A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.
When was oil first found in Wyoming? A seemingly simple question, but the answer may
depend entirely on the context in which it is asked. That is because the date which oil was
discovered to be in the Wyoming ground differs from the little-known date that the first oil well was dug (not drilled!) which also differs from the more-famous date the first flowing oil well was drilled, which in itself is disputed.
Technically, the year that oil was discovered in Wyoming is unknown. Native Americans
used the oil found seeping out of the ground in places like the Great Tar Spring – around ten miles southeast of where Lander is today – for many years before any white man set foot in the area. They found the oil to work well as a rub for their ponies’ joints in order to increase the speed of their steeds.
Even the year in which white men came across the Great Tar Spring remains uncertain.
It is possible that one of William Ashley’s first trapping expeditions into the area was led to the spring by the local inhabitants in 1823. However, the date most often cited for the discovery of the tar springs is 1832, when Captain Bonneville found it during his stint as a fur trader. The reason that Bonneville often gets the honors is that his expedition resulted in the first published recollection of the Great Tar Springs. In all likelihood, Bonneville “found” them because he had been told by other mountain men of their existence.
Even though these trappers were aware of the oil, none of them could guess in their
wildest dreams its future uses and, hence, the momentous importance of their “discovery.” In fact, they used it in a similar way to the Native Americans, applying it to their horses. They also found that it worked as an ointment when rubbed on themselves; the black stuff could relieve their bodily aches and pains. Later, enterprising Wyomingites would gather oil from springs using rags and towels and sell it as a lubricant for wagon wheels to pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the first recorded sale taking place in 1863.
Oil’s potential as an illuminant was first realized in 1848 and the process to distill it into
kerosene, which made for better burning, understood shortly after. This led to an increased
demand for the product as it was cheaper than the alternative fuel for oil lamps, whale oil. Only a few years later, in 1859 the first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, attracting much investment in oil drilling there and throughout the country.
Many believe that the first well to produce oil in Wyoming was drilled around 1884. However, it took only about seven years after the Pennsylvanian drill struck oil for the first well to begin producing in the Cowboy State. This well was not drilled, but dug with rudimentary tools by J.C. Piere (or Fiere, depending on the document) in 1866. Located nine miles from White Springs, the well was not a flowing oil well and its depth was only 50 feet. Nevertheless, it produced 150 barrels of oil before it caved in, oil which was sold mainly as a lubricant to Union Pacific in addition to being used in the mines in Carbon County.
More famously, the first flowing oil well was drilled in 1883 or 1884 (sources differ) at
what was to become the Dallas Dome Oil Field, right next to Captain Bonneville’s tar spring. The man who set up the exploratory operation was Mike Murphy. Murphy was born in 1835, three years after Bonneville’s find, in Virginia to an Irish father. Close to fifty years later, the Virginian first struck Wyoming oil in a well that went down about 300 feet. In the coming years, he’d drill two more, each at a depth of 750 feet. While there was plenty of oil to be had, Murphy’s wells and others in the Chugwater Formation only produced around 125,000 barrels over the next 30 years or so. For comparison, in 1920 the Dallas Dome Field itself produced 109,500 per year.
‘The slow production was mainly due to a lack of infrastructure, which was the result of a
lack of investment and capital. What was desperately needed were pipelines and railroads to efficiently transport the oil as well as the facilities to store it. At the time, transport of oil from field to railroad was done by wagon. Not only did this mean that shipping oil out of Dallas Dome and eventually Wyoming was a time-consuming process, but it also was costly. In fact, Wyoming oil could not compete in larger eastern markets due to the added shipping costs at this time, giving those drilling it a pretty hard limit on how many barrels it was worth producing for the relatively tiny local market. Worse, the surplus oil that was sometimes stored in open pits, which occasionally turned into lake-sized pools, had to be burned at times to prevent it from flowing into nearby streams. There was simply nowhere else to put it and it couldn’t be sold anyway.
Towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century and into the second, more
investment in the area allowed for the creation of infrastructure to prevent wasteful burnings and to facilitate transportation to allow for and even incentivize greater rates of extraction. By this time, there were over thirty wells producing oil in Dallas Dome, with over fifty having been drilled. Expansion of the oil industry in the state continued and around a century after Bonneville first laid eyes on the tar pits and fifty years after Murphy struck black gold, Wyoming had become one of the top oil producers in the United States, producing well over one-fifth of the entire nation’s oil by 1930.
Unfortunately, Mike Murphy did not live to see this – he had died in 1905 after retiring
around 1901, cashing out for something between $100,000 to $450,000. Exploitation of the Dallas Dome Oil Field, a process which he was instrumental in beginning, continues to this day and has been responsible for more than 650 million barrels of oil.
Next up for the Fremont County Museum
December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition
March 10, 7:30 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Interactive Stargazing” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
March 29, 6pm at the Riverton Museum, “Talking Photography with Wes Uncepher” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
April 13, 7pm at the Dubois Museum, “What’s This Stuff Called Air” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
April 21, 10-11 am at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Scat, Tracks and Skulls” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 22, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “A 70’s Time Capsule” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 22, 9-3 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Garden-Expo: Planting Historic Vegetables for Kids” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
April 29, 1-3pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Sheep Shearing Day” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
May 13, 9-1 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander Area Petroglyph Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series
May 17, 7 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Gold Fever in the Atomic Age: Wyoming’s Uranium Boom” by Zach Larsen, Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.
The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum. The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.