Tag Archives: Olympic Peninsula

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. Continue reading

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