A commemorative event was held in October to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the historic Thorla-McKee oil well and salt works of southeastern Ohio.
What made this anniversary all the more interesting is that while the initial well site was destroyed many years ago, the second well (1816) still can be visited – and renovations are under way.
The Thorla-McKee well is located near the town of Caldwell in Noble County, Ohio, a site marked with an Ohio Historical Marker that was dedicated in 1992.
It is an important historical site for the history of North America’s petroleum industry. Much like the 1818 traveler who visited the “natural curiosity” and wrote about the well, the site is still well worth a visit.
The approximately 200-year-old stump-cased well is a highly recommended stop for all workers in the petroleum industry, as well as anyone interested in the early history of the Ohio River Valley.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, salt was brought west on packhorses, across the Appalachians to the Ohio River Valley. Early entrepreneurs realized there was a growing market for salt and a need to develop local sources.
The first salt works in the area was near Marietta, Ohio, and across the Ohio River in what is now West Virginia. While digging wells for salt brine, oil and gas were often encountered.
In 1806, the Ruffner brothers found oil and gas in their salt brine well in the Great Kanawha River valley. By 1815, there were more than 50 salt furnaces along the Kanawha River, and so much oil from the salt works was entering the river that it was known as “Old Greasy.”
In 1814, Silas Thorla and Robert McKee dug a well in search of salt brine near a deer lick in southeastern Ohio. Silas had learned the salt-making process working at a Kanawha salt works.
As with many of the early salt brine wells, the well was dug, or “kicked down,” using the spring pole method. The pole usually consisted of a long hickory sapling, 35-40 feet in length, weighted on one end and braced against a forked stick.
The weighted drilling tools, or bit, were suspended from the sapling; a stirrup, or stirrups, would be attached to the sapling by rope.
Men would place a foot in the stirrup and push down the drill bit into the hole. The pole would then spring back after each “kick.”
The surface hole (“head”) was cased to bedrock – a depth of 16-18 feet – using a 34-inch diameter, hollow sycamore log (“gum”). The well encountered oil and gas associated with the salt brine; a nuisance to the salt operation.
The salt water was boiled down in cast iron kettles, some as large as six feet across.
The salt works was a ’round-the-clock operation, with fires burning under the kettles day and night. Wool blankets were used to soak up the less dense oil, and then the oil was wrung out into large barrels. A large quantity of oil ran into the nearby creek.
The oil was bottled as “Seneca Oil” and sold as a cure for rheumatism, sprains and bruises. Some of the oil was burned in lamps, but it burned with a strong odor and much smoke. Occasionally, minor explosions occurred from small gas pockets igniting.
The salt works was destroyed by fire in 1831.
Working near these salt wells with the associated gas could be dangerous.
Robert Caldwell, who operated another salt works near the Thorla-McKee site, was carrying some blazing coals used to light up the work area. A live coal fell near a well, igniting the gas. Caldwell described a ball of fire rising in the air until it reached the top of a hickory tree, where it then exploded.
Caldwell survived the blast, which reportedly could be heard five miles away.
An early encounter with the Thorla-McKee well also was described in a July 7, 1818, letter from an unknown writer in Woodsville, Ohio, to a friend in Bolten, Conn. A portion of the letter was published in the Oct. 9, 1818, edition of Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia.
The writer described the well as three feet in diameter and 42 feet deep. A portion of a hollow “buttonwood” tree (sycamore) was used as a “curb to prevent people from falling into it.” The well produced five barrels a week, and the oil was “as fine as any oil from the head of a sperm whale.”
Nearby Duck Creek is described as covered with oil for three miles, and in one place the writer measured the oil three feet deep:
“A boy, a few weeks since, in order to ascertain whether oil would burn on water, touched a firebrand to the creek; instantly it was a tremendous flame, which ascended 200 feet in the air, nearly a mile up and down the stream. I saw limbs of trees, which were nearly 100 feet high, burnt off as smooth as if the blaze of a furnace had struck them.”
Previous publications, as well as the Ohio Historical Marker, state that the current well is the second Thorla-McKee well. The first well, drilled in 1814, was covered up shortly after it was dug. Two years later, in 1816, a second well was dug near the site of the first well, and the 1816 well is the well preserved at the present location.
This may explain some of the discrepancies in the depth of the well – various accounts have the well between 200 and 500 feet deep.
In the early 1920s, children on their way to school would stop at the well and fill a tin with oil. They would give the tin of oil to the school janitor, who would use it to start the morning fire for heating the school.
A visit to the well today finds the oil-permeated stump still in place, partially protected by a chain-link fence. The historical area is in need of yearly maintenance, as the nearby creek commonly floods in the spring, damaging the wooden ties that brace the fence.
A sheen of oil on the water-filled stump and an occasional gas bubble attests to the continuous migration of hydrocarbons to the surface.
I collected a sample of the oil and water in May 2007. An analyzed oil sample shows similarities to other oils in the region that were generated from the organic-rich Upper Devonian Ohio Shale. The API gravity of the oil was estimated to be 27.7 based on composition.
The small town of Macksburg is located approximately 10 miles south of the Thorla-McKee well, in Washington County. In 1860, a year after Pennsylvania’s Drake well, this area became the center of activity for the first of several Duck Creek oil booms.
The well generally recognized as the discovery well for the Macksburg oil field was drilled on a William Rayley’s land by James Dutton, Alden T. Warren and John Smithson, on the bank of Duck Creek a half-mile south of Macksburg.
The wellsite location probably was influenced by swimmers in Duck Creek, who would emerge with a film of oil on their bodies, presumably from a nearby oil seep.