The following is derived primarily from a publication by Donald H. Kupfer, Ph. D. who was a retired professor from Louisiana State University. This publication is entitled “Canon City’s Oil Spring, Fremont County Colorado” and it is available through the American Association of Petroleum Geologists website. It covers both the very early wells as well as development of the Florence Oil field and it is extremely well researched and well illustrated as well so you should obtain this report if you want the full story. This post is based on the part of that report dealing with the very early oil wells.
It is well documented that the first U.S. oil well was drilled in 1859 in Titusville, PA. It’s interesting to note that the town site of Canon City was first platted in December of 1859 about the time that a major gold migration was occurring in Colorado (primarily Denver). When the Colorado gold rush occurred in the 1859-60 time period all of the area including the Canon City area were within Indian treaty lands. These are lands that by law were not subject to claim. Most of the first gold claims were actually illegal. In order to establish pseudo-legality to their claims, many Fifty-Niners formed “Claim Clubs”.
In March of 1860, thirty five male citizens from “Kanion Ctty and the Arkasas Valey and its Tributaries” gathered together to establish a Claim Club. They used a barkeeper’s notebook as a Claim Book (CB) to record their “Constitution” and thereafter their claims. Most of the claims were to 160 acres for farming along the bottom-lands of the Arkansas River and adjacent perennial streams.
The United States government obtained most of Eastern Colorado from various Indian tribes in a treaty of 1861 taking away lands previously designated for them by treaty in 1851 and as such the government recognized Fremont County. The Claim Club was disbanded on Jan. 25, 1862 and the Claim Book deposited with the new county recorder, Matthew G Pratt. All of the early claims relative to the Oil Spring were recorded in the Claim Book.
A grain-miller and sometime prospector Gabriel F. Bowen saw an oil spring along Oil Creek (Four Mile Creek) in August 1860. Using the newly formed Claim Club he claimed it in the name of “G. Bowen & Co” thus recording Colorado ‘ s first oil company. From the first edition o f the Canon Times, also called the Canon City Times:
“New Discovery-G. Bowen of this place, last week discovered an Oil Spring eight miles from this city in a northeastern direction, which runs five gallons per hour. This oil resembles in smell and light, the coal oil so much in use in the States, and doubtless a goodly fortune can be made preparing it for burning purposes. Mr B. has recorded the claim, and purposes trying what can be done with the discovery.”
Gabriel Bowen probably he had no knowledge of mining. According to the U.S. Census of 1850, Gabriel had a wife, Nancy and six children. In 1860 Gabriel tried his luck in California Gulch (near Leadville) and returned to the new, but non-mining settlement of Canon City.
A short time later in November of 1860, Gabriel sold the claim to a Dr. Dunn, who four months later is convicted of stealing cattle. As a result of this trial which caused Dr. Dunn’s abrupt departure, a series of six transactions are recorded consecutively in the Claim Book (CB). According to marginal notes made in the Claim Book, all six were received by the secretary from noon to 3 PM on Monday, March 11, 1861.
On January 26, 1862, three of these owners (Pratt, Heath, & Barnes) sell their interests to a Sherwood and Cassiday from Denver. Later while Sherwood was working on the process of making coal oil from the Oil Spring crude, he received severe injuries from an explosion of a chemical retort, and seems to have had no further connection with the Oil Spring.
The main character in our story now rotates around Alexander M. Cassiday. In 1860, when the oil excitement was raging in Pennsylvania, he with his family left his home in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and started for Colorado. In the latter part of 1860 Mr. Cassidy had located in Denver and was engaged in the practice of law in the office of D.C. Collier.
On October 28 of 1862, three men formed a company to develop the “coal oil spring”. These men included Matthew G. Pratt who was one of the original owners who had repurchased a one third interest. The third man was Benjamin Roop. They entered into an arrangement for the working and developing the Coal Oil spring north of Canon City Colorado Territory. The property, valued at $2,100, and was described as centered on “the Oil spring on Four Mile Creek or Oil Creek”.
On January 6, 1863, Roop & Cassiday made a 4-inch bore to 23 feet; Colorado’s first oil well! The Rocky Mountain Daily News (Jan. 8, 1863) reported:
“Messrs. Roup, Cassaday, and Pratt are pushing improvements on their oil spring . . . they are boring with expectation of striking the main vein direct. The bore is four inches in diameter and at last accounts was down twenty-three feet.
During the night the bore fills up with oil, and it runs out over the surface.”The . . . boiler is set up ready for work. The company has the capital and will push the enterprise to a successful termination . . . materially cheapening the cost of burning fuel.”
In 1863 the Civil War was in full fury. Canon City was almost deserted, and the Denver newspapers more or less ignored the Oil Spring. Mr. Kupfer speculated that Cassiday was commuting to New York and Boston to promote his various claims for both oil and gold in the 1863 time period.On August 19, 1865, in Boston, Alexander M. Cassiday and his wife Lucia sold the “Colorado Oil property” to George G. Wilder, Benjamin T. Stephenson and George B. Nichols of Boston for $130,000. Cassiday only remained in control of the Oil Spring until the Boston owners could send out a man from Boston to supervise operations.
Our story of Cassiday and the oil well appears to overlap with the story of Marshall and Amanda Felch at this point. You see, Marshall and Amanda had returned to New England and they were most likely living in Boston with Marshall working as a shoemaker. They were married there a short time later in December of 1865 and the news of the oil spring discovery and development in Colorado would have been news.
The Boston owners sent out James Murphy to manage and further develop the property. Murphy was still working the property in 1869 when Persifor Frazer, Jr. of the Hayden Survey visited the site.
“Seven miles up the Canon, through which runs Four-mile Creek, are four oil wells, which have been sunk by a Denver company, under the direction of Mr. James Murphy, who resides by and takes care of them . …”
”The works are very primitive as yet. Scaffoldings surmount the mouths of two of the wells, and the oil is got out by pumping … “Mr Murphy states that these oil wells have been opened six years [i.e 1863], the half of which time he has resided on the ground, and estimates the annual production of oil at about four thousand gallons.”
A couple of interesting land dealings in relationship to this oil well site is also worth describing. First off the oil claim did not provide title to the land. It was a claim with some rights but the ownership of the land. After 1862 ownership could be obtained through the new homestead law signed by Abraham Lincoln. One caveat though was a homestead patent would not be a legal way to obtain a patent where the oil wells were as that type of land patent was set up for “non mineralized” lands and land with oil would not be considered non mineralized. Never the less this tool was used for obtaining patent to part of the oil spring land. The process was illegal, but legalities were commonly ignored on the “frontier”.
Another tool used to obtain land patents were military scripts which is how the land Marshall Felch was first claimed. Congress also provided that war veterans could be issued “script” allowing them to “patent” mineral-free land without needing to homestead it (i.e. build, farm, and live on the land). The first ‘jumping” of the Colorado Oil Properties occurred in 1865 when A.M. Cassiday patented 80 acres which overlapped the southern part of the oil property. Lot 2 included mainly the Dakota Hogback and water-gap. He built a cabin on the site and later transferred ownership to his son, Des Moines Cassiday.
This is all an interesting story but the bottom line is that this is not a location where any significant commercial production could be expected. In 1874, while making a horseback survey for coal and oil lands for the USGS, S. G. Williams visited the Oil Spring and concluded:
“The nature of the strata in which these wells are situated, with what we know of the underlying rocks, does not afford any very favorable prospect of a large supply of oil from this locality. “
Thanks goes to Mr. Kupfer for his extensive research into this story.