Saturday, June 07, 2008

Oklahoma Wildcatters

The world’s one-time largest oil field celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005. The discovery well for the Glen Pool, located 14 miles south of Tulsa, Oklahoma, came roaring in during the early morning hours of November 22, 1905. At its peak, the field produced 117,000 barrels of oil per day. The field was so prolific that oil was stored in shallow ponds dug around the producing wells. The real story though is how the Ida Glen #1 was discovered in the first place.
Oil was first noticed in Oklahoma by Native Americans. They found oil seeps and springs that they collected and used for medicines and lubricants. News of these “medicine springs” first attracted oil explorers to the state. One of the explorers, drawn by the promise of black gold and untold riches, was Robert F. Galbreath.

Galbreath came from Ohio, drawn by earlier successful drilling in the area by others, to seek his fortune. He soon convinced a local investor, Frank Chelsey, to bankroll his dream. Drilling for oil in 1905 was very different than drilling for oil today. Leases were cheap and most of the drilling done by cable tool rigs made of wood, on location, by local rig builders. After acquiring a block of leases for no apparent geologic reason other than they were cheap and accessible, Galbreath and Chelsey had a cable tool rig built and began drilling.

Cable tool drilling was very slow, about 3’ per hour. Galbreath and Chelsey did the work themselves, each taking turns while living and sleeping on the rig floor. Oil had been discovered in commercial quantities nearby four years earlier. When they finally reached the Red Fork Sand, the producing zone at the earlier discovery, they encountered only a puff of gas. Galbreath and Chelsey had drilled below 1,400’, their money for the project all but depleted.

Little is known of the actual conversations that followed between the two men. One thing is known: their money and their energy were exhausted. They had already penetrated the deepest known producing reservoir in the area. No one at the time had any idea of what might lie below. Smart men would have packed their bags and gone home.

Galbreath and Chelsey weren’t smart men. They were something more: among the first of the breed known as wildcatters. They’d followed their hearts and guts, not their brains, to that field in northeast Oklahoma. Thankfully, they decided to drill deeper.

The next 100’ proved fortuitous. During the early morning hours of November 22, 1905, Galbreath heard a gurgling sound. He pulled out the percussive bit and lowered the bailer into the hole. When he pulled it up, he witnessed the first evidence of the black gold that he and fellow wildcatter Chelsey had sought. When pressure broke through the cumulus in the well bore and oil blew out of the hole, over the crown block, the two knew for sure.

Near destitution, Galbreath and Chelsey quickly became millionaires. The Glen Pool, to date having produced more than 325 million barrels of oil, has made more money than both the California gold rush and the Colorado silver rush. The discovery led to the founding of Tulsa, once known as the “oil capitol of the world.”

The Glen Pool is 100 years old but the real story is that of Galbreath and Chelsey – two original wildcatters and, for sure, true American heroes.

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