Oil Found In Breathitt

By Stephen D. Bowling

The news went out on New Year’s Day in 1903. After years of speculation and attempts, the first successful commercial oil well had been drilled in Breathitt County and was producing marketable oil. Leasers and oil “wildcatters” were crawling over the hill of Frozen Creek looking to lease property for the coming oil boom.

The Louisville Courtier-Journal published a small article about oil leases in Breathitt County during the first oil title boom in Breathitt County. The article ran on page 3 of the Sunday, September 29, 1895 edition.

Oil speculators first came into Breathitt County in the 1880s hoping that the large presence of salt licks and brine also indicated the presence of oil and gas seams. They had some success but did don’t engage in commercial drilling. Large leases were accumulated, and many were later sold when it appeared that a richer filed lay to the west of the Frozen Creek area.

An advertisement for a 6,500-acre tract of coal and oil land in Breathitt County appeared on page 23 of The Minneapolis Journal on May 2, 1903

The well on the Mace Cope place was not the first in Breathitt County. Engineers from the Mt. Sterling Oil and Gas Company announced in December 1902 that the first attempt produced “black lubricating oil” from a shallow well on Frozen Creek. The engineers described the oils as “of the thick, black variety, and sand struck at a depth of sixty-eight feet.” The oil from that first attempt proved too thick to pump, and the well was capped. They did not that the seams produced “great volumes of gas” and several geologists believed that the frozen area held more gas than oil because it was on the “edge of the great field of oil.”

An example of an early oil rig from Levee in Montgomery County, Kentucky illustrates the style first used in Breathitt County in 1903.

Another attempt was made a few miles away on the Mason “Mace” Cope farm. The drillers found greater success, and the results were published on New Year’s Day 1903 in The Louisville Courier-Journal.




Nearly All the Land In That Region Leased By Corporations Or Individuals.

Jackson, Ky., Jan. 1. [Special.] Oil in small quantities has been obtained by the Mt. Sterling Oil and Gas Company, operating on the Mace Cope farm, on Frozen creek, in this county.

The Pennsylvania Anchor Oil and Gas Company is drilling its second well on the same creek, about two miles from the Cope farm.  This company put down the first well that was sunk in Breathitt county, striking a considerable flow of gas at a depth or 1,800 feet.  W. R. Hamilton is the promoter of the Pennsylvania company, which is composed mainly of Pennsylvania and West Virginia people, the only local stockholders being S. S. Taulbee, L. Y. Redwine, J. S. Head and G. W. Fleenor.

The first oil company formed in Breathitt county was organized about fifteen months ago, and is known as the Breathitt County Oil and Gas Company.  It is composed altogether of county men.

They have never begun active operations for oil, it being their policy to sublet their leaseholds to other companies.  A part of the territory now being operated by the Pennsylvania Anchor Oil and Gas Company was transferred to that company by the Breathitt County Oil and Gas Company.  The county people will probably furnish the bulk of the territory that will soon be operated by the Kentucky River Oil and Gas Company, now being formed at Beattyville to drill for oil in Lee and Breathitt counties.

Almost all the land in Breathitt county has been leased either by companies or by private individuals.  It is thought by the oil men here that such oil as may be found in this county will be at a considerable depth.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, Friday, January 2, 1903, page 9

The oil booms in Breathitt County can and went. A large boom happened in 1916, in the 1920s, and again during the World Wars. Each time companies from around the world come to Breathitt County looking for a way to get rich. With each boom, Breathitt County oil and gas met the needs of the effort.

The Berea Citizen promoted the “wild-cat” efforts of oil speculators on the front page of its June 29, 1916 edition.

Over the subsequent decades, the oil industry road the highest and lows of the international economy. Large oil fields opened by Sun Oil and Ashland Oil near Fixer in Lee County, Kentucky helped stabilize the industry in Breathitt County. By 1958, Breathitt County had 49 producing wells with 59 active rigs that added more than 400 barrels a day to the Kentucky economy. By 1959, a new well on War Creek was producing more than 500 barrels a day by itself. Most of the Breathitt County wells were concentrated in the Shoulderblade-Highland area and were producing oil at about 1,200 to 1300 feet.

The Cincinnati Enquirer touted Breathitt County’s oil production in a small article on July 14, 1959.
A rig drilling for oil stood on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River on the Earl Prater property. This well later produced a “flowing well” with a daily tally of more than 100 barrels for more than 30 years before it was abandoned.
Trucks from Ashland Oil waited at the top of Chenowee Hill to load in April 1958. The crude was hauled from Breathitt County to Lee County where Ashland had its base of operation.
The Cincinnati Post published an article on page one of the March 26, 1958 edition after oil was discovered on the Little farm of Robert Gabbard.”

There would be other booms of Breathitt County oil and gas in the later decades of the 20th century, but no huge impacts were felt in the county. Many of the old gas and oil leases are still active. Several wells are still producing across the county. After the 1970s, foreign oil nearly eliminated the local oil booms, but that “black liquid gold” still lies below the ground in Breathitt County just waiting for the next big domestic boom like the one sparked on New Year’s Day 1903.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Businesses, Frozen Creek, Industry, Oil and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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