Bonner County’s (Very Brief) Gas and Oil Booms

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Oil train traveling westward on 11 March 2016, as seen from the Pend Oreille Bay Trail near Sandpoint

In recent years, our area has seen an increasing number of trains hauling coal and oil from Montana to refineries and ports on the coast. It’s not uncommon to see trains, with up to one hundred tanker cars, crossing the two-mile bridge at Sandpoint, rumbling over the wide expanse of water where Lake Pend Oreille flows into the Pend Oreille River. Opposition to both the trains and the products they carry has been growing throughout the region. Many residents cite the possibility of a derailment with resulting devastation. Others worry about the effect of burning coal and oil on our rapidly changing climate. And some people still scoff at these dire predictions.

It might surprise some folks to learn that there were several efforts to generate interest in a possible field of natural gas in the Clark Fork valley. Local residents had long known that bubbles of some sort of gas could be seen in the water at the mouth of the Clark Fork River. Around 1912, two men from Hope tried to secure options from nearby landowners to facilitate further exploration, but they failed to secure enough land to make any investment worthwhile.

Byron E. Cooney had the financial wherewithal to make this dream a reality in 1914. He was a newspaperman from Butte, Montana, who formerly had been associated with Interstate Telephone Company. Cooney hired E.G. Sinclair, an expert in gas and petroleum exploration in Venezuela, to look at the natural gas possibilities in the Clark Fork Valley. They recruited Joe Picard, a settler on the Glengary Peninsula, to show them where gas was escaping at the Clark Fork delta. The three men boated across the lake and into the shallow water where they found a large area with gas bubbling to the surface. Picard had rigged an old oil can with a gas jet soldered at the top. He set the can, probably with its base removed, over one of the bubbling sites. Within just a few minutes, he had captured enough gas so that when he lit the jet “it burned a beautiful streak of flame.” The men celebrated by lighting their cigars from the flame.

This flame was enough to impress even Mr. Sinclair. The men managed to bottle some of the gas in a five-gallon glass jar, sealing the opening well with a cork and paraffin. They shipped it to the Messemer Gas Company in Grove City, Pennsylvania, which rated the sample as a “fine dry commercial gas.”

Encouraged by this assay report, Cooney tried to raise capital for further exploration through drilling. He approached another Montana entrepreneur, Thaddeus S. Lane, who owned Home Telephone and Telegraph Company in Spokane. It had grown rapidly in the previous decade, but by 1914 Lane was feeling a credit pinch. He advanced just $200 for Sinclair to do additional work but, according to Cooney, was willing to invest as much as $15,000 if the results looked promising.

Sinclair began studying the underlying geology while Cooney attempted to get options from landowners along the banks of the river. Seven of the eight owners were willing to cooperate but one was adamant in his refusal. Cooney later wrote that the “old Rube . . . said, ‘By heck,’ spat tobacco and declared we couldn’t set a durn foot [on] his ground unless we planked down $50,000 in cash. Needless to say, we didn’t do that.”

That was not the only roadblock. Sinclair soon got discouraged after analyzing the geology, estimating that there was a granite crust 5,000 feet thick lying above any potential underground reservoir of gas. Cooney saw the writing on the wall and gave up on his plans. Someone else might find a solution someday, he said, “but my vision of wealth has vanished.”

Two men revived interest in the rumored gas and oil field in 1920. Over several months, C.G. Lewis of Chicago and Herbert C. Harris of Spokane procured leases on land in the area, promising the owners 10 percent royalties on the output of any “gusher.” Like Cooney, they captured samples of the gas and sent it to the Bessemer Oil Company in Pittsburgh for analysis. They were pleased with the results, talked up their plans at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and soon disappeared from the news.

While there may have been further explorations in subsequent years, it was not until 1950 that actual drilling took place. This time, the search was for oil and the effort was pushed by a woman, none other than Nina Owen, widow of Sam Owen and long time resident of the Hope Peninsula. Mrs. Owen told the newspaper that she and her late husband had long believed that there was gas and oil lying under the Hope and Clark Fork areas. When they had a new water well drilled in the late 1940s, they found good water at 85 feet but decided to go down to 300 feet just to see what they might find. In addition to the good water, they noticed that a small bit of oil showed up when they did not pump the well regularly. An analysis showed that it was indeed petroleum oil.

After Mr. Owen died in 1949, Mrs. Owen decided to pursue their dream. She tried to convince the Canadian-American Oil Corporation in Spokane to help, but their crews were busy with work in the Canadian fields. Undaunted, she continued to pester the company’s office until officials agreed to send geologists to examine the the site. They apparently liked what they found and reported that there was a good possibility of hitting oil and/or gas without having to drill too deep.

036

Canadian-American Oil Corporation drill rig on Nina Owen’s property near Hope.  (Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 14 December 1950.)

Between June 1950 and the end of that year, the company signed twenty-seven leases, with two more in subsequent years. The leases covered well over 7,000 acres from the Hope Peninsula east through the Clark Fork Valley. The lessees agreed to allow use of their land for “mining and operating for oil and gas and of laying pipe,” along with construction of tanks, towers, and other structures. Each lease was for two years, or for as long as any oil and gas was produced on the land. In return, the landowners were promised royalties of one-eighth of the amount produced from the land, as well as free gas for reasonable domestic use. To accommodate farmers, Canadian-American agreed to bury any pipes below plow depth and to pay for any crop damages from their operations. If no wells were drilled on the land by the end of June 1952, the lease would be terminated.

037

Nina Owen (left) christening PauWau Well No. 1, with Mrs. Buchanan and Mrs. Waugh. (Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 21 December 1950.)

Of course, one of the lessees was Nina Owen who signed a lease covering 327 acres on the Hope Peninsula, excluding Buena Vista Beach and Owens Lake Shore lots. By November 1950, the drilling crew began setting up a derrick and getting the cable rig ready to start work at a site not far from the Owen home. All was in order by mid-December when a delighted Mrs. Owen christened the well while the wives of the driller and company president watched.

034

Drill crew: Roy Soeteber, I.W. Buchanan, Charles (Dutch) Schlicht, and Edd Helmers, all of Clark Fork. (Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 14 December 1950.)

Drilling on what became known as the PauWau Well No. 1 did not go as smoothly as hoped. Work was slowed first by cold weather and then by quicksand and caving walls. The worst seemed to be over by mid-February 1951 when the drill had reached 350 feet and samples showed oil. H.J. Waugh, Canadian-American president, found these oil seeps “very encouraging” but cautioned that they were “not enough to indicate that we have anything like commercial production as yet.” Sporadic drilling continued over the next several months, slowed by a shortage of steel casing and, more importantly, money. Drilling stopped at about 570 feet in the late spring and it is unclear if it ever resumed. Waugh promised that the rig would be working again in August, but the local newspaper made no mention of any further work.

Today the Hope Peninsula is a wildlife preserve where tame deer wander across lawns of expensive waterfront homes. Mrs. Owen’s modest frame house has been moved across the road to make room for a new home with an expansive lake view. Farther east, especially on the south side of the river, the Clark Fork Valley retains much of its historic agricultural use. Current residents of these beautiful areas likely are glad that Mrs. Owen and others failed to find the vast underground treasures of their dreams.

Sources:

“Promoter Tackles Hope Gas Field,” Northern Idaho News, 1 June 1915, 1:5-6ff; “Oil Fields To Be Looked For In Clarksfork Valley,” Pend d’Oreille Review, 24 September 1920, 1:6; “Experiment with River Gas,” Pend d’Oreille Review, 1 October 1920, 1:2; “Clarksfork Gas Test Shows Natural Origin,” Pend d’Oreille Review, 29 October 1920; “Oil Drill to Probe For Black Gold And Gas on Sam Owen Ranch This Fall, Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 9 November 1950, 1:1-2ff; “Oil Rig Nearly Ready; To Spud In Shortly,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 30 November 1950, 1:2; “Oil Rig To Spud In About Dec. 15,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 1:7; photos, Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 14 December 1950, 1:3-5; photos, Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 21 December 1950, 1:3-5; “Oil Drilling Rig On 12-Hour Shift,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 28 December 1950, 1:4; “Oil Well Driller Is Making Steady Progress,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 1 February 1951, 5:3; “Casing Is Set in Oil Well At Hope, Driller Reports,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 8 February 1951, 1:1; “Oil Showings in Wildcat at Hope,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 15 February 1951, 1:2; “Drilling Resumed At Wildcat Well,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 29 March 1951, 1:8; “Verify Oil Showing In Hope Wildcat,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 12 April 1951, 1:7; “Oil Well Drilling to Be Resumed Next Week,” Sandpoint News-Bulletin, 9 August 1951, 1:3; Bonner County, Lease, Book 2:136-198, 244-246, 312-313, 383; Jesse Tinsley, “Then and Now: Spokane’s Telephone Companies,” Spokesman-Review, 14 March 2016.

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