Story Time with Aunt Phil: Alaska crude oil’s explosive discovery
Richfield Oil Corporation found crude on the Kenai Peninsula this week in July 1957. That discovery helped Alaska on its way to statehood two years later, as Congress believed that Alaska would now be able to fund its own government.
But that wasn’t the first time Alaskans had found oil. Alaska Natives used the black wealth oozing out of the hills and beaches long before white men came north. Northern Natives burned the tar-like chips, Southeastern Natives used it for war paint and others used oil shale in knives and nose rings.
The Russians also knew of Alaska Peninsula oil seeps as early as 1860, but since whale oil was the important fuel at the time, oil from rocks was ignored. When the Russian fur trade declined, the Russian American Co. began exploring for minerals while searching for gold only a few miles from the Swanson River oil fields. They passed over the oil and settled for a coal prospect near Kachemak Bay in Cook Inlet.
Then almost 30 years after Alaska was transferred to the United States, a trapper accidentally stumbled upon a large source of oil. Literally.
In 1896, Thomas White was hunting bear in the Controller Bay region near Katalla, about 47 miles southeast of Cordova. While tracking a wounded animal, he fell into thick, black mud seeping up from the ground.
After cleaning his gun and himself, he tossed a match into the pit “to see what would happen.” The pool burst into flames and burned for a month.
It became the first producing oil field discovered in Alaska and in 1901, the Alaska Development Corp. – known as the English Co. – drilled its first well. It brought in the first gusher the next year at the mouth of the Bering River, about 15 miles from actively producing coalfields. The New York Timesprinted an overly optimistic report of the find:
“Oil stands in pools and small lakes all over the surface of the lowlands lying east of Copper River … In places, there are lakes of oil covering acres.”
The hillside near the discovery site soon blossomed with oil derricks, drilling equipment, cabins and pipelines. Workers dug deep pits in the bog to temporarily store the crude. Katalla boomed with more than 5,000 people.
Alaska saw more short-lived oil activity over the years, but it was the 1957 discovery at Swanson River by Richfield that turned the tide for Alaska crude and the rush for black gold began in earnest.