EL DORADO, Kan. – These days El Dorado is probably best known as the place where President Obama’s maternal grandfather grew up for a while. It’s less well known for its oil and gas museum.
The oil industry in Kansas is 152 years old, dating from a well drilled in 1860. But it wasn’t until 1892-93 that a team of prospectors drilled the Norman #1 well and discovered a gusher in what became the large Mid-Continent field. The oil rush was on. Before long, Standard Oil had built a refinery in Neodesha and one company alone, belonging to I.N. Knapp, had more than a thousand operating oil wells around the town of Chanute and his own rail cars to ship the oil. By 1903 there were 100 oil companies operating in Kansas. New discoveries in late 1915 sparked another boom and the population of El Dorado grew to 7,000, seven times its size a year and a half earlier. Then it grew to 20,000 people within five years. In 1916, the first of six refineries opened, one of which is still functioning and drawing crude from the big pipeline hub in Cushing, Okla.
The museum has photographs of early towns and encampments that bear a striking resemblance to what we saw in the oil sands boom town of Fort McMurray in Canada or the “Bakken boom” towns of North Dakota. A photo of Oil Hill taken for the Empire Gas & Fuel Co. shows rows of small, hastily-built flimsy houses in exact lines, much like the trailer parks in North Dakota these days. Pipe lay all over the dirt roads. In the early 20th century, though, the drilling rigs stood even closer together, practically touching. Conditions looked terrible and oil was spilled frequently. While people these days fret over a spill of 400 barrels along the pipelines, people back then could have used an EPA or pipeline safety administration. The Norma #1 spewed oil for many days before it could be capped and brought under control.
In 1918, the El Dorado oil field was the biggest producing field in the United States. Even today, Kansas ranks 10th in the nation among oil producing states and 11th in natural gas production. It also ranks 10th in wind energy production.
But the chaotic development of a century ago has faded – at least in Kansas if not in North Dakota.