Frontier Exploration in the Rocky Mountain West

There are times when national and local forces combine in such a way that the entire hydrocarbon value chain is realized in a frontier area over the course of only a few years. Such was the case for the natural gas fields in southwestern Wyoming over the decades of the 1920s to the ‘40s.

The local stage was set when religious pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began settling the Salt Lake Valley in the late 1840s, in what is now Utah. Their settlement grew into a city, and they eventually started using natural gas to light the streets.

The national stage was set when John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust was broken up by the U.S. government in 1911. One of the spinoff companies was the Ohio Oil Company.

Those Damned Geologists

The Ohio Oil Company began prospecting in Wyoming in 1912. By 1922 their exploration efforts had pushed as far west as Rock Springs, Wyo. James McFadyen was an Ohio Oil Company manager who directed the company’s exploration efforts in Wyoming. Despite his lack of formal education, McFadyen had a knack for getting the job done and for finding whatever he was searching for. He also had a strong dislike for geologists. One story goes that when he was drilling for water near Elk Mountain, Wyo., he hired a geologist to pick the location. The location the geologist staked was drilled and came up dry. It is reported that McFadyen exclaimed, “Those damned geologists!”, after which he proceeded to walk around the location sniffing the air with his nose upturned. He staked his own spot and had the driller set to work. The well came in with a rate of 6,000 gallons of water per day.

It turns out that McFadyen’s nose was a little better at finding water than oil, at least around Rock Springs. When the Ohio Oil Company drilled their prospect on the Rock Springs Uplift in the Baxter Basin, the well encountered the Frontier Sandstone at approximately 2,000 feet (measured depth) and gauged natural gas at 17 MMCFD. This was a geologic success and an economic failure. In 1922 there was no market for the gas and no transportation to take it elsewhere. As such, the Ohio Oil Company had a stranded asset.

Image Caption

Ohio Oil Company’s Baxter Basin Prospect Map. The star indicates the location of the first well in the Baxter Basin.

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There are times when national and local forces combine in such a way that the entire hydrocarbon value chain is realized in a frontier area over the course of only a few years. Such was the case for the natural gas fields in southwestern Wyoming over the decades of the 1920s to the ‘40s.

The local stage was set when religious pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began settling the Salt Lake Valley in the late 1840s, in what is now Utah. Their settlement grew into a city, and they eventually started using natural gas to light the streets.

The national stage was set when John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust was broken up by the U.S. government in 1911. One of the spinoff companies was the Ohio Oil Company.

Those Damned Geologists

The Ohio Oil Company began prospecting in Wyoming in 1912. By 1922 their exploration efforts had pushed as far west as Rock Springs, Wyo. James McFadyen was an Ohio Oil Company manager who directed the company’s exploration efforts in Wyoming. Despite his lack of formal education, McFadyen had a knack for getting the job done and for finding whatever he was searching for. He also had a strong dislike for geologists. One story goes that when he was drilling for water near Elk Mountain, Wyo., he hired a geologist to pick the location. The location the geologist staked was drilled and came up dry. It is reported that McFadyen exclaimed, “Those damned geologists!”, after which he proceeded to walk around the location sniffing the air with his nose upturned. He staked his own spot and had the driller set to work. The well came in with a rate of 6,000 gallons of water per day.

It turns out that McFadyen’s nose was a little better at finding water than oil, at least around Rock Springs. When the Ohio Oil Company drilled their prospect on the Rock Springs Uplift in the Baxter Basin, the well encountered the Frontier Sandstone at approximately 2,000 feet (measured depth) and gauged natural gas at 17 MMCFD. This was a geologic success and an economic failure. In 1922 there was no market for the gas and no transportation to take it elsewhere. As such, the Ohio Oil Company had a stranded asset.

A man named J.C. Donnell came to the rescue.

Creating a Market

J.C. Donnell was an engineer with the Ohio Oil Company in the eastern United States. He was familiar with recent innovations in manufacturing steel pipe and utilizing it to transport natural gas. He knew that the community in Salt Lake City used natural gas and was the closest population center to the Baxter Basin discovery. He also knew that another company, the Producers and Refiners Corporation, had a stranded gas discovery in the Dakota Sandstone at a nearby field called Clay Basin. He figured that if the pioneers could get wagons across the overland trail into the Salt Lake Valley, then he could build a steel natural gas pipeline along the same route. He formed a company called Western Public Services Corporation and brought the Baxter Basin and Clay Basin discoveries into the new corporation. They set to work on the pipeline and by 1929, Baxter Basin natural gas flowed to Salt Lake City.

During the construction of the pipeline, another story unfolded in the region surrounding Rock Springs. Wilford Woodruff “Wiff” Wilson was born to Utah pioneer immigrants in 1862. He became a rancher and in his early years moved with his wife Florence and their sons to northwestern Colorado. In 1909, while riding through the Hiawatha Dome area, he and his sons stopped for a break at Ratton Spring. Wilson looked down and noticed bubbles coming up through the water and a sheen on top of the water. He took his soup can, poked a hole in the bottom, turned it over and collected some of the bubbles. He tried to light them on fire and, sure enough, they burned. A vison of rigs and pipes and industry formed in Wilson’s mind as he imagined the oil and gas potential of the Hiawatha area.

Wilson turned his ranching operation over to his wife and sons and became a promoter of the area. He secured the leases over the Hiawatha Dome. He also secured many investors who stuck with him right up to the point of drilling a well, and then backed out. When the leasing act changed, he lost all of the leases he originally acquired and had to lease the acreage again. Finally, in 1926, W.T. Morris of the American Chain Company put up the money to drill the lease. The well was named the “Florence Wilson No. 1,” after Wilson’s wife. Its initial production was 45 MMCFD from a shallow sand in the Wasatch Formation. He realized his dream of a natural gas well on the Hiawatha Dome. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1928, before he could realize the financial reward for his efforts. Wilson’s well caught the attention of Western Public Services Corporation which needed to fill their pipeline to Salt Lake City.

This brings us to the next character in our story, W.T. Nightingale.

Nightingale Sings

W.T. Nightingale was born in Carbonado, Wash. in 1897. He earned a bachelor’s in geology from the University of Washington and then worked for Whitehall Petroleum of London where he prospected in India and southeast Asia. He returned to the United States after his assignment with Whitehall to earn his master’s in geology from UW before he was hired by the Ohio Oil Company. His first assignment with Ohio was on loan to Western Public Services Corporation to map Wilson’s Hiawatha Dome discovery.

Nightingale and his team mapped the Hiawatha Dome and then turned their attention a few miles to the east to a surface anticline they named Powder Wash.

They mapped Powder Wash and in 1930 the Western Public Services Corporation began drilling operations on the crest of the structure. With a cable tool rig, they drilled 2,145 feet in the first drilling season. When they came back in the spring, they drilled 7 more feet and gauged gas in a Wasatch sand at 34 MMCFD. This was a very similar result to the Hiawatha discovery and was the first discovery made by Western Public Services. The company name was soon changed to Mountain Fuel Supply Company. At this point, Mountain Fuel had four assets: Baxter Basin, Clay Basin, Hiawatha and Powder Wash. Nightingale’s field mapping efforts that year would lead, over the next few decades, to the discovery of West Hiawatha, Sugar Loaf, Canyon Creek, Trail and Kinney fields. It was a prolific field season for discoveries and firmly established Mountain Fuel as a major oil and gas player in the Rocky Mountains. It also firmly established Nightingale’s position in the new company as chief geologist.

After the 1929-30 field season, Nightingale immediately set to work finding more natural gas. In reports to the board of directors as early as 1931, he indicated that they would need more natural gas in close proximity to the pipeline route to meet demand in Salt Lake City. He identified the Green River/Bridger Basin as the next logical place to explore. By 1933, he identified subtle folds near the Blacks Fork River that looked like the Hiawatha and Powder Wash structures. These turned out to be dry in the Wasatch Formation, which was a major disappointment, since the Wasatch had been so reliable in other company assets.

Nightingale continued his efforts despite the setback. Mountain Fuel shot its first seismic survey in the Green River Basin in 1940. They continued the seismic work in 1941 and found “excellent folding at considerable depth” along the pipeline route in what was known as the Church Buttes area. In 1942-43, they continued to process and interpret the seismic, and by the end of 1943 they acquired leases in the Church Buttes area.

In 1944 they staked the Church Buttes No. 1 well location, and with the end of World War II there was finally enough steel to drill the well in 1946. The Church Buttes No. 1 well was drilled to 12,984 feet and became the deepest well drilled in the Rockies to that point. It encountered the Dakota sand, which tested gas at 30 MMCFD. This opened the Church Buttes field and eventually led to extensive development in the surrounding areas of the southern Moxa Arch.

Curiously, in 2019, the Church Buttes No. 1 well was slated for abandonment. During the operation, the well resumed production. After 76 years and more than 60 BCF of cumulative production, the well is still flowing at 1 MMCFD, with little decline.

Nightingale became CEO of Mountain Fuel Supply Company and served in that position until 1962. At his retirement, Mountain Fuel’s fields ranged from the original company assets to the Church Buttes field, to the Uinta and Paradox basins in Utah, to the northern Green River Basin. Nightingale built the operating footprint that the successor companies (Questar/Wexpro and now Dominion Energy) still develop today.

Teamwork

Like all accomplishments in the oil and gas industry, however, he didn’t do it alone. The work of company men like McFadyen and Donnell, and intrepid ranchers like Wiff Wilson, laid the groundwork for Nightingale’s discoveries to find a market. Trappers and pioneers forged the route across Wyoming and into the Salt Lake Valley and established cities that made natural gas discoveries meaningful. There are so many others, like drillers, pumpers, surveyors and their families, who contributed to the work but whose names are lost to history. All these individuals contributed to the establishment of an industry in the Rocky Mountains that has sustained economic development and human prosperity for nearly 100 years.