Oil Exploration in Washington

  • By David Brannon
  • Posted 9/15/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7446
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David Brannon has provided this overview of oil exploration and production in Washington, beginning with Native Americans and ending as recently as the 1960s.

Oil was used by Native Americans in Northwest Washington long before the coming of white settlers. They often spoke of “smell mud,” which were natural oil seeps. Early pioneer settlers became interested in the potential of oil in Washington. When the first well was dug specifically for oil is not certain, but probably in the 1880s. An oil boom developed in western Washington in 1885. A water well had been drilled on a farm in the Puyallup Valley. At the depth of 1,250 feet water at a temperature of 80 degrees was struck along with enough gas to heat and light the farm home for a time. This, along with traces of oil in other water wells, generated some excitement.

On April 25, 1885, William Fife, Davie Lister, and others incorporated the Tacoma Petroleum Company in Tacoma. The stated objects of the corporation were “The boring or drilling of wells on the land of the Corporation near the town of Elhi ... . The capital stock of this Corporation shall be one million dollars ($1,000,000) divided into forty thousand (40,000) shares at twenty five ($25.00) each.” In August 1885, the company started to drill their first well. The Daily Ledger of Tacoma reported “There is an engine house 20 x 20 feet, in which is a 20 horse power fire-box boiler and two link-motion drilling engine ... . The derrick is 72 feet high and rests of a 20 x 20 foundation.”

Actual drilling started on August 22 at 1:30 p.m. in front of a crowd of a hundred including Tacoma Mayor Robert Weisbach and Governor Watson C. Squire. The Governor used the opportunity to give a speech promoting the enterprise. Not everybody was caught up in the fever, as can be seen in an advertisement from the August 26, 1885 Tacoma Ledger that advertises petroleum in abundance, but not at Elhi.

Oil stock was promoted sporadically for the next few years. The Pacific Oil Wells Company of Tacoma offered stock at a $1.50 a share in 1901. One of their flyers stated “Do you know that this Company has one plant actually drilling for oil near the Old Town Mill and is erecting another plant at De Moines? The Tacoma drill may strike oil day ... .”

On December 7, 1911, Frank W. Johnson and the Olympic Oil Company filed a plat for Oil City at the mouth of the Hoh river in Jefferson County. This was to be a deep water oil port. Many of the lots were bought on the hopes of oil prosperity, but some were used for vacation homes. A first addition to Oil City plat was filed on January 30, 1920, by the Olympic Oil Company of Washington and A. W. Lane of Evanston, Illinois.

There was an Oil City News that published at least three issues. This was more oil promotion than newspaper, and was published by the Olympic Oil Co. In January 1920, there were wells being drilled by Standard Oil Co., Oil City Utilities Co., Washington Oil Co., Settle Oil Co., Milwaukee Oil Co., Indian Oil Co., Jefferson Oil Co., and Kitsap Oil Co. How many of these firms actually sank a bit into the ground is unknown. If one were to believe the Oil City News or material put out by the various companies a gusher would be just days away. A letter to the Stockholders of the Kitsap Oil Development Company dated February 16, 1915 is typical: “We are on the tiptoe of expectancy of providing oil in commercial quantities and alive with the hope sending the glad tidings to you. Read carefully the accompanying report, grasp the significance of the defective cable in providing this opportunity for you to increase your holdings ... Use the wire in reserving the amount of stock you desire and follow it with a letter immediately.”

The common theme in most of the letters to stockholders, no matter from what company, was an explanation of the latest disaster at the well and assurance that with enough money to push the well just a few more feet it was sure to be a gusher.

The boom in the area of Tenino in Thurston County that ran from about 1914 to 1916 was the one that generated the most dollars for the promoters and most newspaper coverage. For a few years the Tacoma News Tribune ran a special section in their paper devoted to the coverage of oil news. Such was the speculation that a stock exchange devoted to oil was opened in Tacoma. The exchange was located at 195 Commerce Street and opened for trading on December 12, 1914, by C. W. Kilbride and associates from Cleveland, Ohio. Tacoma was chosen over Seattle because Tacoma “will become the hub of industrial activity in the Northwest ... .” The exchange was to be limited to 100 at first with seats going at $100.

The Pacific Coast Oil Journal started publication as a monthly in January 1915. It was published by Harry Smith and C. D. Ball at 5437 Union Avenue, Tacoma. The first issue had a cover showing the “Ballard Well - Struck Oil Dec. 23, At 1,700 Feet.” It carried advertisements from many companies stock and real estate promoters even entire drill rigs.

By 1914 most of the exploration and drilling had centered in the Tenino area of Thurston County. A few of the companies involved were: Adjax Oil & Gas Co, Utah Oil , Mineral & Development Co., Little Rock Oil Co., Globe Oil Co. Old Glory Oil Co., Scatter Creek Oil Co., Crescent Oil Co. and others. The Crescent Oil Co. generated more news coverage than any other with dozens of news articles .

The Crescent Oil Co. was incorporated on August 28, 1913 in Seattle and changed place of business to Olympia on February 24, 1914. Emory Williamson was the secretary, M. J. McGowan the driller, and George A. Mottman, mayor of Olympia and pioneer merchant, was president. Williamson had been active in business and real estate in Olympia and obtained oil leases from C. A. Christopher. Christopher was involved in building the White Pass & Yukon and the Copper River & Northwester railroads in Alaska. Christopher was said to have spent $50,000 attempting to find oil in Washington. After a number of dry wells and other mishaps he was out of money and unable to raise more. Christopher went to Alaska and speculated in coal lands. He was indicted but never convicted in these dealings. He held a number of oil leases in the Tenino area and turned these over to the Crescent Company.

On October 2, 1914, Williamson announced the well had come in and been capped. It was estimated that $200,000 changed hands in the Seattle, Tacoma, and Tenino area. For the next few weeks oil fever struck the area. It was estimated that $2,000 was taken in at the state land office in three days for oil leases. On November 25, the public was invited to the uncapping of the Tenino well. The crowd was estimated to be between 2,000 or 3,000 by the Tacoma News Tribune. With all the excitement generated by the announcement of oil in the Crescent well, Emery Williamson was promoting stock in the Scatter Creek Oil Company and the Crescent Drillers Oil Company. A disagreement developed between Williamson and Mottman, and Mottman quit Crescent. Mottman continued to be active in the oil business. In December of 1914, Williamson stated that he had blocked a plot to stop development of the Tenino oil fields. Williamson stated that he went to the well with a potential investor from Seattle and found that his driller McGowan was intoxicated. Tools or some casing had been dropped into the well plugging it and preventing pumping any oil. McGowan made a hasty retreat to California.

For the next six months or so there were frequent reports in the Tacoma and Seattle new papers that the well was being cleared and drilling resumed.

Williamson reported the well had reached 1,880 feet at the original depth where oil was found. They found no oil so they drilled deeper. On March 15, 1915, Williamson stated that the extreme gas pressure meant that a commercial well would be brought in by midnight.

No oil in commercial quantity was found in any of the Tenino wells. Of the 500 or more wells drilled in Washington, only one ever achieved commercial production. A well drilled in Ocean City in 1957 by the Sunshine Mining Co. produced 12,500 barrels before it was shut down in 1961. To put that production in prospective, the Lakeview well in California produced 9 million barrels in the same length of time.


David Brannon.

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