Cherry Grove Mystery Well

Pennsylvania drillers kept oil production from the 1882 Warren County well a closely guarded secret.


Anyone interested in Pennsylvania petroleum history should not miss the celebration at Cherry Grove every June. This small community of oil patch historians annually celebrates its 19th-century oil discovery with the Cherry Grove Old Home and Community Day.

Oil prices plunged in 1882 when oil production from the Pennsylvania “mystery well” was finally revealed. Daily production from the oilfield discovery well — drilled on lot 646 in the wilderness of Warren County — had been a closely guarded secret. (more…)

Great Oil Boom of Lima, Ohio

The Ohio petroleum industry took off with an 1885 oilfield discovery in Allen County.


The “Great Oil Boom” of northwestern Ohio began when Benjamin C. Faurot, drilling for natural gas, found oil instead. His Ohio oil well of May 19, 1885, revealed the petroleum-rich Trenton Limestone at a depth of 1,252 feet.

“The oil find has caused much excitement and those who are working at the well have been compelled to build a high fence around it to keep curiosity seekers from bothering them,” Lima’s Daily Republican reported the next day.

A circa 1909 post card petroleum prosperity in promoting Lima, Ohio.

Postcards promoted the oil prosperity of Lima, Ohio, which began in 1885 with a well that found an oilfield while drilling for natural gas. Circa 1910 postcard published by Robbins Bros., Boston.

“If the well turns out, as it looks now that it will, look out for the biggest boom Lima ever had,” the newspaper proclaimed. The oil excitement rivaled the Trenton formation in Indiana (learn more in Indiana Natural Gas Boom).

In February 1885, looking for cheap energy for a paper mill he owned, Faurot had brought in cable-tool drillers from Pennsylvania to bore a natural gas well,” noted a 2019 article in the Lima News. His company, Lima Paper Mill, produced straw board and egg cases at its plant on the Ottawa River east of downtown.

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After the oil discovery, Faurot organized the Trenton Rock Oil Company. Excited Lima citizens organized their own oil exploration venture, the Citizens’ Oil Company, which allowed only 100 investors with none allowed to hold more than five shares of stock sold at $20 per share.

The Faurot well had revealed the Lima oilfield — soon the largest oil producer in the world.

Cable-tool equipment and derrick, a once a common sights in Allen County, Ohio.

Cable-tool equipment with a wooden derrick and walking beam, once common sights in Allen County, Ohio. Circa 1910 postcard published by Thomas & Co., Findlay.

“In May of 1885, Lima was a bustling community of some 8,000 people with a new courthouse and, thanks to leading businessman Benjamin C. Faurot, an opera house. It claimed a soon-to-be-electrified city street car system, railroad connections in all directions and a handful of newspapers,” noted the Lima News.

“The great enterprise of piping oil from the Lima fields to Chicago manufacturing establishments is now, in this year of 1888, being undertaken by the Standard Oil Company, who practically control all the oil territory around Lima,” noted one reporter at the time.

Lime, Ohio, oilfield workers at wooden storage tanks.

Wooden tanks (with workover drilling rig in background) stored Lima oil before it was shipped to Cleveland refineries. Circa 1900 photo courtesy of Allen County Historical Society.

Among those attracted to Lima was the future four-time mayor of Toledo, Samuel Jones, who helped found the Ohio Oil Company (Marathon), patented an improved oil production technology, and became known as “Golden Rule” Jones of Ohio

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According to historian Richard Timberlake Jr., the “Panic of 1893” was a serious economic depression in the United States. Like a similar nationwide financial collapse two decades earlier, it was marked by the overbuilding of railroads, resulting in a series of bank failures.

 Faurot oil well historical marker in Lima, Ohio.

In 2006, the Ohio Historical Society dedicated a Faurot oil well marker at 835 East North Street in Lima.

 By 1886, Lima was the most productive oilfield in America after producing more than 20 million barrels of oil. Much of the oil was “heavy” — thick and sulfurous — but by the following year Lima oilfields led the world in production.

Although short-lived, “the oil rush brought an influx of people, pipelines, refineries, and businesses, giving a powerful impetus to the growth of northwest Ohio,” concluded the Allen County Historical Society.

After developing a new method for refining the heavy Lima oil, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began construction on its Whiting refinery in 1889.

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The company used improved pipeline technologies to deliver refined Lima oil to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There, at 72.5 cents per barrel, Standard Oil fueled the world’s largest steam boiler installation at the time. Chicago’s fair ultimately attracted 27.5 million visitors.

Refining Sulfurous “Lima Oil”

A emigrant German chemist would bring Ohio oil riches to John D. Rockefeller. On February 21, 1887, Herman Frasch applied to patent a new process for eliminating sulfur from “skunk-bearing oils.”

Portrait of Standard Oil chemist Herman Frasch, later known as the "Sulfur King."

Inventor and mining engineer Herman Frasch (1851-1914), the Standard Oil chemist later known as the “Sulfur King.”

The former employee of Standard Oil of New Jersey, was quickly rehired. Rockefeller had acquired some of the Lima oilfields for bargain prices because the wells produced a thick, sulfurous oil. Despite its difficulty to refine, the petroleum tycoon had accumulated a 40-million-barrel stockpile of the cheap, sour “Lima oil.”

Standard Oil Company bought Frasch’s patent for a copper-oxide refining process to “sweeten” the oil. By the early 1890s, the company’s new Whiting oil refinery east of Chicago was producing odorless kerosene from desulfurized oil, making Rockefeller a fortune.

Paid in Standard Oil shares and becoming very wealthy, Frasch moved to Louisiana — where the skilled chemist and mining engineer invented a new method to extract sulfur from underground deposits by injecting superheated water into wells. By 1911, multimillionaire Frasch was known as the “Sulfur King.”

In 2006, the Allen County Historical Society placed an Ohio historical marker near Benjamin C. Faurot’s oilfield discovery well site at the North Street crossing of the Ottawa River in Lima.

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Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio — the largest man-made body of water in the world — supported commerce on the Erie Canal beginning in 1845. By late 1880s, Mercer County was producing oil from wells pumping on platforms on the lake. Learn more in Ohio Offshore Oil wells.


Recommended Reading:  Ohio Oil and Gas (2008); Where it All Began: The story of the people and places where the oil & gas industry began: West Virginia and southeastern Ohio (1994); Herman Frasch -The Sulphur King (2013). 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. Please become an annual AOGHS supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Great Oil Boom of Lima Ohio.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: May 9, 2024. Original Published Date: May 19, 2019.

Discovering Los Angeles Oilfields

Natural oil seeps, giant oilfields, and the beginning of the California petroleum industry.


“Everyone thinks of Los Angeles as the ultimate car city, but the city’s relationship with petroleum products is far more significant than just consumption.” — Center for Land Use Interpretation

When struggling prospector Edward L. Doheny and his mining partner Charles Canfield decided to dig a well in 1892, they chose a site already known for its “tar” pools that bubbled to the surface. (more…)

First Arkansas Oil Wells

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. 

Surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, seven miles north of El Dorado, the equally historic Smackover oilfield museum exhibits the state's petroleum history.

Surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in the Smackover oilfield preserves the state’s petroleum history seven miles north of equally historic El Dorado.

A January 1921 well drilled in the same Union County field at El Dorado marked the true beginning of commercial oil production in Arkansas.

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.

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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.

The Garrett Hotel, where H.L. Hunt checked in with 50 borrowed dollar and launched his long career as a successful independent oil 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.

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“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.

Arkansas oil and gas

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.”

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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.”

Logo for City of Smackover, 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.

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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.

Oil drenched roughnecks photographed at 1922 Arkansas oil well.

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.

Arkansas Fayetteville Shale Map.

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.

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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. Please become an AOGHS annual supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2024 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: Last Updated: April 12, 2024. Original Published Date: April 21, 2013.


First Oklahoma Oil Well

Onlookers gathered for the 1897 “shooting” of the Nellie Johnstone oil well at Bartlesville in Indian Territory.


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.


First North Dakota Oil Well

Drilling of a remote wildcat well began in late 1950. The blizzard came in January.


Drillers of 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.

Granite monument to oil discovery in North Dakota dedicated in 1953.

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 North Dakota to the other, new technologies and true tool-pusher grit brought the state’s first oil discovery in 1951.

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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.

First North Dakota oil well where Cliff Iverson stands by his well's monument erected in 1953.

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,” Anderson recalled. The amber-colored oil in the area was of such high quality, “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.

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.

First North Dakota oil well map shows geology basins: U.S. Bureau of Land Management map illustrates Bakken Shale Formation and the Williston Basin.

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.

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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.

 Amerada Petroleum, now Hess Petroleum, operates this = gas processing plant not far from the discovery well northeast of Williston.

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.

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Following World War II, Herz noted that “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.” 

Leasing about 1.5 million acres, Continental Oil Company worked with the Pure Oil Company trying to find a North Dakota oilfield in the spring of 1949. In September 1950, Magnolia Petroleum became the latest company to drill a North Dakota dry hole.

Magnolia’s wildcat well reached a depth of 5,556 feet, found granite, and was plugged and abandoned. Soon others came to North Dakota with large drilling rigs.

1951 Discovery Well

Despite exploration costs, the dry holes were not looked at as failures, but as learning experiences with valuable geologic and technical knowledge gained from each attempt.

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 reached a depth of 10,281 feet.

The site Leach suggested did not find any oil — costing Standard Oil almost a million dollars.

North Dakota oil well map of giant Williston Basin. In 1950, geologist Thomas W. Leach convinced Amerada Petroleum of Tulsa that oil could be found in North Dakota's Nesson Anticline.

In 1950, geologist Thomas W. Leach convinced Amerada Petroleum of Tulsa that oil could be found in North Dakota’s Nesson Anticline.

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.

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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.

Plaque for Roberts torpedo (fracking) -- A Pennsylvania historical marker commemorates the "Roberts Torpedo."

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 (see Shooters — A “Fracking” History).

Advancements to improve oil and natural gas production came from the invention of a Downhole Bazooka to perforate well casings. 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.”

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The arrangement was an improvement over some of the early perforators (learn 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.

 first North Dakota oil well newspaper photo of drilling rig.

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.”

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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.”

A North Dakota Williston Basin geologic map of Bakken shale miles below the water table.

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.

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, later known as a Bakken “sweet spot,” 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 (also see Ute Oil Company — Oil Shale Pioneers)

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The Bakken shale consists 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 fractured.

“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.”

Chart depicting well production efficiency in the Bakken region increased significantly in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Well production efficiency in the Bakken region increased significantly in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

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 2020, initial crude oil production per well — well production efficiency — increased significantly in the Bakken region, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)

In December 2021, a 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. 

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As Secretary of the Interior Ken Salaza earlier predicted, “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 (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please become an AOGHS annual supporter and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2024 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: Last Updated: March 26, 2024. Original Published Date: March 31, 2014.

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