Low-tech exploration

Sept. 25, 2000
Finding oil and getting its products to market have intrigued us for about 150 years. The search, however, was not always as high-tech as it is now.

Finding oil and getting its products to market have intrigued us for about 150 years. The search, however, was not always as high-tech as it is now.

Our industry began, of course, with Col. Drake and his famous well in 1859. The first wells were drilled near oil seeps because, obviously, oil was there. But after the oil seeps were covered, new methods of finding it had to be found. Some of the early "science" is worth looking at.


One of the first theories was that underground pools of oil ran parallel to creeks and rivers and that drilling in creek beds would yield the prize. I think they called this "creekology." This theory led to Oil Creek and the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania (along with every stream and ravine leading into them) to be lined with operators. It was a very popular and successful method until one day in the late 1860s when Pennsylvania suffered very heavy rains and the industry was flushed away. Survivors began checking higher ground for oil.

Oil was everywhere and sometimes could be found by accident. One day, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a boarding house in a small oil-area town. Buckets of water were quickly brought from the nearest well. But the fire wasn't going out. In fact, the water seemed to be feeding the fire. The well was found to have several inches of oil in it.

Water was brought from other wells nearby, but with the same result. This story is related in "Oil Region Reminiscences," published in 1907 by the Butler County, Pa., Oil Men's Association. It doesn't give us the fate of the boarding house but does say that the town's residents were quite happy to find oil seeping into the water wells. All of them were scooping and bailing oil and dreaming of what to do with all the money they would be making. And then the pipeline company fixed the leak in its line that ran over the hill behind town.

Dream techniques

And speaking of dreaming, that became the next big way of finding oil. In the 1860s and 1870s, most hotels and boarding houses in every oil-country town had a "dream book," or rather a book that could be used to interpret dreams. Dreams were important in this era, and often it was thought that dreams were how spirits communicated with the living. A good dream could be worth a lot of money.

One such case was the Coquette well. A newly jilted young man dreamed that he was attacked in the woods by a war-painted Indian with a tomahawk. As he was about to be killed, the ex-girlfriend suddenly appeared and handed him a rifle. He fired the rifle and, when the smoke cleared, the Indian was gone. But on the spot where the Indian had stood there was a gusher of oil coming out of the ground. Not long afterward, while walking on a friend's farm, he saw a spot exactly like the one in the dream. Money was raised and the well drilled. It made a few barrels but was never a big success.

One oil prospector drilled a well in the Oil Creek valley in the early days but, on reaching the target sand, nothing was found. He didn't believe in the significance of dreams, but he had studied the dream book in the boarding house where he was staying. The well looked like a dry hole, and he was unable to find anyone to sell it to. One morning, he related a strange dream he had had during the night to the boarding house proprietor and his wife. After he had left for the morning, the landlord and landlady looked up the dream in the book. Amazingly, he had dreamed the very best dream in the book! That evening, the prospector was still looking gloomy when he sat down to dinner. The landlord asked how much he would take for the well, and the prospector gave him an amount that covered his costs and then some. The landlord counted out the money. The prospector left town. Two more days of drilling by the landlord showed the well was already below the prospective sand. Not a trace of oil. It appears the dream book had some value after all.

Mediums and divining rods

In 1876, a well-known oilman named Jonathan Watson hired a lady spiritualist to come in and locate a number of wells on some leases he held. Through all the wise comments and ridicule he kept plugging away, dry hole after dry hole. But with bulldog determination, he kept going and finally hit one of the biggest fields in the area.

Divining rods were also useful, but they had to be made of either hickory or peach to be any good. And even though they found a few pools, they were not as reliable as dreams and spiritualists.

We could probably learn a lot from our industry forefathers. Maybe in cutting costs we could lean a little more on consulting spirits instead of consulting geologists. Just keep a couple of psychologists on staff. Maybe Human Resources departments could become profit centers.