field will lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. “It was a scene never again to be equaled in El Dorado’s history, nor would the town and its people ever be the same again,” the authors concluded. “Union County’s dream of oil had come true.”
In 2002, El Dorado gathered 40 local artists to paint 55 oil drums donated by the local Murphy Oil Company. Preserving the town’s historic assets, including boom-era buildings, remains a major goal of the local group, Main Street El Dorado, which was the “2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner” of the National Trust Main Street Center.
Second Oil Boom: Discovery at Smackover
Prior to the January 1921 El Dorado discovery, the region’s economy relied almost exclusively on the cotton and timber industries “that thrived in the vast virgin forests of southern Arkansas.”
Petroleum wealth helped Smackover, Arkansas, incorporate in 1922.
Six months after the Busey-Armgstrong No. 1, another giant oilfield discovery 12 miles north will bring national attention – and lead to the incorporation of Smackover. A small agricultural and sawmill community with a population of 131, Smackover had been settled by French fur trappers in 1844. They called the area “Sumac-Couvert,” meaning covered with sumac or shumate bushes.
According to historian Don Lambert, by 1908 Sidney Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town. He believed that oil lay beneath the surface. “On July 1, 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well (Richardson No. 1) produced a gusher from a depth of 2,066 feet,” Lambert reported.
“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled, with a success rate of ninety-two percent. The little town had increased from a mere ninety to 25,000 and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention,” added Lambert.
Roughnecks photographed following the July 1, 1922, discovery of the Smackover (Richardson) field in Union County. Courtesy of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives.
The oil-producing area of the Smackover field covered more than 25,000 acres. By 1925, it had become the largest-producing oil site in the world. The field will produce 583 million barrels of oil by 2001.
Opened in 1986, the Arkansas Natural Resources Museum educates visitors in the heart of the historic Smackover oilfield. Exhibits explain how the Busey No. 1 well near El Dorado “blew-in with a gusty fury” in January 1921.
The museum includes a five-acre Oilfield Park with operating examples of oil producing technologies. They can be found one mile south of the once oil-rich town of Smackover, which annually celebrated its petroleum heritage with an “Oil Town Festival” every June.
Abundant natural gas in the Fayetteville shale formation brought more drilling to Arkansas.
About one-third of the 75 Arkansas counties produce oil and or natural gas. By 2010, more than 40,800 wells had been drilled since 1921’s Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well in Union County.
Thanks to advances in drilling technologies combined with hydraulic fracturing, the Fayetteville Shale (a 50-mile-wide formation across central Arkansas), added vast natural gas reserves — and launched a new petroleum boom for the state.
Unlike traditional fields containing hydrocarbons in porous formations, shale holds natural gas in a fine-grained rock or “tight sands.” Until the 1990s, drilling in most shale formations was not considered profitable for production.
Surrounded by 20 acres of lush woodlands, an oil museum collects and exhibits southern Arkansas petroleum – and brine – industrial history. It also documents the social history that accompanied the state’s oil boom of the 1920s.
Recommended Reading: The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924 (1974); The Three Families of H. L. Hunt (1989); Early Louisiana and Arkansas Oil: A Photographic History, 1901-1946 (1982); Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery (2008). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Arkansas Oil Wells.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/arkansas-oil-and-gas-boom-towns. Last Updated: April 3, 2023. Original Published Date: April 21, 2013.
by Bruce Wells | Apr 8, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
Indian Territory onlookers gathered in Bartlesville for the 1897 “shooting” of the Nellie Johnstone No.1 oil well.
After securing rights to explore in the Cherokee Nation, a small group of businessmen drilled on the west bank of the Caney River and found oil on March 25, 1897, at a depth of about 1,300 feet. A few weeks later, Bartlesville residents gathered at the site to watch the “shooting” of the Nellie Johnstone No. 1, the future state of Oklahoma’s first commercial oil well.
Soon after the Civil War, America’s search for oil to refine into kerosene for lamps prompted entrepreneurs, speculators, and the new petroleum industry’s “wildcatters” to seek their fortunes on the great plains of the Indian Territory.
by Bruce Wells | Apr 2, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
With drillers and speculators rushing to Spindletop Hill, the Texas Company organized in 1902 .
A series of oil discoveries at Sour Lake, Texas, near the famous 1901 gusher at Beaumont, helped launch the major oil company Texaco.
Originally known as Sour Lake Springs because of sulfurous spring water popular for its healing properties, a series of oil discoveries brought wealth and new petroleum companies to Hardin County in southeastern Texas.
As the science of petroleum exploration and production evolved, some geologists predicted oil was trapped at a salt dome at Sour Lake similar to that of Beaumont’s Spindletop Hill formation, which was producing massive amounts of oil.
“A forest of oil well derricks at Sour Lake, Texas,” is from the W.D. Hornaday Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin. Oil discoveries at the resort town northwest of the world-famous Spindletop gusher of 1901 would transform the Texas Company.
According to Charles Warner in Texas Oil & Gas Since 1543, in November 1901 an exploratory well found “hot salt water impregnated with sulfur between 800 and 850 feet…and four oil sands about 10 feet thick at a depth of approximately 1,040 feet.”
A monument marks the site where in 1903 the Fee No. 3 well flowed at 5,000 barrels of oil a day, launching the Texas Company into becoming Texaco.
Warner noted that the Sour Lake Springs field’s discovery well came four months later when a second attempt by the Great Western Company drilled “north of the old hotel building” in the vicinity of earlier shallow wells.
“This well secured gusher production at a depth of approximately 683 feet on March 7, 1902,” Warner reported. “The well penetrated 40 feet of oil sand. The flow of oil was accompanied by a considerable amount of loose sand, and it was necessary to close the well in from time to time and bail out the sand, after which the well would respond with excellent flows.”
Named after its original New York City telegraph office address, Texaco’s name became official in 1959.
As more discoveries followed, Joseph “Buckskin Joe” Cullinan and Arnold Schlaet were among those who rushed to the area from their offices in Beaumont.
The Texas Company
The most significant company started during the Spindletop oil boom was The Texas Company, according to one historian.
“Cullinan worked in the Pennsylvania oil industry and later went to Corsicana, Texas, about 1898 when oil was first discovered in that district where he became the most prosperous operator in the field,” reported Elton Gish in his “History of the Texas Company and Port Arthur Works Refinery.”
Cullinan formed the Petroleum Iron Works, building oil storage tanks in the Beaumont area – where he was introduced to Schlaet. “When the Spindletop boom came in January 1901, Mr. Cullinan decided to visit Beaumont,” Gish noted. Schlaet managed the oil business of two brothers, New York leather merchants.
“Schlaet’s field superintendent, Charles Miller, traveled to Beaumont in 1901 to witness the Spindletop activity and met with Cullinan, whom he knew from the oil business in Pennsylvania. He liked Cullinan’s plans and asked Schlaet to join them in Beaumont.”
According to Texaco, Cullinan and Schlaet formed the Texas Company on April 7, 1902, by absorbing the Texas Fuel Company and inheriting its office in Beaumont. Texas Fuel had organized just one year earlier to purchase Spindletop oil, develop storage and transportation networks, and sell the oil to northern refineries.
By November 1902, the new Texas Company was establishing a new refinery in Port Arthur as well as 20 storage tanks, building its first marine vessel, and equipping an oil terminal to serve sugar plantations along the Mississippi River.
Fee No. 3 Discovery Well
The Texas Company struck oil at Sour Lake Springs in January 1903, “after gambling its future on the site’s drilling rights,” the company explained. “The discovery, during a heavy downpour near Sour Lake’s mineral springs, turns the company into a major oil producer overnight, validating the risk-taking insight of company co-founder J.S. Cullinan and the ability of driller Walter Sharp.”
A vintage Texaco station is among the indoor exhibits featured at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma. Photo by Bruce Wells.
Their 1903 Hardin County discovery at Sour Lake Springs – the Fee No. 3 well – flowed at 5,000 barrels a day, securing the Texas Company’s success in petroleum exploration, production, transportation and refining. High oil production levels from the Sour Lake field and other successful wells in the Humble oilfield (1905), secured the company’s financial base, according to L. W. Kemp and Cherie Voris in Handbook of Texas Online.
“In 1905 the Texas Company linked these two fields by pipelines to Port Arthur, ninety miles away, and built its first refinery there. That same year the company acquired an asphalt refinery at nearby Port Neches,” the authors noted.
“In 1908 the company completed the ambitious venture of a pipeline from the Glenn Pool, in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), to its Southeast Texas refineries,” added Kemp and Voris. “As early as 1905 the Texas Company had established marketing facilities not only throughout the United States, but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Panama.”
The Texas Company registered its “Texaco” trademark in 1909.
The telegraph address for the company’s New York office is “Texaco” — a name soon applied to its products. The company registered its first trademark, the original red star with a green capital letter “T” superimposed on it in 1909. The letter remained an essential component of the logo for decades. By 1928 the company operated more than 4,000 gasoline stations in 48 states.
The Texas Company officially renamed itself Texaco in 1959. It purchased Getty Oil Company in 1984. On October 9, 2001, Chevron Corp. and Texaco agreed to form a merger that created ChevronTexaco, renamed simply Chevron in 2005.
Although the Sour Lake Springs oil boom soon was surpassed by other Texas discoveries, Sour Lake proudly promotes itself as the birthplace of Texaco.
Learn more Spindletop history in Spindletop creates Modern Petroleum Industry. Also see Prophet of Spindletop.
Recommended Reading: The Texaco Story, The First Fifty Years 1902 – 1952 by Texas Company (1952). Texaco’s Port Arthur Works, A Legacy of Spindletop and Sour Lake (2003). 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 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 email@example.com. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Sour Lake produces Texaco.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/sour-lake-produces-texaco. Last Updated: March 2, 2023. Original Published Date: April 5, 2014.
by Bruce Wells | Mar 31, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
Drilling began in September 1950. The blizzard came in January.
Roughnecks at a remote wildcat well in Clarence Iverson’s wheat field northeast of Williston endured a North Dakota winter before finding oil on April 4, 1951. Their discovery launched the Williston Basin drilling boom.
At about one in the morning on April 4, after four months of hard drilling and with snow piled high from recent blizzards, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well produced oil. Amerada Petroleum’s 1951 discovery — the first commercial oil well in North Dakota — would reveal a prolific petroleum basin stretching from North and South Dakota, Montana, and into Canada.
Dedicated in 1953, a granite marker commemorates the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well, which had two years earlier discovered the 134,000-square-mile Williston Basin on Iverson’s farm.
After decades of dry holes drilled from one corner of the state to the other, in 1951 new technologies and determination — true grit — brought North Dakota’s first oil discovery.
Although this wildcat drilling attempt had been regarded with great skepticism, within two months of the strike 30 million acres were under lease. A 2008 article in the Bismarck Tribune, quoted Sid Anderson, the former state geologist, who was a college student at the University of North Dakota when oil was discovered.
Cliff Iverson stands by a monument on the family farm in Tioga, North Dakota, in August 2008. The monument marks the April 4, 1951, oil discovery on his late father’s farm.
“It was brand new, then, and pretty exciting times,” said Anderson. The amber-colored oil in the area was of such high quality, Anderson recalled, that “you could have run a diesel with it straight from the well.”
“This was the first major discovery in a new geologic basin since before World War II,” James Key declared in Word and Picture Story of Williston and Area. The Williston Basin would produce more than five billion barrels of oil by 2008.
By 1952, Standard Oil of Indiana was building a 30,000 barrel per day refinery, he notes. Forty-two oilfield service and supply companies had opened offices in Williston. In June, Service Pipeline Company announced it would build a pipeline to the Standard refinery.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management map illustrates Bakken Shale Formation and the Williston Basin.
Key added that although the Williston Basin is named after the city of Williston, it was first exposed in 1912 by Dr. W.T. Thom, Jr. , “a sophomore studying geology when he happened into a creek bed in the area of the Cannonball River. It was his discovery of coral that led him to believe that the area was once inundated by an ancient sea.”
On June 17, 2014, North Dakota oil production surpassed one million barrels per day thanks to development of the Bakken shale formation in the western part of the state.
State officials reported North Dakota produced 1,001,149 barrels of oil a day from a record 10,658 wells. Industry journalists, proclaiming the milestone a sign America was freeing itself from foreign oil, referred to the state as “Saudi Dakota.”
North Dakota Dry Holes
The earliest permit issued for oil exploration in North Dakota came from the state geologist in 1923. By the late 1930s, petroleum companies were working with a growing North Dakota Geological Survey to improve the science behind exploration, which often featured difficult formations, including granite, thwarting drilling technologies of the day.
According to historian Clarence Herz, despite repeated failures, companies continued to come to North Dakota and spend large amounts of money on leases and drilling.
“There were no indications from any of the wells they drilled that they were even close to production, but that did not deter them,” said Herz, adding that the expensive lessons even resulted in positive developments.
“A more skilled labor force and continuous technological innovation that included the use of explosives, acid and newly invented scientific instruments meant an acceleration of the drilling process as wells were not only being drilled faster, but deeper and at a much higher cost,” Herz explained.
The 1951 well that launched North Dakota’s first oil boom was drilled by Amerada Petroleum. Today, a gas processing plant operates not far from the discovery well northeast of Williston.
One such invention came from two Frenchman, Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger,” he added. “Schlumberger was fast becoming a household name in the oil industry for the development of an electrical resistivity well log created by the French brothers in 1927.
Although it failed to find oil in the 1930s, the California Oil Company used technological and scientific breakthroughs like rotary drilling and seismometers to reach a depth previously unheard of in the state. A well spudded in October 1937 had to be abandoned in August 1938 when the drill pipe twisted off in the hole almost two miles deep. Attempts to “fish” the pipe failed.
California Oil Company’s failure did not stop exploration in other areas of the state, Herz said, citing a report noting that most major oil companies sent men to North Dakota to investigate and in many instances to buy leases. It took the Carter Oil Company three months with modern equipment to drill nearly 5,000 feet — and end up with a dry hole in 1940. Two years later the company still had not found any oil.
Herz noted that after World War II, “From one corner of the state to the other companies leap-frogged one another in anticipation of being the first to identify an oil producing zone.”
After having leased about 1.5 million acres, Continental Oil Company worked with the Pure Oil Company to move into North Dakota in the spring of 1949.
In September 1950, Magnolia Petroleum became the latest company to drill a North Dakota dry hole. The well reached a depth of 5,556 feet, found granite, and was plugged and abandoned. Soon, however, others would come to work on North Dakota drilling rigs.
1951 Discovery Well
Throughout the entire discovery period dry holes were not looked at as failures, but as learning experiences as valuable geologic and technical knowledge was gained from each attempt.
In 1950, geologist Thomas W. Leach convinced Amerada Petroleum of Tulsa that oil could be found in North Dakota’s Nesson Anticline.
An independent oilman and investor, Thomas W. Leach was a former chief geologist for an Oklahoma oil company who was convinced oil could be found. In the late 1930s, he had convinced Standard Oil Company of California to drill a well that reached10,281 feet deep.
The site Leach suggested did not find any oil — costing Standard Oil almost a million dollars.
After World War II, where he served as a Captain of U.S. Army Artillery, Leach returned to North Dakota and continued leasing land. The geologist eventually convinced Amerada Petroleum of Tulsa that success could be found in the Nesson Anticline about 50 miles northeast of Williston.
A site was selected on Clarence Iverson’s family farm near Tioga and drilling began on September 3, 1950, Herz reported. There was little to report until January 1951, “except the depth of the bit, the conditioning of the mud, and the occasional tripping pipe.”
Following a January 29 blizzard that shut down the well, drilling continued until total depth — 11,744 feet — was reached on February 4, 1951. No oil was found. It was decided to try “shooting” the well.
A Pennsylvania historical marker commemorates the “Roberts Torpedo.”
“The practice of perforating a well, or using explosives to perforate the rock, is not new,” says Herz. Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts first used his “Roberts Torpedo” in 1865. The practice was successful and soon the dry holes of Pennsylvania were turned into producers by blasting wells with nitroglycerin torpedoes. Learn more in Shooters — A “Fracking” History.
On March 1, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well was “shot” from 11,706 feet to 11,729 feet using a Lane-Wells Company “Koneshot,” but still no oil was found.
According to Herz, perforation became a standard practice whereby multiple charges attached to a gun were lowered into the well’s casing. Once into place the charges were fired, perforating the well at small intervals, hopefully releasing the oil from the rock.
“The Koneshot was a type of perforating gun that used a shaped charge. It was another innovation,” Herz explained. He added that charges had “a spiral placement in a steel housing at a three-inch centerline distance from each other.”
The arrangement was an improvement over some of the early perforators (see more about perforating with shaped charges in Downhole Bazooka).
Work on the Iverson well was again halted the week of March 5 by another blizzard. The well would remain idle for several weeks until the snow choked roads could be cleared for passage. With the well plugged back to a depth of 11,669 feet, the work stopped to make repairs and prepare for another perforation.
The State Historical Society of North Dakota preserves a Williston newspaper’s photo of the Clarence Iverson No. 1 drilling rig surrounded by snow.
The well was again perforated, this time from 11,630 feet to 11,640 feet with four holes per foot. At 12:55 a.m. on April 4, 1951, the Clarence Iverson No. 1 began producing about 240 barrels of oil a day. The state of North Dakota finally had its first discovery well.
According to a 2008 Associated Press article, at first Clarence Iverson wasn’t pleased when seismologists exploded dynamite in his wheat fields looking for oil. His son Cliff, who was 20 when oil was found on the family farm, remembers his father smiling when oil surfaced.
“He worried a lot about his water wells,” Cliff said of his father. The farm became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Upper Midwest after oil was discovered there. “They came from as far as Minnesota and all over North Dakota and Montana,” he added. “People knew it was history in the making, and it changed a lot of people’s lives.”
The Clarence Iverson No. 1 well alone produced 585,000 barrels of oil. Clarence Iverson died in 1986, a wealthy man “who never got used to all that money.”
The Bakken Shale
The earliest producing wells of the Bakken shale formation were drilled in the early 1950s on Henry O. Bakken’s farm less than five miles from the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well.
Occupying about 200,000 square miles within the Williston Basin, the oil shale of the Bakken formation may be the largest domestic oil resource since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, according to many experts. But petroleum industry efforts to extract shale oil using conventional vertical wells historically have proven difficult.
“The Clarence Iverson well produced from the Silurian, Duperow and Madison formations, but not the Bakken, according to Kathy Neset, a geologist who moved to Tioga from New Jersey in 1979. “There are several oil-producing formations at different depths within the larger Williston Basin.”
The Bakken formation frustrated a lot of geologists for years, “because they knew the oil was there but they didn’t have the technology to extract the oil,” Neset explained in a 2012 Mitchell Republic newspaper article, “Famous Bakken Formation Named For North Dakota Homesteaders.”
The Bakken formation first produced in 1953 from a well named after Henry Bakken, the landowner. Like the Williston discovery well, it was also drilled by Amerada Petroleum.
This first shale well was on the Nesson Anticline, now known as a “sweet spot” of the Bakken, home to natural fractures in the rock, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation.
Although North Dakota has been an oil producing state since 1951, only during the past decade has the Bakken oil boom made it the fourth largest oil producing state in the country and one of the largest onshore plays in the United States.
“The Bakken is a shale oil play. It is conventional, light-sweet crude oil, trapped 10,000 feet below the surface within shale rock,” the foundation noted.
The Bakken shale play has consisted of three layers — an upper layer of shale rock, a middle layer of sandstone/dolomite, and a lower layer of shale rock. The middle sandstone layer is what is commonly drilled and fracked.
“Production was mainly from a few vertical wells – until the 1980s when horizontal technology became available,” added a 2008 article in the Oil Drum. “Only recently after the intensive application of horizontal wells combined with hydraulic fracturing technology did production really take off.”
The Bakken shale play consists of three layers, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation, Inc. The middle sandstone layer is what is commonly drilled and fractured.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2008 estimated 3.0 billion barrels to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in America’s portion of the Bakken formation, elevating it to a “world-class” accumulation.
The survey’s assessment of the Bakken shale’s potential is a 25-fold increase in the amount of “technically recoverable” oil compared to the agency’s 1995 estimate of just 151 million barrels of oil.
According to state statistics, oil production from the Bakken in North Dakota has steadily increased from about 28 million barrels in 2008, to 50 million barrels in 2009 to approximately 86 million barrels in 2010.
In December 2021, the USGS estimate for the Bakken and Three Forks Formations in the Williston Basin of Montana and North Dakota included 4.3 billion barrels of unconventional oil and 4.9 trillion cubic feet of unconventional natural gas in the two formations.
As Secretary of the Interior Ken Salaza concluded a decade earlier, “The Bakken formation is producing an ever-increasing amount of oil for domestic consumption while providing increasing royalty revenues to American Indian tribes and individual Indian mineral owners in North Dakota and Montana,”
Recommended Reading: The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016); Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society; as an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First North Dakota Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/north-dakota-williston-basin. Last Updated: March 31, 2023. Original Published Date: March 31, 2014.
by Bruce Wells | Mar 25, 2023 | Petroleum Pioneers
Some thought the oilfield discovery at Electra in 1911 was an April Fool’s Day joke.
On April 1, 1911, a geyser of oil from the Clayco No. 1 well near Electra, Texas, launched a drilling boom that brought black gold prosperity — and later earned Electra the title of “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.”
Just south of the Red River, Electra was a small farm town barely four years old when petroleum exploration came to North Texas in 1911. Excitement from early discoveries had turned into oil fever by 1917, when another wildcat well erupted at Ranger in neighboring Eastland County.
When a third North Texas drilling boom began at Burkburnett and Wichita Falls in 1918, even Hollywood noticed.
An April 1, 1911, oil discovery brought prosperity to Electra, Texas, helping to build the community’s theater in 1920 and high school in 1923. A commemorative afghan is shown off by lovely ladies of Electra in 2005: Chamber of Commerce members Shirley Craighead, Georgia Eakin and Jeanette Miller. Color photos by Bruce Wells.
The series of oilfield discoveries brought hundreds of drillers and service companies to the sparsely populated region and launched new oil exploration companies. With the boom towns making national headlines, some speculators took advantage of unwary investors as far away as New York and California.
Mesquite Trees and Oilfields
The surge in North Texas oil production also would fuel America’s Model T Fords, help bring an Allied victory in World War I, convince Conrad Hilton to buy his first hotel, and inspire the Academy Award-winning movie “Boomtown.”
As early as 1913, new Mid-Continent oilfields like Electra were producing almost half of all the oil in the Lone Star State, where the first Texas oil well had been drilled in 1866. Refineries began to appear in Wichita Falls in 1915, when Wichita County alone reported 1,025 producing wells.
In October 1917, as World War I raged in Europe, a giant oilfield discovery was made at Ranger in Eastland County. The “Roaring Ranger” well gained international fame as the town whose oil wiped out critical shortages during the war, allowing the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.”
April 1, 2011, marked the centennial of the Clayco No. 1 well. Electra celebrated with a parade and ceremony at the well’s historic marker.
Within two years of the Ranger discovery, eight North Texas refineries were open or under construction and Ranger banks held $5 million in deposits.
Visiting Cisco after the Great War, a young Conrad Hilton saw long lines of roughnecks seeking a place to stay. Instead of the bank he had intended to buy, Hilton bought the two-story, red-brick hotel (see Oil Boom Brings First Hilton Hotel).
North of Cisco near the Oklahoma border, the Fowler No. 1 well at Burkburnett on July 28, 1918, produced 3,000 barrels of oil per day — triggering another another boom that brought more companies to North Texas.
An award-winning 1940 movie with Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Hedy Lamarr, and Spencer Tracy would be based on the wildcatters at the boom town of Burkburnett.
Today, the 2,800 residents of this oil patch community host an annual Pump Jack Festival celebrating their oilfield’s discovery well. Photo by Bruce Wells.
These discoveries further demonstrated the existence of a large petroleum-producing region in the central and southwestern United States — the Mid-Continent, which today includes hundreds of oilfields reaching from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas into parts of Louisiana and Missouri.
Pump Jacks at Electra
The drilling boom at Electra, just south of the Red River border with Oklahoma, began in January 1911. Producers Oil Company revealed Electra’s oil potential when the Waggoner No. 5 well produced 50 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 1,825 feet. The discovery at a relatively shallow depth attracted the attention of a few independent operators.
Then came the oil gusher on April 1, 1911. At first, nobody believed what was happening when the Clayco Oil & Pipe Line Company’s Clayco No. 1 well erupted in a region previously known for its mesquite trees, bales of cotton, and cattle.
When news of the oil gusher spread, most people in town thought it was an April Fools joke — until they saw the black plume of oil in the sky. With a total depth of only 1,628 feet, the Electra oilfield discovery brought a rush of hundreds of exploration companies, investors — and many speculators (see Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?).
“That day secured Electra’s place in the history books as being one of the most significant oil discoveries in the nation,” proclaimed Bernadette Pruitt, a contributor the Dallas Morning News. The Clayco gusher on cattleman William T. Waggoner’s lease settled into production of about 650 barrels per day from 1,628 feet.
Hundreds of other shallow-producing well completions quickly followed, leading to the oilfield’s peak production of more than eight million barrels in 1913.
A geyser of oil on cattleman William Waggoner’s lease settled into production of about 650 barrels per day from 1,628 feet. Hundreds of shallow-producing wells soon follow.
Founded in Wichita County in 1907, Electra was named after the spoiled daughter of cattle baron W.T. Waggoner (according to Texas Monthly, legend has it that Electra once blew $1 million in a single day at Neiman Marcus).
The rancher, whose property surrounded most of the town, had complained about finding oil when drilling water wells for his massive herds of cattle.
After the oil discovery, Electra’s population grew from 1,000 residents to more than 5,000 within months. But Pruitt explained that the chaos often associated with oil booms was kept to a minimum, because much of the surrounding land had been leased. Many who rushed to Electra seeking quick profits, just as quickly departed.
Many inexperienced, start-up exploration companies failed.
Pump Jack Festival
Electra celebrated the centennial of its oil discovery with a festival in 2011. The Texas legislature proclaimed the community “Pump Jack Capital of Texas” — with 5,000 of the counter-balanced pumping units in a 10-mile radius (see All Pumped Up — Oilfield Technology).
“Like mesquite trees, the jacks are such landscape fixtures that most Electrans pay little attention to them,” said Pruitt. “But tourists do…They’d move their hands up and down and say, ‘What’s that out there?'”
“Oil wealth would build infrastructure, schools, churches, and civic pride in Electra for generations,” explained Mayor Curtis Warner in 2013, adding that the motto of the chamber of commerce and agriculture’s logo was “Cattle, Crude, and Combines.”
Festival highlights include petroleum history photographs exhibited inside Electra’s Grand Theatre; a walking tour of antique oil equipment, including the Clayco well’s boiler; a special Chuck Wagon Gang Lunch and Chili Cook-Off; and educational events for young people.
In 1994, Electra’s Grand Theatre became a community fundraising and rehabilitation project; a new floor and handicap accessible entry were completed in 2009. Photo courtesy Electra Star News.
“Electra’s downtown historic Grand Theatre on Waggoner Street has been a community landmark since 1919. Designed by the Ft. Worth architectural firm of Meador and Wolf, it cost $135,000. The Grand once hosted Vaudeville traveling troupes, and both silent and talking picture shows.
Although work remains “to save the Grand,” the theatre was recognized by Texas Historical Commission with Registered Texas Historical Landmark status in 2006 and today hosts community theatre and events.
Buffalo-Texas Oil Company
The successive oil booms in Electra, Ranger and Burkburnett resulted in newly formed companies rushing to North Texas. But as historian Pruitt noted, much of the land already had been leased. Many of the companies would depart or fail.
Intense competition throughout the Mid-Continent discoveries made drilling prospects harder to come by. Inevitably, most companies arrived too late. Many companies, unable to find equipment or afford lease prices, went bankrupt without drilling single well.
Typical of those seeking quick profits was the Buffalo-Texas Oil Company. It began issuing stock certificates to investors in 1919.
Buffalo-Texas Oil Company’s stock certificate includes a vignette of derricks. The very same scene can be found on certificates from other quickly organized oil exploration companies.
Using stock sales to fund drilling was common, but sufficient capital often could not be raised to drill a well — especially as equipment and service prices soared. Some of the company’s certificates cite capital stock of $3 million in 1923 — but the stock issue may have been an unsuccessful effort to raise sufficient venture capital to purchase leases and proceed with exploration.
Although the company’s establishment corresponds with a huge post-WW I surge in demand for petroleum, Buffalo-Texas Oil folded in 1928 with a final offer of a half cent per share. The company never drilled a well.
Like other start-up exploration companies in a rush to print stock certificates to impress potential investors, the Double Standard Oil & Gas Company used the same oilfield vignette. The certificates featured scenic hills crowded with wooden derricks and oil tanks — the same scene found on certificates of many other companies formed (and failed) at about the same time.
Read more about companies formed during U.S. oilfield booms: Centralized Oil & Gas, Double Standard Oil & Gas, the Evangeline Oil, the Texas Production Company, and the Tulsa Producing and Refining Company.
Recommended Reading: Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (2009). 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 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 email@example.com. Copyright © 2023 `Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Pump Jack Capital of Texas.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/pump-jack-capital-of-texas. Last Updated: March 26, 2023. Original Published Date: March 11, 2005.