Drilling for Oil on Frenchman Hill

An unidentified traveller in an unidentified location. As the age of the motor car increased demand for petroleum, the industry looked for resources throughout Washington, including in the Columbia Basin.

An information circular published by State Geologist Raymond Lasmanis in 1983 declares that Washington’s first gas and oil resources were spotted on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula as oil seeps in the sea cliffs and mud cones spouting natural gas. That was in 1881. With more than 16,000 feet of basalt flows covering potential petroleum deposits in the Columbia Basin, nobody was really expecting to locate anything there. It was farmland that appeared to be most valuable in that area, and that meant water would have to be supplied.

The early 1900s saw some pretty heroic efforts to bring water to what could become productive farmland. Canals were the favorite projects, luring money from investors from far afield. But in 1913 the Conservative Land Investment Company of Spokane began drilling a well for water on the north slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge. They had reached a depth of just over 700 feet when, to their dismay, it wasn’t water that erupted from their hole, but natural gas. They had no way to accurately measure it, so estimates of the flow rate range from 70,000 to as much as 500,000 cubic feet per day, forced out with a pressure of up to 7 pounds per square inch. You might think they would have tried to contain the flow, but instead the gas from that well and several others in the area was simply vented into the air until 1929. By the time commercial production was attempted, the pressure rate had dropped to around 2 pounds per square inch. Even so, over the next dozen years or so, the Rattlesnake Hills wells produced around 1.3 billion cubic feet of gas until it was shut down in 1941 when the Hanford Reservation was created.

With the Rattlesnake Hills field in production, investors began scouting for similar opportunities. Wildcat operations formed to exploit untouched gas fields hidden beneath the basalt.

Donny Boy Number 1 was drilled into the northeast flank of Frenchman Hill, from 1935-1939. The site is near the west end of O'Sullivan Dam. Photograph by Bror Gustaf Norberg.

People’s Gas & Oil Development Company was one of these wildcat enterprises. W. Gale Mathews of Ephrata was hired to run point in acquiring mineral leases. According to a 1974 letter from Floyd Harris, a local old-timer who witnessed the entire process, land owners on the eastern end of Frenchman Hill were offered ten cents an acre and one twelfth of the all oil found in a well drilled on their property. I had to wonder whether Harris was correct in specifying one twelfth of all the oil, since there weren’t many indications that any oil would ever be found in this region. George Drumheller, the largest landholder in the area refused to sign unless the company agreed to drill on his land first, hoping to get first crack at the production returns. So it was that the well was sited on the northeast flank of Frenchman Hill, not for any geological advantage, but in order to get Drumheller to sign. Drilling was required to begin within a year of signing.

Harris reports that Ephrata driller C. D. Hoff was contracted to begin the well in 1934 with light drilling equipment until heavier bits could be obtained in the fall. Later the work was supervised by the Strauss Construction Company, which also had a contract to work on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. With work underway, stock was easier to sell. Harris claimed that two million dollars worth of stock was eventually circulated.In 1935 he worked at the site, designated Donny Boy Number One in honor of one of the boss’s sons. A wooden derrick 122 feet high was erected.

The January 7, 1935, issue of The Wenatchee World ran a front page suite of photographs to commemorate the dedication ceremony attended by around 500 onlookers. The ceremony had taken place nearly a month earlier, when company president William A. Broome broke a bottle of oil (from the Hoh River oil fields) over the derrick. A beefier twenty-two and a half inch steam-driven bit was used to allow installation of twenty inch casing. Company officials bragged that they were drilling the second largest well ever begun in Washington state, and that they were prepared to sink the hole to 6,500 feet. Around ninety feet down they hit hard basalt. Drilling slowed, but continued until 1939, when the well was abandoned. State records show that their final depth was 4,575 feet, and that the product was a slight showing of natural gas and some tar-like oil that a state geologist called “questionable.” “Apparently,” reads my letter from state geologist Vaughn Livingston, “the people who drilled the hole were lax in keeping records.” Or perhaps landholders who were expecting oil revenues needed to be reassured that nobody had tried to bilk them!

Today you can purchase stock certificates from the People’s Gas & Oil Development Company offering online at various auction houses that deal in  ephemera, priced around forty dollars. They are beautiful examples: federal blue curlicues framing a page of tiny print dominated by a grim George Washington’s portrait. Investors must have taken some comfort in the looks of the certificates, even if the shares ultimately proved worthless.

In the 1980s technological advances in oil prospecting led to renewed interest in the Columbia Basin. I watched teams of prospectors work the verges of Highway 26 one hot day, setting up a portable derrick next to their yellow truck, firing off explosive charges and collecting data about the rock strata below our feet. Nothing came of it at that time, although a number of wells were tested throughout the region. Later on I took a hike out to the homestead and found a tangled heap of electrical cables abandoned by the prospectors. It’s still out there, another relic of another stage of human occupation of the Lower Crab Creek.

Exploration for natural gas continues in the Columbia Basin, with the state auctioning leases as recently as 2005. The state drilling depth record was reached by a well on the Saddle Mountains anticline reaching 17,518 feet. That’s more than three miles! It took from 1982 to 1984 to drill and test the well. This well encountered considerable natural gas but not enough to make production profitable. Another Lasmanis circular from 1991 reports that “besides natural gas, the Columbia Basin is also known for deep ground-water circulation bringing heated waters close to the surface. Such waters are being utilized for geothermal heating purposes at Ephrata, Othello, Yakima, and Walla Walla.”

A 2009 USGS report on potential for natural gas production in the basin reports that several tests of the “fracture stimulation” strategy for increasing production have been attempted, concluding that “the results of fracture stimulation have been mixed and indicate that there is a significant risk of connecting gas reservoirs with water-producing zones.” Something like that would be disastrous for industry, agriculture and individuals throughout the region.

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One response to “Drilling for Oil on Frenchman Hill

  1. Wendy Johnson

    Thank you for your research into Donny Boy #1 and oil drilling in Frenchman Hills. The well’s namesake was my uncle and William Broome was my grandfather. I am searching for hisitory about these times as my grandfather died in 1942, and my father was only 9 years old. I’d love to more share information about this company with you if you’d like.

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