Tidbits of History From the Oil & Gas Industry

A man in an oil field.
A man sits in a wagon in an oil field around 1907-1918.
Photo: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

Struggles, Triumphs, and Contributions

When you think of the oil and gas industry, you may instantly think of Texas oil tycoons, or have an image of Jed Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies” becoming wealthy overnight when oil is found in the swamps of his backyard. While some states do not produce oil or gas, many states have a rich history of oil and gas production, along with fascinating tales of the struggles, triumphs, and unique contributions made along the way.

Going state-by-state, here are some tidbits of history from the oil and gas industry around the country.


Would you swallow a pill full of tar? Folks in Alabama did back in the 1840’s. They believed the tar was a cure for scrofula, cancerous sores, rheumatism, dyspepsia, and other diseases.

This was long before the first oil field in Alabama was discovered in February of 1944 by Texas oilman, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt. Hunt had drilled 350 dry holes in Alabama before finally discovering oil in Choctaw County.


Gold and oil drew a lot of attention to Alaska long before the territory was a state. The first oil well began in 1902 near Katalla. In 1910, President William Howard Taft was concerned about the petroleum reserves, so he issued an executive order to stop further exploration and drilling in Alaska. This limited drilling to 826 acres on private land in Katalla. In 1920, Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act, which overturned Taft’s executive order.


After more than 50 years of drilling dry wells, prospectors in 1954 finally struck oil on Apache County’s Navajo Indian Reservation. This wasn’t a big discovery, but it made Arizona the 30th state to produce oil. Around 90% of all wells drilled since then have been dry. Apache County is still the only county in Arizona to produce oil.


Before striking oil, the economy of Arkansas relied on the cotton and timber industries. The first substantial oil well in Arkansas was discovered in 1920, and a few days later natural gas was discovered. A well in 1921 in that same field became the state’s first commercial oil well and created a boom for El Dorado, Arkansas. The Arkansas Gazette reported that over 22 trains were in and out of El Dorado every day during the peak drilling of the well.

In 1922, a well in Smackover, 12 miles north of El Dorado, produced a gusher. Within six months, more than 1,000 wells had been drilled. By 1925, the town of Smackover had become the largest-producing oil field in the world.


Early oil wells in California.
Oil wells in Los Angeles, in 1905.

Around 1891 Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield tried prospecting gold and silver in southern California with no success. They went to Los Angeles, where in 1892, Doheny dug a well using picks, shovels, and a windlass. He completed the well in 1893 and it produced 40 barrels a day. Doheny, who previously had no money to his name, eventually became one of the richest men in the world. Unfortunately, his son Ned was murdered during the litigation of the 1924 Teapot Dome Scandal. The scandal involved bribery of an oil lease that resulted in Albert Bacon Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, becoming the first U.S. Cabinet member to go to prison.


Long ago, the Ute Indians realized the benefit of natural oil seeps from the Arkansas River, using the crude oil for medicine, war paint, glue, waterproofing homes, and sealing woven baskets.

Oil exploration in Colorado began in the 1860’s, and the first oil well that was drilled west of the Mississippi was in Florence, Colorado. It took 20 years of drilling dry holes, but in 1881 oil was discovered by Alexander M. Cassiday. It became the second oldest commercial oil field in the U.S.  The success of this oil field spurred interest in prospecting oil in the west.

In 2012, Colorado was the 6th highest producer of natural gas in the U.S., and 9th leading oil producer. Three of the country’s 100 largest oil fields are in Colorado, as are ten of the leading 100 natural gas fields.


Connecticut does not produce any crude oil or natural gas, but the state produced a different type of oil in the 1700’s.  Connecticut, along with Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, produced oil from sperm whales. They harvested around 2,200 whales a year.


The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.


Prospectors in Florida were determined to find oil, even though attempts produced only dry hole after dry hole. In 1939, State legislators offered a $50,000 bounty for the first oil discovery. It wasn’t until September of 1943 that Humble Oil Company from Tulsa, Oklahoma spent around $1 million and drilled 11,626 feet. They finally struck oil. They accepted the $50,000 prize and donated $60,000 to the University of Florida and the Florida State College for Women. Humble later became the Exxon Corp., now ExxonMobil.


Georgia has never produced natural gas or oil. But that hasn’t stopped prospectors from exploring since the 1950’s. In 1958, Georgia officials offered a $1 million bounty for the first gusher. That bounty has been reduced to $250,000 and remains unclaimed to this day. To date, all oil and gas wells that have been drilled in Georgia have been dry.


Because Hawaii does not have reserves of oil and gas, it all has to be imported. This results in making the state’s electricity and gas prices the highest in the country. Hawaii wants to switch from oil and gas to LNG (liquefied natural gas) which would bring down prices for consumers.


While oil and gas are not produced in Idaho, deposits of gold, silver, lead, platinum, copper, zinc, and other minerals have been found. The state produces the most newly mined silver in the country, with 45% of silver mined in the U.S. coming from Idaho.


An oil well in a field.
Oil wells can be found in almost every state in the country.

The first drilling in Illinois began in 1853 near Champaign, but the well did not produce oil.  However, in the early 1860’s, enough oil was produced to name a town Oilfield, Illinois, which is a part of the Illinois Basin. The Basin covers Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana and Northwest Kentucky, and the deepest part of the Basin is in Illinois. The majority of drilling in Illinois is in the southern part of the state. Illinois issues around 800 drilling permits every year.


Early settlers were drilling for salt water, but discovered gas springs and oil seeps along the Ohio River. In 1876, the “Trenton Field” was discovered — a natural gas field that covered 17 counties and 5,120 square miles, making it the largest natural gas discovery of the time. The field also contained the first giant oil reserve discovered in the U.S., producing more than 100 million barrels of oil.  By 1910, almost all of the gas had been removed, but about 90% of the oil remained.


Out of 123 exploratory wells drilled in Iowa, only three produced oil. The first was a well near Hamburg in 1925. The next was a well in 1963 in Keota, and the last producing oil well was found in the same area in 1986.


In the old days, geologists were seen to be similar to charlatans or those using witchcraft. In 1915, the city of El Dorado, Kansas hired a geologist and drilled the first well in the country using science and geology to decide exactly where to drill a well, and how deep to drill it. This was a huge breakthrough in the oil industry, and the successful drilling caused a boom in the area. The town of Oil Hill was built by the gas company to house their workers, and was known as the largest “company town” in the world.


In 1818, those drilling a well for saltwater produced oil instead, to the disappointment of the drillers. This was the Beatty Well, which was believed to be the first well that produced commercial oil in North America. Oil from Kentucky was shipped to Europe and the southern United States.


In 1900, W. Scott Haywood drilled for oil in the famous Spindletop oil field in Texas. Immediately following Spindletop, local Louisiana investors hired 29-year-old Haywood to drill for oil in a rice field 90 miles away, where natural gas seeps had been found. The area had nearly identical conditions as Spindletop. After drilling 1,000 feet, no oil was to be found, prompting some investors to sell their stock. But Haywood finally found oil at 1,700 feet, producing a gusher and ruining several acres of the rice field. Haywood later became a member of the Louisiana State Senate.


The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.


While the state does not have oil or gas reserves, Baltimore was the first city to make use of the manufactured gas industry in 1816. The first public street lamp fueled by manufactured gas was on Baltimore’s Market Street in 1817.


The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.


After oil was discovered in nearby Ontario, prospectors turned their eyes towards Michigan. The late 1800’s showed only small amounts of oil, but geologists in the early 1900’s believed that Saginaw would be productive. In 1925 the Saginaw Prospecting Company drilled a well that produced enough oil to be sold commercially. This brought other prospectors to the area and more fields were discovered. In 1928, the Pure Oil Company struck the deepest and richest well of the decade in Mt. Pleasant, creating a boom of new residents.

Years later, in 1954, a dairy farmer discovered the state’s only “giant” oil field. Ferne Houseknecht convinced her uncle to drill a well on the farm. This proved to be a major discovery called the “Golden Gulch.” A boom followed with 734 more wells.


The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.


Exploration in Mississippi started in the early 1930’s. The first commercial well was the Tinsley Field in Yazoo County in 1939, which was the best producing oil field in the state. Around 500 more wells have been drilled in the area since that discovery.


Early Pioneers were said to have used seeped oil to grease their wagon axles. After the civil war, those drilling for water found oil and gas instead. By the 1930’s, there were more than 2,500 wells in the state. But drilling in Missouri wasn’t like drilling in other states. Missouri didn’t have the production amounts. Also, the oil was typically shallow, around 150 feet deep, which didn’t give the well the pressure needed to make it easy to recover. And the oil was very heavy and thick, which also hindered production. Part of the solution was to heat the oil with steam, which thinned it out and made it easier to retrieve, but it also made the entire process more expensive.


Montana has only had modest oil production. Exploration started in 1889 at what is currently Glacier National Park, and oil was eventually found in 1902. The demand for oil to run locomotives spurred further exploration around 1910, as trains were switching from coal-fired steam to oil. The first major production was around 1915 near the border of Wyoming.  The first boom was around 1920 at Cat Creek, which started a 54-year industry. The boom died down by 1975, and in the 2000’s the focus turned to natural gas.


Although a Nebraska newspaper reported in 1883 about a “vein of petroleum” in Richardson County, it wasn’t until 1940 that Nebraska finally struck oil. It took 57 years of drilling dry holes before the Pawnee Royalty Company drilled a successful well, starting Nebraska’s oil boom. Oil and natural gas companies are still exploring new potential in the state today.


After a half a century of drilling and 85 dry holes, the Shell Oil Company drilled Nevada’s first commercial oil well in 1954. This was the state’s only oil field for decades, as other attempts in later years produced 100 dry holes. The next producing well was drilled 22 years later in 1984.  The Grant Canyon No. 3 well produced as much as 4,300 barrels a day in 1987, the most of any onshore well in the continental U.S.

New Hampshire

The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.

New Jersey

The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.

New Mexico

Because New Mexico is so flat, it was difficult for geologists to locate drilling sites. The first commercial oil well was drilled in 1922 on a Navajo Indian reservation. In the late 1920’s, oil companies spent around $15 million in exploration costs. The explorations reached Hobbs in 1927 with drilling in a farmer’s pasture. The well produced 700 barrels a day, and Hobbs became the fastest growing city in the country.

Today New Mexico is the 3rd leading oil and natural gas-producing state.

Oil wells in Pennsylvania.
Around 1862, Pennsylvania’s Phillips well and Woodford well were the most productive of their time.

New York

Oil has been popular in New York for centuries. In 1627, a French missionary, Fr. De la Roche D’Allion, described an oil spring that Native Americans were using for various purposes. 42 years later, in 1669, Native Americans showed another French explorer, M. De La Salle, the location of natural gas seeps.

In 1821, William Hart drilled the first natural gas well in America along a creek in Fredonia. The well was dug with shovels and the pipeline was made of hollowed out logs connected with tar and rags. Hart is considered to be the “father of natural gas.”

While Maryland was the first state to use manufactured gas, New York was the first to use natural gas publicly. Natural gas from a well was used in homes, several stores, and a mill.

North Carolina

North Carolina does not produce oil or gas and imports the products from Texas and Louisiana.

North Dakota

Shooting a well to get more oil production.
Prospectors “shoot” a well with nitroglycerin around 1899 to 1900.

North Dakota wasn’t known to produce oil until 1951 when drilling on the farm of Clarence Iverson started a drilling boom in the state. It wasn’t an easy process, as workers endured blizzards that temporarily shut down drilling. They tried “shooting” the well using explosives, which Clarence wasn’t too happy about due to concerns about his water wells. But it was successful and Clarence became a very wealthy man.  The farm became a tourist attraction, and the oil well produced for 28 years. Within two months of the Iverson discovery, 30 million more acres of land in the state was leased for drilling.


As in other states, people drilling for salt water in Ohio ended up with oil instead. The first oil discovery was in 1814 near Marietta, Ohio, when oil was used as a cure-all medicine. The first oil well drilled in Ohio was in 1859 by blacksmith William Jeffrey. A major oil discovery in the 1880’s sparked even more interest in the state. In 1891, Grand Lake had what was likely the first overwater drilling operation in the world. By 1895, Ohio became the leading producer of crude oil in the country. Oklahoma surpassed Ohio in 1902.


Before Oklahoma was a state, it was Indian Territory and home to many tribes. In 1895, Lewis Ross was drilling for saltwater and struck oil instead. His oil well produced around ten barrels a day for about a year and then dried out. While not a huge producer, this proved that oil existed in the area. By the early 1900’s, Oklahoma became the largest oil-producing area in the world, which helped the Territory become a state in 1907.


Oregon proved to be a business-killer in the oil industry. Three oil companies sought their fortunes in Oregon in the same well. First, Northwestern Oils, Inc. started a test well near Madras in 1952, known as the Morrow Ranch well. By 1956, the company had no money, and its assets were auctioned off. That same year, Central Oil Inc. was formed, and in 1966 received a permit to continue drilling the Morrow Ranch well. But the project was delayed due to issues with the Security and Exchange Commission, and by 1967 Central Oil was out of business. Next came Robert F. Harrison, who took over the well in 1968 with plans to deepen it to over 5,000 feet. But the drilling was stuck at 3,300 feet, and Harrison plugged and abandoned the well in 1971. To date, Oregon has never had a successful oil well.


The first commercial oil well drilled in 1859.
The country’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania was drilled by Edwin L. Drake in 1859.

This is where it all started. The very first successful oil well in America was in 1859 when former railroad conductor Col. Edwin Drake struck oil at only 69 feet in Titusville, Pennsylvania. One month later, a fire started by a lamp burned down the derrick, the stored oil, and the driller’s house. Drake is considered the father of the American petroleum industry.

Pennsylvania is also the first known state to ship oil internationally to London on the ship “Elizabeth Watts” in 1861.

Rhode Island

The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.

South Carolina

The state has limited oil and natural gas reserves and currently has no production.

South Dakota

While not historically a major oil state, oil production in South Dakota has been fairly steady starting when a discovery well was drilled in 1953 by Shell Oil Company. Around 98% of all oil in the state is from a 400 square mile area. Some believe the state remains under-explored and about one new well a month is currently being drilled.


Tennessee is also not known as a big oil producer, but currently, oil is being produced in 11 counties. While some in the industry believe there is much more potential, it’s possible that outdated regulations could end further exploration.


A gusher in the Spindletop oil field.
The Spindletop oil field was a huge success in the oil industry.

Texas wasn’t the first state to discover oil, but it quickly became the biggest oil producing state in the U.S. and the world.

Patillo Higgins, a mechanic and self-taught geologist, wanted to drill for oil on a hill near Beaumont, Texas. The hill was a salt dome, and others were skeptical about finding oil on the hill. Wells were drilled between 1893 and 1896 — and all were dry. Then Croatian Anthony Lucas, a salt miner and former captain of the Austrian navy, picked a spot on the Hill and begin drilling in 1900.  He discovered that pumping mud into the well instead of water while drilling provided many benefits, and this method is still used today. In 1901, Lucas’s oil well produced the “Lucas Gusher” that erupted, spewing oil more than 150 feet in the air. The Lucas Gusher led to the Spindletop oil field, producing more oil in one day than the rest of the world combined.

Spindletop created oil companies that are still in business today, including Texaco, Exxon, Mobil, and Sun.


Signs of oil in Utah were noted in the mid-1850’s by geologists for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Many wells were only drilled to 1,000 feet deep, and no oil was found. Then in 1908, a former gold prospector produced an oil gusher. Other companies moved into the area to see if they would have the same success in finding oil. It took decades of drilling dry wells in Utah to finally discover more oil in 1948. Independent driller J.L. Dougan drilled for 25 years in Utah before this discovery, by drilling deeper than the usual 1,000 to 2,000 feet. His discovery started a deep-drilling boom.  Soon there were 30 wells in the oil field producing almost one million barrels a year.


Vermont residents discovered natural gas in the state, and prospectors expected oil would soon follow. But no oil has ever been produced in Vermont.  While the state doesn’t have any known oil and gas reserves, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, since the old drilling technology found trace amounts. Currently, there is no drilling activity in the state, although it is allowed. However, Vermont was the first state in the country to ban fracking.


The natural gas industry has made a huge impact on Virginia’s economy. The state’s first well was drilled in 1898 for natural gas, and the first commercial natural gas well was drilled in 1931. Most of the state’s natural gas comes from the Appalachian Plateau in Southwestern Virginia.  Coalbed methane gas was first produced in 1988, and around 7,000 wells have been drilled in search of natural gas since that time. The natural gas industry continues to boost Virginia’s economy, with 2015 statistics showing 125,000 jobs and adding $11.97 billion into the economy.


Native Americans used oil in Washington long before the settlers arrived. There was an oil boom in 1885 after settlers who were digging for water struck oil. Roughly 500 or more dry wells were dug in Washington, but only one was successful enough for commercial production. It was drilled in 1957 and shut down in 1961.

West Virginia

In the 1800’s, drilling for salt water was a common practice, and striking oil or gas was seen as a nuisance because it contaminated the salt brine. A well in Charleston first struck gas in 1815 at a time when oil and gas were of little importance. But once the value of oil and gas was realized, the region became popular for oil and gas drilling by using tools from the salt mining industry.

It was in West Virginia that Dr. I.C. White, a geologist, tested the anticlinal theory. The theory is that petroleum and natural gas will migrate to the highest part of permeable beds and will usually be found in anticlines — an arch of stratified rock in which the layers bend downward in opposite directions. The theory proved to be true, leading to the discovery of the Mannington oil field in 1888, one of the largest in the state.

Children in an oil field in Texas in the 1920's.
Children in a Texas oil field watch a team of horses pull a boiler in the 1920’s.
Photo: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University


Some geologists stated that there was no oil to be found in Wisconsin. But seven oil companies formed in 1865 in Appleton brought in a constant stream of people to town. By 1866, Sparta had ten petroleum companies, and other towns began to see more companies spring up.   Over a million dollars was spent by locals investing in oil companies, but no oil was ever found.


Buffalo Bill Cody was world famous for his Wild West show, and even helped found a town that bears his name. But Cody was also an entrepreneur and explored other business opportunities. He was a partner in the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company, formed the W.F. Cody Hotel Company, and in 1902 he and his associate George Beck formed the Cody Oil Company. They looked for oil near Cody, Wyoming, but the company’s first well was ruined by water encroachment. Six years later he and his associates formed the Shoshone Oil Company. Unfortunately, the company did not discover a major oil strike. In 1915, Cody was planning a new oil company, the Buffalo Bill Oil & Gas Company. But Cody died on January 10, 1917, without making a major oil discovery.


Today, those drilling for oil and gas have a responsibility to restore the land back to its original condition to avoid harming the public and the environment. This can include plugging the well correctly to avoid seepage and contamination of groundwater, removing all equipment from the site, restoring the land, adding topsoil, and planting local plant species.

A surety bond guarantees that the reclamation work will be performed properly. The bond must be purchased from a surety that is licensed in that state.

SuretyGroup.com is licensed to write all surety bonds in all 50 states, including oil and gas well drilling bonds.

Call our Surety Bond Experts today at 844-432-6637 for a free, no-obligation quote. We offer low rates and fast service.


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