The Ohio petroleum industry began with an 1885 oilfield discovery.
A “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 Rock 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.
“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 natural gas drilling from neighboring Indiana (See Indiana Natural Gas Boom).
A circa 1909 post card promoting the petroleum prosperity of Lima, Ohio, which began with an1885 well that found oil while drilling for natural gas.
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 Lima Paper Mill produced straw board and egg cases at its plant on the Ottawa River east of downtown.
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.
Faurot’s well had revealed the Lima oilfield, soon to be the largest oil-producer in the world.
Lima oil stored in wooden storage would be shipped to Cleveland refineries. Circa 1900 photo courtesy of Allen County Historical Society.
“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 a 2019 article in 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.
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.
In 2006, the Ohio Historical Society dedicated a Faurot oil well marker at 835 East North Street in Lima.
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.
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.
“Though 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, which in 2006 placed a Faurot historical marker near the oil well in Lima.
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. 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.”
Inventor and mining engineer Herman Frasch (1851-1914), 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.
At Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio –the largest man-made body of water in the world — supported commerce of 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 preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join today as an annual AOGHS annual supporting member. Help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2022 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: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/great-oil-boom-of-lima-ohio. Last Updated: May 11, 2022. Original Published Date: May 19, 2019.
“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. Hw was named in honor of Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteers, the first Union officer killed during the Civil War (shot while removing the Confederate flag from the roof of a Virginia hotel).
Colonel Elmer Ellsworth Walters, “auctioneer of the Osage Nation.”
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.
Colonel E.E. Walters (above in striped shirt) on March 18, 1924, accepted a $2 million bid from Josh Cosden for a single 160-acre Osage lease.
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.”
Skedee’s population peaked in 1910. Today only about 50 residents call Skedee home. The aging monument draws few crowds. Chief Bacon Rind died in 1932 and Colonel Ephriam Ellsworth Walters followed in 1946. For those who choose to look deeper, the heart of Skedee can be found 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 Leases 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 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. © 2022 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 18, 2022. Original Published Date: March 27, 2015.
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
Edward Doheny discovered the Los Angeles oilfield in 1892 when he drilled into tar seeps near present-day Dodger Stadium. Photo courtesy the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Culver City, California.
When struggling prospector Edward L. Doheny and his mining partner Charles A. Canfield decided to dig a well in 1892, they chose a site already known for its “tar” pools that bubbled to the surface.
Some historians report that Doheny was downtown when he noticed a cart with a black substance on its wheels. The Los Angeles oilfield’s history would begin when Doheny asked the driver where he had come from.
On April 20, 1892, Doheny and his partner Canfield struck oil near present-day Dodger Stadium and revealed the giant Los Angeles City field, part of the onshore and offshore geology of California oil seeps. The “tar” Doheny had seen on the cart’s wheels was asphalt from one of California’s animal-trapping pools discovered in 1769 at Brea by a Spanish explorer.
A tower moves on tracks, servicing 19 wells drilled at sharp angles under the adjacent neighborhood. Photo courtesy the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
The Los Angeles City oilfield discovery well, completed in 1893 between Beverly Boulevard and Colton Avenue, set off California’s first oil boom by producing about 45 barrels a day. Within a few years, hundreds of wells were producing oil that was being refined into lubricants and kerosene for lamps.
Los Angeles Oilfields Boom
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.
As drillers and speculators rushed to Spindletop Hill, the Texas Company quickly organized in 1902 .
A series of oil discoveries at Sour Lake, Texas, near the already world famous 1901 gusher at Beaumont, helped launch the major oil company Texaco.
Originally known as Sour Lake Springs because of its sulfurous spring water popular for its healing properties, a series of oil discoveries brought wealth and new oil companies to Hardin County in southeastern Texas.
As the science of petroleum geology evolved, some experts 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 N. 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 equipment for 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 the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2022 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 5, 2022. Original Published Date: April 5, 2014.
Drilling began in September 1950. The first blizzard arrived in January.
Roughnecks at the remote “wildcat” well in Clarence Iverson’s wheat field northeast of Williston endured a North Dakota winter before finding oil on April 4, 1951. The discovery well launched the first drilling boom of the state’s Williston Basin.
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.
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. Photo courtesy BakenBlog.com.
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.
The 1951 well that launched North Dakota’s first oil boom was drilled by Amerada Petroleum, now Hess Petroleum, which today operates a gas processing plant not far from the discovery well northeast of Williston.
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.
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.”
Continental Oil Company in cooperation with the Pure Oil Company moved into North Dakota in the spring of 1949 after having leased about 1.5 million acres.
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 wells 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, adding that it “contained shaped charges in a spiral placement in a steel housing at a three-inch centerline distance from each other.” The design was an improvement over some of the early perforators. Learn more history 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 the 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 the 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 oil for 28 years. 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 adds in a 2012 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). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society.
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. © 2022 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: April 2, 2022. Original Published Date: March 31, 2014.