Oklahoma Lakes and Rivers of Oil

Oil has influenced Oklahoma life in more tangible ways. It has furnished job opportunities for the landless generation; many a husky boy has started in as a roustabout at the near-by field, and worked up into the highly specialized-and highly paid-labor of the industry. On its higher levels the fierce competition of the oil game has affected business and political morality. And the scrambled hell and violence of the oil boom towns attracted underworld characters from Oklahoma and other states to ply their criminal trades. The boom towns are all gone now; they grew into cities with clean streets and civic ambitions, or they dried up and died with the depletion of the field. But the stories told of their heyday when life was cheap and the pace was fast are all true -and less than the truth.

Oil development did begin on the Indian side of the state. It is not known when the first seepages were discovered; but as early as 1846 "oil springs" in the Choctaw country were reported to be valued for their supposed medicinal properties. It was in 1859, as all the world knows, that the oil industry began its spectacular career in Pennsylvania; and in the same year other puny wells in Kansas and Texas prompted the prospecting that became very active in those states during the eighteen eighties. At this latter period promoters entered the Indian Territory and helped the tribal leaders to organize companies and obtain drilling franchises from their governments. Thus in the middle eighteen eighties wildcats were drilled near Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation and near Atoka in the Choctaw country. About the same time in the Chickasaw Nation a hand-drilled well 425 feet deep brought oil flowing from the top of the hole. The oil was used locally for lubrication, but nobody recognized this as the "discovery well" of the great Healdton field of later fame.

A white man named Edward Byrd next obtained a lease from the Cherokee Nation, and in 1889 he began drilling shallow wells near Chelsea. None of them produced much, but in the Cherokee archives I once found a record of sixty cents paid to the tribe as royalty for six barrels of oil sold from this lease during the quarter closing September 30, 1892. That seems to establish the first "commercial" production in Oklahoma-until somebody digs up an earlier record.

About the same time, companies of Creek citizens made leases to outside capitalists, and drilling began at Muskogee and Eufaula. A showing of oil was found at Muskogee in 1896, but no important strike was made. It was also in 1896 that the Foster brothers, wealthy Rhode Islanders, obtained a blanket lease of the Osage Reservation. The next year they drilled a shallow well near the Kansas line, capable of producing fifty barrels a day, but they capped the hole because the production was too small for profitable operation. Again, in 1897 oil was discovered in the Cherokee Nation in what is now the Johnstone Park in Bartlesville. But it was not marketed for several years, partly because of lack of transportation facilities-the drilling rig had been hauled seventy miles overland to the location -- and partly because the Dawes Commission was even then taking steps to divide the Cherokee land.

Meanwhile Tulsa started on its way through a greatly publicized strike in the Creek country. Just across the river from the lively little town some shoestring promoters were drilling at the tiny hamlet of Red Fork. On June 25, 1901 -- no good Tulsan has ever forgotten the date -- a little gas-driven oil sprayed feebly from the hole. Carefully planted headlines did the rest. Telegrams poured in from Kansas and distant Pennsylvania; promoters flocked to the location; and the first oil boom-a phenomenon to be repeated many times in Oklahoma's history-was in full swing. But leasing had to wait on the transitional status of Indian land.

In 1903 the government issued regulations for the making of lease contracts with Five Tribes allottees. This was a signal for oilmen to rush to the Indian Territory, where the Mellon, the Standard, and other great Eastern interests and daring young operators barely able to finance one well all entered into the most unrestrained rivalry. The Johnstone well was brought into production at Bartlesville, and the town blessed by two new railroads began to develop as a center of the industry. A producing region was rapidly opened from the Kansas line south, and other wells were brought in near Chelsea, Coody's Bluff, and Alluwe. By that time the Foster interests had developed a field west of Bartlesville in the Osage country.

There was also extensive wildcatting throughout Oklahoma Territory, with a showing of oil in many places and one good field at Cleveland, which soon spread across the Arkansas to enter the Osage country from the southwest. In 1904 the "Twin Territories" had almost five hundred producing wells with an output of more than one million barrels of oil.

But the first spectacular production came from the Glenn Pool south of Tulsa. This famous lens was discovered in 1905 by two wildcatting partners operating on a margin so small that they are said to have cut expenses by drilling without a casing. It soon became the most sensational small field in the world. As every operator raced to tap the rich sand in as many places as possible ahead of his rivals, production soon outran transportation. Millions of barrels of oil spouted from the wells and were caught in "earthen tanks" (just ponds) or flowed down the creeks. Eventually pipe lines were constructed -- to the Standard refineries at Whiting, Indiana, and to the refineries and exporting terminals of The Texas Company and the Gulf Oil Corporation on the Gulf of Mexico. In the summer of 1907 the pool had 516 wells producing 117,440 barrels of oil a day. When Oklahoma was admitted to statehood that year, it had a production of 43,500,000 barrels, 26.2 per cent of the nation's output, almost half of this coming from the Glenn Pool. Many Oklahomans whose names are still notable in oil history got their start from this rich field.
For the next twenty years Oklahoma alternated with California as the leading oil state. To the initiate, its years of supremacy ( 1907-1908, 1915-22, and 1927) call the roll of fabulous strikes. The development crept from the Indian country west to the land of the homesteaders: through Marland's discoveries Ponca City was launched as a center of the industry by 1912; and fields were opened during the next few years near Blackwell and Garber. The huge Cushing Pool in the tangled hills of the Creek country was opened in 1912. At its peak it produced more than half of the gasoline of the United States. The year after Cushing came the Healdton field, which made Ardmore an oil city. In 1920 the fabulous Burbank pool was discovered in the Osage country east of Ponca City; and the next year a less spectacular field was opened near Tonkawa. Several scattered developments in the Seminole area culminated in dramatic discoveries in 1926. The next year the seven major pools and many smaller units of the Greater Seminole field produced 136,000,000 barrels, 10 per cent of all the oil produced in the United States. Then in 1928 the Oklahoma City field blew into production. At the same time scores of lesser fields were opened in various parts of the state. Oil derricks became a characteristic feature of the Oklahoma landscape, and it is entirely fitting that the state capitol itself should be surrounded by the slender steel towers of one of the great oil fields of the world.

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