January 17, 2021

Oil and gas development in Wyoming predates the state itself.
As far back as the early 19th century explorers in what is now Wyoming reported evidence of oil. In 1832, when fur trader Capt. Bonneville traveled to the Wind River Valley, he found oil springs southeast of present Lander near Dallas Dome, where the state’s first oil well would be drilled five decades later.
For centuries, native people seined off the oil, using the greasy residues for war paint, decoration on hides and teepees, horse and human liniments and other medications.
The first recorded oil sale in Wyoming occurred along the Oregon Trail when, in 1863, enterprising entrepreneurs sold oil as a lubricant to wagon-train travelers. The oil came from Oil Mountain Springs some 20 miles west of present-day Casper.
In 1866, John C. Fiere, an employee of Fort Bridger Sutler William A. Carter, reported to his boss that he had found oil nearby. He had experience in the Pennsylvania oil fields and offered to develop the oil spring commercially. In the following years, the spring produced 150 barrels of oil. The entire amount was sold to the Union Pacific Railroad.
Tales of a Wyoming “tar spring” would inspire a Pennsylvania-born Irishman Mike Murphy. In 1883, Murphy and his brother Frank bought an oil lease from Dr. George B. Graff – on the very site of Capt. Bonneville’s “great tar spring.” The Murphy brothers drilled for oil at Dallas Dome and found it at 300 feet in what would become known as the Chugwater formation. The Dallas field located in Fremont County lies about 10 miles southeast of Lander. Dallas dome is a long asymmetric fold in the southwestern part of the Wind River Basin.
The historic well’s oil was sold to the Union Pacific to lubricate railcar axles. News spread quickly and inspired others to stake their own “placer” mineral claims on promising sites.
In 1890, Philip Shannon, a Civil War veteran and successful Pennsylvania oil businessman visited the area in 1884. After exploring oil seeps outside of Casper, Shannon chose to drill for oil on the northeast side of the Salt Creek activity, and with a small group of investors, began shipping equipment from Pennsylvania to the new Casper railroad station, still a 50 mile wagon haul from the proposed site.
In August 1890, just one month after Wyoming became the 44th state, Shannon brought in his first well. Even unrefined, the new state’s oil proved to be an excellent lubricant. The producing zone will become known as the Shannon sandstone. The Wyoming Derrick, Casper’s newspaper, enthusiastically announced, “Wyoming will become the greatest and wealthiest mineral producing state in the Union.”
Within 20 months, Shannon and his associates had two producing wells, one dry hole, and a fourth well underway. In the 1890s, significant oil strikes were made in northern Natrona County.
To expand their markets, Shannon and his Pennsylvania investors began building a refinery in Casper in 1894. Wyoming’s population had grown to over 62,000. Within a year, the new refinery was able to produce 100 barrels a day of 15 different grades of lubricant, from light cylinder oil to heavy grease.
Despite a growing population (1900 census counted 92,531) and improved railroad access, transportation costs meant that Wyoming oil could not successfully compete for the distant eastern markets. The Casper refinery was closed by October 1904.
Wyoming’s first real oil boom would have to wait until the Dutch-owned Petroleum Maatschappij Salt Creek Company’s well erupted on October 23, 1908, bringing a new flood of entrepreneurs and investors.
By 1930, about one-fifth of all oil produced in the United States came from Salt Creek. More than 4,000 petroleum wells have since been drilled in the ten producing zones of the 22,000-acre field. In 2007 alone, Salt Creek produced almost three million barrels of oil.
Development of the Lost Soldier Field in northeastern Sweetwater County in the late 1940s resulted in yet another oil boom. By the 1960s, many major oil companies had offices in Casper.
By 1978, Wyoming had 12 operating refineries employing 1,900 people and capable of processing 188,630 barrels of crude per day—about half of the state’s total daily crude production. Wyoming produced 102.1 million barrels of crude oil in 2019, up from 87.9 million barrels in 2018. The state also produced more than 1.6 billion Mcf of natural gas.
Although the fields in Wyoming, for the most part, are aging, oil production remains important to the state’s economy as it enters the second decade of the 21st century. However, oil is no longer the primary energy mineral produced here.
Coal-bed methane—methane gas trapped in underground coal seams and once considered a waste product until cost-efficient means of recovery and distribution were developed in the 1980s—has caused an economic boom in several areas of Wyoming, including Sublette County in the southwest and the Powder River Basin in the northeast.
Natural gas production boomed in the 1990s and 2000s in Sublette County’s Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline and an even larger development is now proposed for gas fields in northeastern Fremont County near Lost Cabin and Lysite.
But even with the new value in natural gas and coal-bed methane, coal remains king just as it was in Wyoming in the 19th century before the invention of the automobile and diesel locomotive. Since the late 1980s, Wyoming has led the nation in coal production.
(Source: AAPG/midwest.gov/Wyoming State Geological Survey/WyoHistory/AOGHS – Image: A string team hauling oilfield equipment heads out for Salt Creek from the Midwest Refinery in Casper, ca. 1912./Casper College Western History Center)