By Darryl L. Flowers
Pinning down the early history of oil exploration in Montana can be tricky. The first mention of the substance dates back to 1865, when thick oil coming to the surface at a seep near a river was used to lubricate the wheels on horse-drawn wagons.
The Daily Interlake, Kalispell, in December of last year reported that the first oil well was drilled by the Butte Oil Company in 1901 near Kintla Lake, in what is now Glacier National Park. The location was chosen because Indians as well as fur trappers had long known about oil seeping to the surface.
A few years later, while digging for copper near the community of Altyn, in what was then part of Teton County, a miner struck oil. Just as in the Kintla Lake attempt, no oil was ever produced in any commercial quantity. Altyn now sits at the bottom of Lake Sherburne in Glacier Park.
What those first attempts at producing oil have in common is that the black gold was observed or found by accident.
But how does an oil exploration company go about finding oil when, to the layman’s eye, there is no sign of the stuff?
In the history of Petroleum County, it is recorded that “scant attention was paid to the four strangers who checked into the hotel in Winnett on October 9, 1919.” They were geologists, following up on a USGS report from 1915 that claimed the east slopes of the Judith Mountains indicated favorable conditions for the presence of coal. In 1918, a follow-up report noted that the formations in the Cat Creek, Flatwillow and Devil’s Basin “anticlines” might favor the accumulations of oil.
So, what are the characteristics that the trained eye seeks in the search for hydrocarbons? Before the high tech seismic crews come on the scene, before the satellite images are examined, what is it that tells the trained eye there are liquid riches beneath?
As it turns out, Montana – and specifically areas of Cascade, Teton and Lewis and Clark Counties, is among the best locations on the planet to examine the geologic structures that are common in oil producing locations.
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