Last year, as news of oil companies and their landmen scouring the area for minerals was making the headlines, several attempts to report the history of early oil exploration in Montana appeared.
As the public hubbub has subsided and most of the work in the region has fallen below the radar, the Sun Times has continued to dig into the fascinating hydrocarbon history of the Treasure State.
Early this year we came across one of the best papers on the subject, written by geologist William Boberg. It is still the best work for those who want to focus only on the Flathead / Alberta and British Columbia regions. Boberg’s work was published in the 1984 Montana Geological Society Northwestern Field Conference.
The Sun Times research showed that the earliest mention of oil in Montana dated to the 1860s, when oil was found at a “seep” near a river and was used by wagon trains to lubricate the axles.
But we were not able to pin down the details, so rather than publish an incomplete history, we held the story.
But we kept digging, searching.
In late July, we were looking for details reported when the Krone, Steinbach and J.B. Long wells were being drilled in Lewis and Clark County, as well as the famous Morning Gun Well that was drilled in Glacier County. The search led us to the Oil Field Museum, part of the Glacier County Museum in Cut Bank.
While the Oil Field Museum certainly has the best display of old drilling tools… including a real “Cable Tool” drilling rig, for instance… it also has an impressive collection of old oil industry journals and company records.
While looking through old issues of the Montana Oil Journal, we came across the crown jewel of Montana’s early oil history.
The in depth report was published in the July 20, 1963 edition of the Montana Oil Journal, which was based in Great Falls at the time.
The article was titled “Outline History of the Development of Oil and Gas in Montana,” and was written by well respected United States Geological Survey geologist Dr. C.E. Erdmann.
According to an Editor’s Note preceding the report, the work was done at the request of Senator Lee Metcalf, Montana Democrat. The note reads, in part, “Included in this report was an authoritative and entertaining report on the history of oil and gas development in the state, by Dr. Charles E. Erdmann of the U.S.G.S., whose headquarters are in Great Falls. Of particular interest to many will be his account near the start of the article, covering the fruitless effort in the state, from 1889 to 1910, to develop production near oil-gas seeps.”
The report is detailed, a little too detailed for the non-geologist. The Sun Times has edited Dr. Erdmann’s report, removing some of the technical details, such as the geological ages of the formations. We have also added some clarifications of the terms Dr. Erdmann used. Otherwise, the report is original.
Outline History Of Oil And Gas Development in Montana
By Charles E. Erdmann, PhD
The classical pattern of petroleum exploration in virgin territory is for the first tests to be made in the vicinity of natural surface indications (seeps) of oil and gas, if any have been found. Unusual combinations of geologic conditions are required for the development of these surface features, and their occurrence is transient and infrequent. Their value, however, is that they provide tangible evidence of the local presence of hydrocarbons, thereby raising hopes that commercial accumulations may be found underground. The analogy with surface discovery of inorganic minerals is obvious: both require bold and enterprising spirits if the usually costly and difficult adventure of development is to be undertaken. Because they are few in number, they are soon exploited, and this first stage of exploration is of short duration; but the often amateurish effort frequently clothes it with many colorful and dramatic incidents. If no significant discoveries result, and they seldom do, drilling on easily recognized geologic features such as anticlines and domes may follow with more or less delay. If drilling depths are shallow, as they are in some of the older fields in Montana, this second stage may mark the heyday of the small independent operator.
By the time the obvious surface structures have been recognized and evaluated, a more mature third stage has appeared in which the search for subsurface structures and porous beds and stratigraphic traps is carried on by the sophisticated techniques of geophysical prospecting and study of formation samples or subsurface stratigraphy. Other later stages may involve deeper drilling, secondary recovery techniques and, finally, abandonment. Initially, each stage may appear in order. No firm line between them exists, however, for if the petroleum industry is to prosper, new discoveries must succeed abandonments. Review of the history of oil and gas development in Montana indicates close adherence to this pattern, which will be the outline for this chapter.
Explorations On Surface Indications, 1889-1910
The exact number of oil and gas seepages in Montana is not known with certainty, but probably there are not more than 15 or 20, and some of them have become inactive since they were discovered. Several of them have been known for many years, and were responsible for the pioneer oil excitement. The first of record was noticed August 10, 1864, by members of an immigrant train crossing the northeast flank of the Pryor Mountains on the Bozeman Trail, as a scum of heavy oil on a stagnant pool of water. In this instance the immediate practical application was for axle grease for the wagons. No drilling development followed, and even the report was not made for many years. Furthermore, no rediscovery seems to have been reported. The exact location, therefore, is not known, other than it was northwest of Beauvais Creek toward the East Fork of Pryor Creek Divide. A likely possibility, however, is that it was on some intermittent upper tributary of Woody Creek in T. 4 S., R. 28 E., Big Horn County, near where that drainage was crossed by the Bozeman Trail.
Roscoe seep. The first oil seep to be drilled in Montana was the occurrence of heavy black oil or asphalt near the southeast corner NE1/4SE1/4 sec. 32, T. 6 S., R. 18 E., Carbon County, about 5.5 miles south of the old Roscoe post office. Date of discovery and name of the original locator are not known. In the late 1880’s, however, the area was acquired by Thomas Cruse, who had found the famous Drumlummon lode near Marysville in 1876. The location of the first test, Thomas Cruse well No. 1, was about 650 feet northwest of the seep, and was completed and abandoned in 1889 as a dry hole in the Judith River formation at a, total depth of 1,100 feet. Insofar as known, this was the first organized attempt to discover oil by drilling in Montana. Undeterred by failure, Cruse continued operations in the vicinity of the seep during 1890 and drilled eight more dry holes that ranged in depth from 600 to 800 feet before giving up; and even then he retained ownership of the tract. Others continued to be intrigued by the possibilities, and additional tests were made in 1909, 1931, and even as late as 1947, but without success.
Kintla Lake area. Impressive amounts of pale-yellow, high-gravity (44° API) oil issue from surface deposits at the Sage Creek seeps in southeastern British Columbia, about 8 miles north of the international boundary at the northwest corner of Glacier National Park. The controlling structural feature appears to be a normal fault of great magnitude that can be projected into Montana where it is called the Roosevelt Fault. In 1892 active seepages of oil and gas were discovered in Montana near the northeast end of Lower Kintla Lake, not far east of where the lake crosses the trace of the fault. An organization called the Butte Oil Co. posted a location notice on August 10, 1900. Drilling began late in October 1901, the well location being NW1/4NW1/4NW1/4 sec. 18, T. 37 N., R. 20 W., Flathead County. Late in 1902 work was suspended temporarily, with the hole at a depth of 1,450 feet in very hard “black limestone and iron.” A significant incident was the discovery of gas at a depth of 720 feet, which is said to have burned with a 4-foot flame. As will appear later however this was not the first discovery of gas in Montana by drilling.
In late June 1902 the Kintla Lake Oil Co. of Kalispell commenced operations at their No. 1 well, approximately in the center of NE1/4 sec. 12, T. 36 N., R. 22 W.; and in 1903 a second test is said to have been located toward the center of the section. Both are situated on Tertiary “lake beds” on the left bank of the North Fork of Flathead River. The No. 1 well was drilled to 1,290 feet at least, and the No. 2 to about 1,000 feet. Traces of oil and gas were reported from each, but both were abandoned as dry holes. The circumstances that led to these tests are not known, but they may have been drilled on seeps in the “lake beds” that emerged along faults.
Another old venture, for which there is good authority but no log or operational information, is the Southwest Kootenai Land Oil Co. test on Kintla Creek about 3 miles above Upper Kintla Lake. This locality is approximately in the north center of sec. 8, T. 37 N., R. 19 W., Flathead County, in a deep glaciated valley about 1.5 miles west of the Continental Divide. Drilling is reported to have commenced March 8, 1906, and continued to a depth of at least 600 feet. In all probability the location was made on the basis of seeps or iridescent films of oil whose origin is more or less identical with those on Cameron Brook at Oil City, Alberta, a short distance northeast across the divide, where petroleum exploration had been going on since 1901.
Swiftcurrent Creek. Sustained efforts to develop oil by drilling on or near obscure surface indications of petroleum and natural gas in Swiftcurrent Creek Valley throughout the nine year period before the district became incorporated into Glacier National Park in 1910 resulted in seven tests that give it the nominal distinction of being the first oil and gas field in Montana and the only locality in the State where drilling on seepages proved successful. Credit for the recognition of these showings appears to be divided between two men: Frank M. Stevenson identified certain exposures of Upper Cretaceous marine shale as “oil shale” in the summer of 1901; and Samuel D. Somes prospecting near where Sherburne Dam is located, observed small pools of oil in irregularities on freshly broken shale and limestone on the floor of his adit in late February or early March 1902.
Within a short time, 52 oil claims were located under the placer mining law. Companies were organized and consolidated as claims were exchanged for shares, the ultimate operator being the Swift Current Oil, Land & Power Co. The first derrick was erected in November 1902, approximately at the center of SW1/4 NE1/4 sec. 4, T. 36 N., R. 15 W., unsurveyed, on the Lakeside placer claim which had been located by Stevenson. Drilling began in 1903, when the hole was taken to a depth of 430 feet, with a showing of oil; but was abandoned because of inability to shut off water. The rig was then skidded 30 feet west, and work begun on location 1-A, which was completed as an oil well at a total depth of about 550 feet during the summer of 1905. Oil from this well was displayed at the State fair at Helena in the fall of 1905, where the company was awarded a diploma for “the first producing oil well in the State of Montana.” Operations were terminated through lack of finances in 1907, and the properties turned over to Stevenson. In the meantime, however, one other oil well, with an initial capacity of about 20 barrels per day, by bailing, and 2 dry holes had been completed.
M. D. Cassidy, locator of a neighboring claim to the east, became aroused by this activity and organized the Cassidy-Swiftcurrent Oil Co., date of incorporation being July 15, 1905. Approximate location of the first test by this company, which may have been near a gas seep recognized by Cassidy, was in the extreme northeast corner of NW1/4 NW1/4 NE1/4 sec. 3, T. 35 N., R. 15 W., unsurveyed, near the center of St. Louis Placer No. 1. Drilling began in 1907, and continued at intervals into 1909 to a total depth of about 2,800 feet, where the tools were lost. Natural gas was reported from depths of 430, 1,900, and 2,800 feet, the initial shut-in pressure being about 250 p.s.i.
No measurement of volume seems to have been taken, but, upon being ignited, the gas flow from a I-inch pipe is said to have burned to a height between 15 and 20 feet. Cassidy piped the gas into his house, where it was used for heating and lighting until 1914 when the flow ceased, due to caving in the hole. The Cassidy-Swiftcurrent well No. 1, therefore, has the distinction of being the first producing gas well in Montana, even though it had only one customer.
Boulder Creek. Following Somes’ discovery of oil in his adit on Swiftcurrent Creek in 1902, other prospects in the Marias River formation were examined for traces of oil. Favorable indications were reported in an abandoned working on Boulder Creek, probably somewhere near the center NW1/4 sec. 27, T. 35 N., R. 15 W., unsurveyed, Glacier (formerly Teton) County. Recognition of this seep may have contributed to the organization of the Swift Current-Boulder Oil Co., which soon acquired substantial acreage south of Swiftcurrent Creek. Drilling commenced in July 1904, the approximate site being south of the center SE1/4 SE1/4, sec. 11, T. 35 N., R. 15 W., on the left bank of Boulder Creek. A show of gas was reported in shale at a depth of about 1,750 feet, and a show of oil “of a superior quality” was found in the top of a sandstone at a depth of 2,010 feet on July 8, 1905. Operations were abandoned at this depth in the spring of 1906.
This persistent run of failure naturally resulted in loss of interest, and by the close of 1907 such random drilling had come to an end. The Congress passed the act establishing Glacier National Park on May 11, 1910, thereby precluding new ventures. In the meantime, the Lakeside and New Era placer claims in the Swiftcurrent District had been patented, and the patent for the St. Louis No. 1 was pending but held in abeyance as Sherburne Lake project of the Bureau of Reclamation approached realization. More or less ineffectual efforts to recondition the two small oil wells and the gas well persisted for several years, but terminated in the summer of 1919 when the locations were flooded by water rising behind the Sherburne Lake Dam.
No other drilling on surface indications (seeps) has been recorded in Montana.
Exploration Of Surface Structures, 1890-1950
Many anticlines and domes are expressed in rocks at the surface on the Montana Plains. The precise number is unknown, but more than 475 areas, fields, and structures have been named. Approximately 185 fields and structures have been named on the latest edition of the “Structure Contour Map of the Montana Plains” (U.S. Geological Survey, 1955); but only about 100 areas have been proved to contain oil or gas in commercial quantities, and not all are anticlines. The producing fields are shown on figure 7, and their names are keyed by number to the list (available athttp://www.mbmg.mtech.edu/sp28/table1.htm). This chart, it should be noted, is not a complete list of Montana oilfields, nor does it include the major gas fields.
The surface structures exhibit wide variation in size, shape, and amount of structural relief. Bowdoin dome in Phillips and Valley Counties, and Kevin-Sunburst dome in northern Toole County occupy hundreds of square miles, and are so broad And have such comparatively low relief that the domical structures cannot be visualized on the ground. The Cedar Creek anticline in the southeastern part of the State is more than 100 miles in length, but the narrow Pierre shale inlier along the crest is only a few miles in width. Flat Coulee dome north of the Sweet Grass Hills, on the other hand, is contained within a single square mile. Elk Basin anticline, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming boundary, or Milk River anticline in the Disturbed Belt on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, are nearly perfect folds in which both flanks can be observed from a single viewpoint.
Not too many years had elapsed since the pronouncement of the anticlinal theory of oil and gas accumulation and, in the absence of an oil seep, a sharp or closely folded anticline seemed the next best feature on which to drill. Recognition of a completely exposed fold in rock requires so little imagination or interpretative skill that when they were observed they were reported, often by sheepherders, and the more evident small folds were described as “sheepherder structures.” Insofar us known, the first test in Montana to be located on an anticline, presumably in accordance with the anticlinal or structural theory, was the R. O. Morse well No. 1, NE1/4 sec. 4, T. 6 S., R. 18 E., Carbon County, on the northeast flank of Roscoe dome, a “sheepherder structure” toward the west end of the Nye-Bowler lineament. It may be, however, that Morse had been attracted to the area by Cruse’s exploration around the Roscoe seep a few miles south, which was then in progress. Drilling equipment in 1890 was very inadequate for a complete test of the structure and the operation was abandoned as a dry hole in the upper part of the Colorado Group at a total depth of 1,100 feet. Subsequent drilling has proved the structure to be dry into the upper part of the Cambrian series at a total depth of 5,928 feet. Chance plays an important part in exploration for oil and gas, and the first discovery of natural gas by drilling on the Montana Plains came unexpectedly in 1893 a few miles southwest of Havre at Fort Assiniboine in a water well in the upper sandstone unit of the Eagle sandstone. Although not of commercial volume, the find directed attention to the possibility of gas development out on the plains, but this did not follow for nearly 20 years.
The first commercial show of natural gas in eastern Montana was found in Gas City dome at the north end of the Cedar Creek anticline in 1913. Drilling was initiated by the Mid-West Oil Co., in November 1912, at their No. 1 well, W 1/2 NE 1/4 NE 1/4 sec. 20, T. 14 N., R. 55 E., Dawson County; but with change of ownership the hole was completed by the Eastern Montana Oil & Gas Co., which developed the field. Drilling continued to a total depth of 2,710 feet, which was reached in April 1914. In the meantime a flow of 500,000 cubic feet of gas per day with a shut-in pressure of 220 pounds per square inch, and some water had been found between depths of 730 and 745 feet in a sand assigned arbitrarily to the Judith River formation. Beginning in 1915 gas for domestic use was supplied to the city of Glendive 10 miles north on Yellowstone River. Peak of production was reached in the fall of 1917, when the combined flow of eight wells amounted to about 10,600,000 cubic feet of gas per month. The field was abandoned in 1925; but other gas production followed along the anticline to the south.
The year 1915 also was notable for the discovery of oil in the Elk Basin anticline in Carbon County, Montana, and Park County, Wyoming, a structure which had first been noticed some 10 years previously by the U.S. Geological Survey. The discovery well, which produced from the Torchlight sand in the Frontier formation at depths of 1,335 to 1,402 feet, was in Wyoming; and about 87 percent of the productive acreage fell in that State. The remaining northern portion of about 120 acres became Montana’s first producing oilfield. The beginning, therefore, was rather small. Four oil wells were drilled in 1915, but were not brought into production until shipping facilities became available the following summer. Two more oil wells and one dry hole were drilled in 1916, and production for the last 6 months of the year totaled 44,917 barrels, with a value of $44,019.
Excellent examples of the possible rewards of deeper drilling are furnished by the development of the Elk Basin field. Natural gas was found in the Cloverly formation, about 1,150 feet below the Torchlight, in 1922, but is now largely exhausted. The major discovery, however, did not come until December 1943 when oil was found in the Tensleep sandstone at a depth of about 4,500 feet. This reservoir proved to have about 215 feet of saturation, the thickest producing section of any field in the State. About 1,375 acres, or 27.5 percent, of this Tensleep pool are in Montana. Finally, in 1946 oil was found in the underlying Madison limestone of Mississippian age.
The immediate effect of the original Elk Basin discovery was to direct attention to the Montana extension of the Bighorn Basin and the country to the north where interest still centered on sharp-dip structures; but prospecting resulted only in dry holes. One of the more prophetic of these efforts was the first test on the large, Woman’s Pocket anticline, which was spudded May 6, 1916, by the Foster Oil Co., in C SW1/4 NE1/4 sec. 15, T. 8 N., R. 20 E., Golden Valley County, and completed in June 1918 by the Tri City Oil Co., at a total depth of 2,215 feet. The trace of oil from 1,550 to 1,565 feet, and two other minor shows at greater depth, were the first evidence in Montana of the occurrence of petroleum in the Kootenai formation, and provided the incentive for further exploration of that unit. Although still far short of commercial production, more tangible encouragement soon came from the Devil’s Basin anticline to the northeast where the Van Duzen Oil Co. well No. 1 spudded in the Kootenai formation in NE1/4 SW1/4 NW1/4 sec. 24, T. 11 N., R. 24 E., Musselshell County, on August 10, 1919. Drilling continued to a total depth of 2,031 feet on November 6, 1919. In the meantime, 10 or 12 barrels of oil had been found in a 6-foot limestone at a depth of 1,167 feet in what was then called the Quadrant formation later it was shown the producing horizon was the Heath Formation. The trend of exploration continued toward the northeast, and the next structure to be drilled was Mosby dome on the elongate Cat Creek anticline. Here the Franz Oil Corp. well No. 1 (now Continental Oil Co., Charles 1-A) was started December 18, 1919, and was completed at a total depth of 1,014 feet as a 30-barrel oil well on February 20, 1920. Production was obtained from the second Cat Creek sand of the Kootenai formation between the depths of 998 to 1,014 feet. This famous discovery well, which in itself never produced more than 700 barrels of oil, resulted in the development of the Cat Creek field, the first important field in the State and, for its size, still one of the most productive and most profitable that has been found. Exploitation was rapid. A peak production of 2,080,826 barrels per year was reached at the close of 1923; and cumulative production to the close of 1961 has amounted to nearly 20 million barrels of oil.
The discovery of the Cat Creek field definitely carried the struggling Montana petroleum industry beyond the nascent stage; but national significance was not achieved until the oil discovery on the Kevin-Sunburst dome in Toole County 2 years later. Actually, there were two oil discoveries; and the short interval between them compounded the excitement they raised. Oil was found first on April 14, 1922, when the Gordon Campbell, Kevin Syndicate-A. Goeddertz well No. 1, NE1/4 NE1/4 NE1/4 sec. 16, T. 35 N., R. 3 W., was completed as a 20-barrel producer between depths of 1,770 to 1,790 feet in the basal sandstone unit of the Sawtooth formation and the eroded, weathered upper surface of the Mission Canyon formation of the Madison group. In the second, oil was found June 5, 1922, when the Ohio-Sunburst Oil Company’s R. Davey well No. 1, SE1/4 SE1/4 SW1/4 sec. 24, T. 36 N., R. 2 W., was completed as a 150-barrel producer between depths of 1,535 to 1,564 feet in a sand at the base of the Kootenai formation, which later was named the Sunburst sand. These discoveries, together with the great size of the dome, first production from rocks of Paleozoic age in the Rocky Mountain region, shallow drilling, and demonstrated production from a low-dip structure, attracted immediate attention from major oil companies and numerous small operators. The result was remarkable and, by the close of 1922, out of a total of 42 completed tests the field could show 22 producing oil wells, 4 wells producing both oil and gas, 3 Sunburst sand gas wells, 3 dry holes with shows of oil and gas, and 8 dry holes, with 11 tests drilling. Peak oil production of 6,457,217 barrels of oil was reached rapidly in 1926, since when it has been declining; and cumulative production to the close of 1961 has amounted to 66,189,439 barrels, which is not far from its estimated ultimate production of 70 million barrels of oil. Peak production of natural gas of 4,950 million cubic feet was reached in 1928, with cumulative production of about 78 billion cubic feet through 1961. With the development of the Kevin-Sunburst field the petroleum industry became firmly established.