(all rights to this material retained by author)
A Review of the Historic Oil Wells
of the Little Spokane River Valley
Wally Lee Parker
… an excitement …
The March 28th, 1901, issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that, “Another oil district has been found that from reports received promises to excel anything yet located in this section of the country. On Wild Rose Prairie oil has been discovered that can be taken up by the bucketful and the scent of oil can be noticed for quite a distance from the spring.”
This article was describing one small part of what might properly be characterized as a general “excitement” over the rumored prospects of paying quantities of oil and natural gas underlying a large swath of Washington State’s far eastern counties — including Asotin, Whitman, Spokane, and Stevens. The 1901 excitement spilled over into Idaho — especially around Lewiston — and also into Oregon.
The Chronicle’s article continued, “The place on which the strongest indications have been found is owned by Wilbur H. Lewis, and he has been aware for some time that there was something the matter with the water in a spring on his farm 15 miles north of Spokane. He attributed it, however, to the presence of substances from the pine trees and gave the matter but little thought till he heard of the Rosalia finds.”
In fits and starts over the next 43 years three exploratory oil wells were punched down in the vicinity of the above noted find on Wild Rose Prairie — Wild Rose being a gentle rolling segment of the southwestern corner of eastern Washington’s Little Spokane River Valley. According to information published by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in 1983, the last Wild Rose well was drilled in 1944, and was reported by the driller to have reached a depth of 3,600 feet — the last 600 feet in granite. The term “driller,” as we understand it, is something of a misnomer since the Department of Natural Resources described the method used to sink all three of Wild Rose’s wells as “cable tools.” This is an ancient technology in which a weight suspended by cable or rope is repeatedly raised and dropped to pound a shaft downward. It would likely be safe to say that by the 1940s the cable tool system for oil exploration was essentially obsolete, having slowly been replaced by improvements in the nearly as ancient rotary drill. This is not to suggest that the reported depth of the last Wild Rose well was beyond the reach of a sufficiently large cable tool rig. However, the idea of pounding the last 600 feet through granite — considering that most competent geologists will agree that the chances of finding oil once you have struck what is clearly determined to be solid granite bedrock is zero — suggests something less than total accuracy as far as the driller’s assessment as to the nature of the rock being passed through; or something less as far as the driller’s overall competence as an oil prospector is concerned.
As for conformation that an oil well was in fact being drilled in 1944, the “Shavings from the Mill” column in the Deer Park Union’s December 21 issue for that year stated, “David (Slim) Cox, a former mill employee, suffered quite severe burns on both hands and his face last Wednesday when water got into the boiler he was firing, causing it to explode. He was working at the oil well on Wild Rose Prairie.”
Since steam engines were commonly used to power these early “cable tools” oil rigs, this item falls right into line with the other data.
Regarding the first two Wild Rose oil wells — those of 1901 and 1911 — the Department of Natural Resource’s “Information Circular” only states “details unknown” as to depth and such. Though some information was printed in the area newspapers — the Spokane Daily Chronicle and Spokesman-Review — said information often appears to have been biased by a strong promotional motivation on the part of the companies sponsoring the drilling. In fact, it appears likely that the news releases were on occasion written — partially or solely — by the promoters themselves.
The wells on Wild Rose were not unique — either as to their lack of actual oil produced, nor as to the longevity of the expectation that they would eventually produce oil. The 1901 excitement was the first of two major and many minor oil expectations to sweep through the area — the second of the major excitements occurring in 1921.
Just as before, the 1921 oil excitement covered a broad band of counties from south to north, and also spilled into adjacent states. This time the Little Spokane River Valley’s speculative excitement reached beyond Wild Rose to touch the valley’s northwest corner and the little town of Clayton. The August 12, 1921, issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle related that “over 100” of Clayton’s “residents” had gathered at the local grange hall to hear promoters representing the Clayton Oil Company describe the underground riches just waiting to be exploited. One of the speakers was Harold P. Collins, geologist for the oil company, who is reported to have said, “The oil in this country has been formed from the marine life which once existed in the Gordon Sea that covered the country east of the Cascades,”
Collins went on to note, “In this district we have a long anticline running up into Canada.” Though often inaccurately used when describing local geology — as it is here — oil promoters loved the term “anticline,” since successful oil wells were often associated with that particular geological feature.
Mr. Collins concluded by stating, “We can predict a slow-bearing sand, with long-life wells. This is because the anticline is sharp on the western side, where it comes into contact with the older granite formations, and is sloping to the east side. With this formation the sand is invariably slow-bearing. The wells will run as high as 500 barrels and will be put on the pump, but they will yield for a long time. If the anticline were sharp on both sides we would have gushers and short-lived wells.”
Despite his remarkably detailed prediction, no oil was removed from the single well subsequently drilled just east of Clayton by Mr. Collins’ company.
From 1901 on, geologist employed by the state and federal governments were cautioning that despite claims made by geologist hired by oil promoters — or people claiming to be geologist who were themselves oil promoters — the region’s geological formations as then understood did not favor the discovery of oil or natural gas in paying quantities. These cautions were largely ignored. And yet, after over a hundred years of exploratory drilling throughout the state — with the exception of some relatively short lived commercial natural gas production and one poor producing, short lived oil well on the Pacific coast — the government’s early assessments are the only ones that seem to be holding accurate.
The stories of the several oil excitements of Clayton, Wild Rose, and the rest of the region are complex in detail, but simple in that the only oil profits produced were those pumped from the pockets of the investors to the pockets of the promoters.
… to be continued …