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Oklahoma Memories

Oil in Oklahoma City

2011-11-26

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"A fabulous Christmas present came to the city December 4, 1928, with the discovery of the oil field within the city limits."

That's the voice of Daily Oklahoman owner, the late E.K. Gaylord, describing the effect of the discovery of oil in Oklahoma County.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

In 1897, the Nellie Johnstone oil well in Bartlesville came in, setting off an oil boom in Oklahoma that would last for decades. Over the next twenty years, the Glen Pool south of Tulsa, Three Sands in Northern Oklahoma, the Healdton field in south central Oklahoma, and the Seminole field put Oklahoma in the forefront of the oil industry in America.

As early as 1890, the first wildcatter arrived in Oklahoma City convinced that the soil of Oklahoma County floated on a sea of black gold. He erected a derrick at what is today 4th and Santa Fe, rigged his cable tools, and began drilling. However, at a depth of 600 feet he abandoned the site; it was a dry hole. From 1890 to 1928 more than 20 test wells were drilled in Oklahoma County, all of them dry holes. Though the nearest oil field to Oklahoma City was 60 miles away, more than a hundred oil companies had offices or headquarters in Oklahoma City, and by 1928 Oklahoma City was in the mainstream of the state's petroleum industry.

In the summer of 1928, the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company, or ITIO for short, turned its attention to Oklahoma City. The company founded by H. V. Foster, who had been the chief geologist for the Phillips Brothers in Bartlesville, had largely developed the Greater Seminole Field. Foster, as were others, was convinced that there was black gold under Oklahoma City. Foster bought a lease about six miles southeast of Oklahoma City, near what is today SE 59th and Bryant. In June 1928 the company built a derrick and began drilling.

Through July, August, September, and to the end of November, drillers drilled past 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 feet. Foster was positive they would find oil. Working 12-hour shifts, roughnecks kept the rotary rig busy, and finally at shift change the morning of December 4, 1928, at a depth of 6,355 feet, the well blew in and for an hour and half that well ran wild.

Newspaper publisher E.K. Gaylord described the event as a watershed moment in Oklahoma City's history.

"A fabulous Christmas present came to the city December 4, 1928, with the discovery of the oil field within the city limits. The financial panic covered the country in 1929, but our oilfield boom helped carry us through the Depression years."

When wells such as the Oklahoma City Discovery Well Number One ran wild, the roughnecks working the wells were particularly concerned about their safety, for reason people might not realize, as Jack Fitzpatrick, a member of the ITIO Drilling Department, recalled in this interview recorded at an ITIO reunion in 1969.

"The main thing we had trouble with was curious people from the city that knew nothing about the oil field, and it's very dangerous on a well that's flowing loose and no way to control it. The trouble was getting the people back, and the company had to have patrolmen to keep spectators back, and we wasn't afraid of the workmen we was working with but we was very afraid of the people outside of the fire lighting a cigarette or something because the gas was on the ground and the oil spray was sometimes..."

The discovery well was deepened and cased and over the next 27 days produced an amazing 110, 000 barrels. At a $1.56 a barrel, H. V. Foster hit gold, black gold.

The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.