In January 1860, Lawrence, Kan., newspaperman George W. Brown, while visiting his hometown of Conneautville, Pa., was captured in the excitement of a new oil boom radiating from nearby Titusville.
He quickly recalled how five years earlier he had heard of an “oil spring” on the banks of Wea Creek in his own state, in Miami County.
Brown hurried back to Kansas, examined his newspaper files and found the location of the spring – and then he and a friend hastened to Miami County and found oil seeping from the creek banks as described.
They returned to Lawrence and formed a company of seven men, then returned to Miami County and leased 30,000 acres for 30 years.
Brown hired a drilling rig and on June 1, 1860, began drilling at the oil seep. The drill reached 100 feet depth with no oil, so the rig was moved eight miles downstream, where a second well was attempted – again with negative results.
The rig was moved again, to the site of an old water well on the Baptist Indian Mission grounds, then owned by a David Lykins. This time, they found oil – but the well was not commercial, and work was halted by winter weather and the Civil War.
Still, in 1990 the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Service, a Wichita reporting service, published a completion card that reported the Lykins No. 1 reached total depth of 275 feet and had produced one barrel of oil per day.
The Lykins well was the beginning of the Kansas oil and gas industry.
After the Civil War, exploration and drilling began anew in Miami County and spread from there in search of gas – there was little use for oil on the Kansas frontier.
In 1867, a well drilled near Fort Scott in Bourbon County found sufficient gas to pipe into a house for domestic use – the first such use in Kansas and perhaps west of the Mississippi River.
In 1869, an attempt to establish a gas utility in Fort Scott failed because of a pre-existing coal-gas operation. Similar wells in eastern Kansas were marginally successful, but crude oil was still shunned.
In 1882, a well in Miami County found sufficient gas “to light a city of a million inhabitants,” and that gas was piped into Paola, the first city in Kansas to be so supplied.
More producing gas wells followed, and in 1893 a well drilled at Iola in Allen County came in at three MMCFGPD. That was the beginning of the Mid-Continent gas field – a giant at the time, which occupied “a broad strip of territory, some 550 miles in length, extending some 250 miles southward along the eastern side of Kansas and Oklahoma.”
The area around Iola and to the south extended to Montgomery County, where by 1904 the Independence field had open-flow capacity exceeding 700 MMCFG.
During the frantic search for gas, however, more oil was found.
In 1892, for example, the No. 1 Norman, a proposed gas well near Neodesha in Wilson County, struck oil, so the driller took a sample of it to Pittsburgh to see if oil-oriented investors would be interested in Kansas.
He caught the attention of James Guffey and John Galey, oil producers and promoters who accompanied him back to Kansas, where they shot the Norman well with 30 quarts of nitroglycerine.
Results pleased Guffey and Galey sufficiently for them to lease all available land in the Neodesha area and drill 15 wells during the summer of 1893. That year, Kansas reported oil production of 18,000 barrels.
In 1895, Guffey and Galey (who would later be called “the greatest wildcatter in oildom” because of his role in the Spindletop discovery) sold their Kansas holdings to Forest Oil Company, a Standard Oil subsidiary, and moved on. Forest continued to drill, and in 1896 Standard Oil of Kansas was organized. Its operations were limited to refining, a business sorely lacking in Kansas. The refinery began operating in 1898 and, in anticipation, state oil production jumped to 113,500 barrels.
With an available refinery, oil production boomed in eastern Kansas. The Independence field boasted some 1,000 BOPD wells. The state production in 1905 climbed to 3.75 MMBO. During the early 20th century, Standard Oil monopolized transportation and refining in Kansas, and its low prices resulted in fewer than 100 wells drilled between 1907 and 1910.
Federal intervention using antitrust laws reined in the Standard monopoly and state production grew again after 1911.
By 1914 interest was growing in Cowley and Butler counties in south central Kansas – a few positive finds had been made, but nothing exciting.
Henry Doherty, founder of Cities Service in 1910, was seeking new gas reserves and opted for scientific exploration in lieu of wildcatting. He hired Charles N. Gould and Everett Carpenter in Oklahoma and sent them to Augusta, in Butler County, Kan. There, they mapped some prominent anticlinal structures in Permian age limestone. During 1914, drilling began on several selected sites – and nearly all found commercial volumes of gas.
A well on the Varner lease near the town of Augusta showed weak gas production, but even it contained oil.
During 1915, 11 more wells in the area were drilled – one flowing oil with initial production of 1,500 BOPD.
El Dorado, an aptly named town 15 miles northeast of Augusta, had unsuccessfully searched for hydrocarbons since the 1890s. In 1914, the city hired Erasmus Haworth, the state geologist and University of Kansas geology department chairman, to explore their area. He mapped a large anticline on the same formations used by Gould and Carpenter at Augusta and selected a site that proved to be a dry hole.
Wichita Natural Gas, a Cities Service subsidiary that became Empire Oil and Gas, then bought the town’s 790 leased acres for $800, remapped the area verifying Haworth’s work and began drilling in late September 1915. They found commercial oil within a week, and by the end of 1916 the field contained about 600 wells with combined production exceeding 12,000 BOPD.
During 1917 Empire completed 1,000 wells in the El Dorado field. During 1917-18 the field had five wells, each of which was producing more than 15,000 BOPD. During 1918, the El Dorado produced 28.8 MMBO –nearly 8.6 percent of total U.S. oil production. As of 2011, the El Dorado Field has produced a total of 307.77 MMBO.
By 1920, any commercial oil or gas production in Kansas remained east of the Sixth Principal Meridian.
In March 1919, the Defenders Petroleum and Traders Oil and Gas Company spudded the No. 1 Boles near Liberal, Seward County, in southwestern Kansas. A good gas show was present – but with no market. The Boles sat idle until 1922, when it was completed as a gas well with an open flow of five million to 10 million CFGPD.
The Boles is the discovery well for the giant Hugoton gas area.
There were no pipelines in the region, however, so the Boles was plugged – and there was no other activity in the region until 1927, when W.M. McNab and the Independent Oil and Gas Co. drilled and completed the No. 1 Crawford near Hugoton in Stevens County, for about six million CFGPD.
A year later five more wells had been drilled and pipelines were being installed locally and as far as Denver. By the late 1930s, Hugoton gas was piped as far east as Pennsylvania and west to Los Angeles.
The Hugoton and its associated fields would become “the largest natural gas field in North America and the second largest in the world.”
Meanwhile, wildcatters had been busy elsewhere in western Kansas.
In August 1923, M.M. Valerius spudded the Carrie Oswald No. 1, about two miles from Fairport, Russell County, Kansas. On Thanksgiving Day the well came in at about 175 BOPD. (The local bank had been prepared to foreclose on the Oswald farm the next day.)
This was the discovery well, and was about 120 miles west from the nearest production in Marion County.
The next three years saw approximately 100 more wells drilled in Russell County’s Fairport field. The Fairport discovery convinced many majors and independents to move in, and by 1928 wells were being drilled throughout what had been previously throught to be barren” territory.
Research and exploration continued to find oil and gas in this 150-year-old province, which as of 2011 has produced nearly 6.4 billion barrels of oil and 39.3 billion mcf of natural gas – and has more of both to find.
Lawrence “Larry” Skelton, now retired and residing in Wichita, Kan., had a 25-year career with the Kansas Geological Survey as an assistant director managing its Wichita operations. He is a past president and an honorary member of the Kansas Geological Society; past president and treasurer of the Kansas Academy of Science; and was awarded the Rocky Mountain Federation of Mineralogical Societies Distinguished Achievement Honorary Award in 2001 and the AAPG Public Service Award in 2002.
The notion made headlines in Kansas.
Earlier this year city officials in Wichita were told by “experts” that the site of a planned new library might be a good place to look for oil.
People were intrigued; After all, oil wells have been drilled in Wichita and the surrounding area since the 1890s, and some are still producing.
Other oil industry experts, however, are less optimistic that the city is sitting atop a revenue gusher.
Rex Buchanan, acting director of the Kansas Geological Survey, was quoted in one of the first news stories.
The library site is on the Arkansas River, and, “The reporter had been told that along rivers is a good place to find oil.”
“I said oil is found along rivers – oil is also found away from rivers,” Buchanan said.
“I, along with probably the majority of other geologists in town, don’t think there’s anything to it,” said Larry Skelton, a former assistant director at the KGS.
Former AAPG president and longtime Wichita resident Bob Cowdery generally agreed, and said city officials should be wary of speculators trying to raise money for questionable ventures.
City officials were quoted as saying they were exploring the possibilities, and any drilling would not delay the construction project.
The late-1800s, city-owned “gusher” near 15th and Broadway (about a mile from the library site) is a local legend that Skelton characterized as a “total farce.”
“It was a cable tool rig, of course, and anything that could go wrong with a well went wrong with that one,” he said.
“There were oil fields there,” Skelton added. “I just don’t think there are any prospects today.”
Some of the fields in the area trend northeast to southwest, while the Arkansas River trends northwest to southeast – “so they cross,” he said.
“There are still some active wells in the Wichita Field,” he said.
Two wells on the north side of town produced 630 barrels in 1995, he said.
The Robins Field, several miles south of downtown, was discovered in the 1920s, and produced 5,300 barrels from 23 wells in 2011, Skelton said.
Sedgewick County had 126 operating wells in 2011, which produced 122,000 barrels – “about a thousand barrels per well per year, many in old fields,” he said.
“I’ve talked to several Geological Society members,” Skelton said, “and the consensus is, if there’s anything there, it’s not going to be much.”
But for geologists, he conceded, the notion of a well remains intriguing.
“It would be nice to have a well to see what’s there,” he said, “if they go all the way to the basement.”
Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the "eureka" moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn't? – and you'd like to share it with your fellow AAPG members, contact Hans Krause.