A Day to Remember: The Discovery of Oil in North Dakota

“Light the flare.”

With those words, Blackie Davidson tossed up a lighted, oil-soaked rag and the gas started to burn in a 30-foot-long flare. This was the real beginning – the opening of the Williston Basin to oil production on April 4, 1951. The discovery of oil will always be remembered by those who were in North Dakota at the time. Its effect on the state and the nation can never be properly assessed.

As far as then-North Dakota state geologist Wilson M. Laird was concerned, this day had really started ten years earlier, almost to the month, prior to the actual coming in of the Clarence Iverson No. 1 in Williams County.

“In 1941, the North Dakota Legislature, primarily through the foresight of one man, had passed an adequate oil and gas conservation measure,” Laird said. “That man, George Saumer, was a representative from Grand Forks County – about as far from the oil area in North Dakota as one could be and still be in the state.”

Because of that law, the state was in a position to encourage, through proper regulation, “the development of a resource that has come to mean so much to the state,” Laird added.

Also because of that law, Laird was present in his capacity as state geologist at the testing of the Silurian Interlake Formation in the Clarence Iverson No. 1, an event that opened the Williston Basin.

Witnesses to History

The “why” of his being there goes back to his friendship with Clyde Noe, a resident of Williston.

“Clyde called me about two days before the well came in and told me he thought it was going to come in and he should be there,” he said. “How Clyde knew about the well is a mystery, but it’s possible he learned of it from Blackie Davidson, who was tool pusher on the rig.”

Davidson was someone trusted by everyone in the area, Laid explained. “If Davidson said it was so, it was so. He had far more credibility than any of the technical officials connected with Amerada Petroleum Company or, for that matter, anyone else concerned with the industry.”

Laird went to John C. West, the president of the University of North Dakota, and told him about the well.

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“Light the flare.”

With those words, Blackie Davidson tossed up a lighted, oil-soaked rag and the gas started to burn in a 30-foot-long flare. This was the real beginning – the opening of the Williston Basin to oil production on April 4, 1951. The discovery of oil will always be remembered by those who were in North Dakota at the time. Its effect on the state and the nation can never be properly assessed.

As far as then-North Dakota state geologist Wilson M. Laird was concerned, this day had really started ten years earlier, almost to the month, prior to the actual coming in of the Clarence Iverson No. 1 in Williams County.

“In 1941, the North Dakota Legislature, primarily through the foresight of one man, had passed an adequate oil and gas conservation measure,” Laird said. “That man, George Saumer, was a representative from Grand Forks County – about as far from the oil area in North Dakota as one could be and still be in the state.”

Because of that law, the state was in a position to encourage, through proper regulation, “the development of a resource that has come to mean so much to the state,” Laird added.

Also because of that law, Laird was present in his capacity as state geologist at the testing of the Silurian Interlake Formation in the Clarence Iverson No. 1, an event that opened the Williston Basin.

Witnesses to History

The “why” of his being there goes back to his friendship with Clyde Noe, a resident of Williston.

“Clyde called me about two days before the well came in and told me he thought it was going to come in and he should be there,” he said. “How Clyde knew about the well is a mystery, but it’s possible he learned of it from Blackie Davidson, who was tool pusher on the rig.”

Davidson was someone trusted by everyone in the area, Laid explained. “If Davidson said it was so, it was so. He had far more credibility than any of the technical officials connected with Amerada Petroleum Company or, for that matter, anyone else concerned with the industry.”

Laird went to John C. West, the president of the University of North Dakota, and told him about the well.

“He asked me if I was going to be there. I said that I had four classes to teach that particular day and that I thought I had better stay in Grand Forks. He said, ‘Laird, you don’t get to see an oil well in North Dakota every day; to hell with the classes.’ With that kind of encouragement, I left for Williston,” he recounted.

He arrived at Williston on the evening of April 3 and contacted the Amerada geologists to arrange a visit to the well the next day. There, he met Roy Fuller, Amerada’s district superintendent, who was working out of Casper at the time, but later moved to Williston where, Laird said, “he became an institution in himself.”

Laird described the scene as “a beautiful clear, cool day in North Dakota. The ground was still frozen as the preceding winter had been a cold one.”

“This was not my first visit to the well site, as I had been there in January after the famous ‘pint of oil’ had been obtained in a drill-stem test in the stratigraphically higher Devonian Duperow Formation,” he said. “In January, the drifts of snow had been bulldozed as high as the telephone lines along the road between Highway 2 and the well site six miles south of the highway. High drifts were still apparent on that April day.”

Laird said he, Fuller, Davidson and the drilling crew were about the only people who witnessed this historic event, which began almost exactly at noon on April 4.

“A few local visitors were there too, but Roy asked me to caution them to stay behind the wire stretched across the access road to the site because of the danger always present when such operations are underway,” he said.

On the side of the tank receiving the oil from the well was a trip valve moving up and down rather rapidly.

“Never having seen an oil well come in before, I wanted to know if this was a good sign and if this was really going to make a well,” said Laird. “Roy kept telling me he didn’t know, but I noted that he smiled a lot when he was telling me that. I knew that he had seen many wells come in during his long career with the industry. In the meantime, the flare was burning, the ground beneath was beginning to thaw, and steam was rising in the cool air.”

“Along about 4 p.m., I decided it was time to go back to town to get something to eat and to talk to others about this exciting and historic event I had witnessed,” he recounted. “Among the first people I met on returning to town were the publisher of the newspaper, Herman Zahl and his wife, who invited me to have a steak at their home.”

“About 11 o’clock, someone decided that it might be a good idea to go and see how the well was doing. That seemed like a capital idea, so Herman, his wife and I piled into the car and drove to the well site,” Laird explained. “The flare could be seen from about 10 miles or more from the location. We finally got to the well where, by this time quite a crowd had gathered.”

There was a famous photograph taken that night by Bill Shemorry, a local journalist renowned in North Dakota for his photography. Laird also took a color picture of the sight, which was later reproduced and incorporated in a wooden frame and presented to him by Rodger Denison, the exploration vice president of Amerada.

“After that night scene, we drove rather slowly back to Williston, reflecting on what we had seen and what it would mean to Williams County, Williston and the state of North Dakota,” Laird said.

The discovery of oil in the Clarence Iverson was regarded by many as good luck. Actually, it was a combination of good interpretation of the geology of the area, the knowledge and guts of the company, which took a considerable risk drilling the well, and the vision of many geologists dating back many years – men who had faith in the area.

Notably, in this latter group was Tom Leach, who took the leases on the land, which were later turned to Amerada. However, it is worthy of note that he and others, such as Clyde Noe and many others associated with the early development, didn’t live long enough to see how big it really was.

“In this respect, I feel unduly fortunate. While I am sure they thought it would be big, I doubt if they could visualize the impact the discovery of oil would have on North Dakota,” Laird said.

Shemorry’s Account

The aforementioned Bill Shemorry covered the drilling of the well for the Williston Press-Graphic newspaper, a summary of which follows:

“When Amerada Petroleum Corporation decided to bore a wildcat test in the deepest part of North Dakota’s Williston Basin 39 years ago, its contract with Loffland Drilling Company called for penetration to ‘pay’ or granite, whichever came first. The known geology of the well-site, ten miles south of Tioga, indicated that the bit might have to go 15,000 feet or more. So Loffland came prepared. Their big ‘Standard’ rig with a derrick 136 feet high, that drilled Amerada’s Clarence Iverson discovery well was, up to that time, the second largest to come to North Dakota. The Standard was capable of drilling to the deepest part of the Williston Basin.

A fleet of 14 trucks, running day and night, transported equipment to the drilling site, beginning Aug. 17, 1950. In three weeks’ time a crew of experienced hands had it positioned over the drilling site and ready to go.

“When word went out that drilling would commence, a number of people showed up as the rotary table began to turn and the bit churned into North Dakota earth on Sept. 3, 1951. By Sept. 7 the well had drilled to 1,211 feet. Operations were temporarily suspended when the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company of Newcastle, Wyoming arrived to cement in the 10 and three-quarter-inch diameter surface casing.

“Drilling resumed when the cement had set, this time with a smaller bit that made a nine-inch hole. The drillers were headed for the deep…

“Amerada sent experienced oilmen to oversee the project. Roy Fuller, production superintendent, along with Blackie Davidson, drilling superintendent, were in charge.

“Winter came and with it a lot of snow. At times the rig was isolated by huge drifts that clogged the road. The only contact with the outside was by radio. During one such occasion food had to be flown in.

“Three bulldozers kept the road open, but even so, it was sometimes impassable. One crew, made up primarily of men from the south, quit in the face of a blizzard.

“A North-Dakota oil-field joke: as a worker walked away from the rig, another guy asked: ‘Where you going?’

“Answer: ‘To get my jacket.’ ‘Where is it?’ Answer: ‘In Texas.’

“But both equipment and men survived and on Jan. 3, 1951 an encouraging pint of oil was recovered during a drill-stem test at 10,500 feet.

“The two-mile depth was reached and passed. Plans were to test at 11,706 – 11,720 feet, but the drill bit got stuck in the hole. A Tulsa Halliburton cement crew had been summoned preparatory to cementing, perforating the pipe and testing. They stood by at a cost of $70 an hour for two weeks until the stuck bit was ‘fished’ out.

“The cementing completed, Lane Wells technicians lowered their tools into the hole and perforated the drill pipe. Swabbing operations on March 23 recovered three gallons of 45 gravity crude oil. Now the oilmen knew they were onto something big. A third perforation of the well was done on March 28 at 11,630 – 11,660 feet, and on April 1, 4,000 gallons of acid went into the hole. That was all that was needed.

“On the afternoon of April 4, Fuller and Davidson, along with State Geologist Wilson Laird and members of the drilling crew, witnessed the first real oil production in the state of North Dakota. A seventeen-hour test brought 307 barrels of 55 gravity oil (real good stuff) to the surface.”

Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the “eureka” moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn’t? – and you’d like to share it with your fellow AAPG Members, contact Hans Krause at historical.highlights@yahoo.com

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(Editor’s Note: The author leaned heavily on a piece originally written by Wilson M. Laird as source material for this article.)

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