First oil well here apparently drilled in 1865; but what it found was coal
By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
What could be the first oil well ever drilled in Henderson County found black gold on Lick Creek in 1865.
But it didn't strike oil -- it was coal.
Nevertheless, it's significant in that it appears to be the first documented instance of an oil well being drilled in this county.
Henderson County has a long and rich oil history, and it comes in at least three distinct chapters. The most famous strike was on the Chap Blackwell farm near Hebbardsville in 1937. It set off a boom that lasted a quarter-century and saw Henderson County become a significant producer.
But there was an earlier boom in 1928, when oil was discovered on the J.E. Knight farm near Niagara. Within two years $500,000 had been invested, and there were 21 drilling rigs active in the county. The Great Depression probably dampened that activity, however.
The earliest case of oil fever occurred just as the Civil War was ending. "At this time (the spring of 1865) the oil craze had absolutely seized the state," according to E.L. Starling's History of Henderson County. "Numerous borings were started in Henderson and Union (counties), and so far as is known a smell was secured once or twice, but never enough oil to grease the spindles of a bicycle."
An article that originally appeared in the Louisville Courier was reprinted in the Henderson Reporter on June 22, 1865, and it spoke highly of the oil potential of the Green River area. It pointed out that the first geological survey of Kentucky, done in 1845 by David Dale Owen -- the renowned pioneer geologist from New Harmony -- discovered evidence of "petroleum or rock oil" in the region.
"Three wells have been sunk for petroleum in this Green River section within the past three weeks and two are yielding a flow of oil," the article reads. "The time is near at hand when the banks of the Green River will be lined with hundreds of derricks, and thousands of barrels of petroleum will be drawn to the surface of the earth from its secret recesses where it has been accumulating for ages."
One of those early wells was chronicled in the Reporter on May 25, 1865. It was located in the Bluff City vicinity -- on the Elisha Williams farm on Lick Creek about two miles from the Green River.
"No deposit of petroleum has yet been discovered, but at the depth of 76 1/2 feet from the surface a vein of coal was struck which promises to rival in riches the renowned 'black diamonds' of Pittsburgh. The vein is six feet in thickness and entirely free from sulfur.
"It is probable that immediate steps will be taken to work the rich vein of coal just discovered."
Most of the earliest local oil exploration activity, however, took place on Highland Creek, on the Henderson-Union county line.
"Union County is in a blaze of excitement from one extreme to the other," the Reporter said on Aug. 21, 1865. "There are no less than four companies now at work on Highland Creek. They have invested money, time and labor and are confident of a large reward.
"The oil business can no longer be regarded as a mere experiment. It is a fixed fact. Oil has been found in such astonishing quantities in several places that the most incredulous are forced to believe."
The paper urged investment, saying development of the oil field would guarantee construction of a railroad to serve this area.
"In general terms we may state that prime oil is certainly issuing from the bed of Highland Creek and many other indications point to the conclusion that vast wealth awaits the enterprising of this country."
This area's first oil boom fizzled, though, according to Starling. He notes that on June 7, 1866, the Henderson and Union Petroleum Co. struck natural gas on Highland Creek at a depth of 450 feet "but from the best information to be had, the unloosed gas rushed out with such force it blew all of the oil out of the well and the company collapsed."
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS