2012 Riverfront Lodge Motel Burkesville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Phone: 270-864-3300
First Great American Oil Well...
(Located North of Burkesville, Kentucky)
Up to 1829 no scientist had ever proposed the theory that oil could be found by boring into the depths of the earth. All that is known was
the appearance of a bituminous spring or seepage to the surface of some stagnant pool. The Indians, with their primitive, intuition--like
resourcefulness located these seepages and were wont to bring their blankets, cut them into strips, and soak them in the greasy substance
standing in stagnant shallow pools. Then they would squeeze the water out but the oil would cling to the wool and these strips were made
into wicks for the crude lamps. They also passed the word along to favored white men that it was a good medicine. Loglined pits have
been located where seepages were discovered so that larger quantities could be more readily obtained.
The pioneer white men who first explored and settled in Kentucky to call it their new home, brought with them, among other necessities,
small quantities of salt to preserve the game which abounded in Kentucky's dense wooded forests. When these small quantities were
nearing exhaustion neighbors pooled their labor, and after procuring natural brine such as could be found at Blue Licks, Big Bone Lick, or
in what was known as Salt Lick Bend of Cumberland River, they would boil down the brine and replenish their salt supply. Huge Kettles
may still be located (1954) among descendants of pioneer families. To expedite their efforts and confine their "salt excursions" to smaller
areas they began to bore for salt water. This movement led to the discovery of petroleum or "rock oil" little as the two substances are
related in content and purpose.
Late in the winter of 1829 one such salt well was drilled on the farm of Lemuel Stockton, adjacent to and lying between the waters of Big
Rennick's and Little Rennick's Creeks. Little Renox (as it finally became known through phonetic spelling empties into Big Renox Creek a
short distance from Cumberland River. There was nothing singular about the drilling of the salt well except the termination of this
particular well which opened up to the world one of nature's hitherto unknown phenomena. (Vol. 8 New Standard Encyclopedia, under
Dr. John Croghan had obtained the right to drill for salt on the farm of Lemuel Stockton and had hired one Martin Beatty to do the drilling.
With the patience characteristic of those early settlers Martin pursued his task of going down into the earth til he found salt. He drilled and
drilled with his crude apparatus consisting of a spring pole made from a strong sapling, set in the crotch of a tree, with a short "bit"
fastened to the free end of the pole. The driller manipulated this bit by his own foot power, and what a slow task this must have been.
Drilling equipment used in this well, as in others of this early period was all homemade and thus the cost was very little. Martin Beatty's
patience and perseverance finally wore to the point of exasperation and he exclaimed in disgust, "I will strike salt or I will strike hell"!
Knowing nothing of what the bowels of the earth contained other than the sought-after salt, he was frightened when, on March 11, 1829, his
bit broke through a layer of shale limestone rock and dropped several feet, releasing a great volume of oil with gas enough accompanying
to end the bit and rope rocketing into the air high above the hole, and the oil in a solid stream was "thrown to the top of the nearby trees.
Following the creek bed (Little Renox Creek) worn down with many flash floods and surging waters the gushing stream of oil soon filled
the creek bed and flowed down into Big Renox Creek into Cumberland River where it spread til a short time the surface of the River was
covered for miles. Various local versions of this history recount that the oil was set fire; that it became ignited by accident or was lighted
to see if it would burn. But by whatever means it caught on fire it produced a spectacle such as had never been seen before--the "First
American Gusher." Nothing was known of "capping" and extinguishing the flame nor of saving the precious fluid.
What has proven to be an historical account of this "gusher" was contained in what was thought to be only a friendly letter from Thomas
Ellison of Burkesville to Edmond Rogers of Barren County. A Photostat of this letter follows:
Dear Sir: Rec'd your letter by Dick informing me that you would take unconditionally Sixty two dollars & fifty cents for your Salt Roan filley.
I'll take her at that price and will fulfill your request by sending you William A. Roberts account which is fifty dollars. I wish you to keep the
filley for me until an opportunity offers to bring her down. If Joseph, can bring her you may send her down by him. We are all in favorable
health except Mrs. Coleman her health is not good.
We have no news except Cols. Emerson and Stockton has been boring for salt on Renox struck a lake of oil. The well has been for the past
four days throwing out large quantities of rock oil It would spout at least fifteen feet above the top of the ground as large a stream as a
man's body perfectly pure. Cumberland River was this evening set on fire, it burnt for at least a mile in a stream or sheet of fire.
I have no doubt but in the time it has been running as to speak in the bounds of reason that five hundred thousand gallons of oil has run
down Cumberland River and is still running but not quite so fast. Col. Emerson barreled up twenty barrels of it. It burns well in a lamp and
is said to paint and oil leather and I have no doubt it be a good medicine for many complaints particularly the Rumatic pains. The whole
atmosphere is perfumed with it. It is a complete phenomenon. I could write a whole sheet and not say half.
It is late and I am sleepy, I am yours.
This letter was written on a sheet and folded with the address on the back as follows:
To Mr. Edmond Rogers Mount Hope Barren City, Ky. By Dick
The letter shows the folds and mark of sealing as it was folded.
Dr. John Croghan continued his boring for salt water which proved to be in abundant quantity around a depth of 200 feet and standing
about 25 feet above the normal level of Cumberland River. Dr. Croghan, a Louisville physician, was the son of Major William Croghan and
Lucy Clark, a sister of George Rogers Clark. Adventure and conquest must have been an innate hobby of these families for when Dr.
Croghan was traveling in Europe in the early 1830's news reached him of Mammoth Cave, unknown to him previously, although it was
situated in his home state; and immediately on his return to the States he visited it and October 8, 1839 he purchased the property from
Franklin Gorin for $10,000.00. He died a bachelor leaving the cave properties to nine nieces and nephews, in trust, not to be sold til the last
one had died, which occurred in 1926.
Taken from the Burkesville Leader of Friday, August 22, 1919 is the following: The well was a continuing puzzle to the curious travelers
who succeeded in winding tortuous journey over bed of the creek, God made roads to Burkesville to view the spot the fame of which had
reached to the "outside" world. There was a reputation as a cure all which spread around among the various adventurers through the
years. The fluid was bottled and sold under the caption "American Rock Oil". An original label from a bottle of medical oil is in the
possession of the author of this article. Also a hand blown bottle with the words "American Oil, Cumberland River, Kentucky, blown into
the facets of the bottle. This bottle contains a small amount of the oil taken from the well.
In Collins Historical Sketches of Kentucky (first edition published in 1847) is described this well as follows: "situated on the bank of
Cumberland River." After his detailed account of the accidental discovery, while boring for salt water, of the gusher he adds; "The salt
borers were greatly disappointed, and the well was neglected for several years, until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable
medicinal qualities. It has been bottled up in large quantities and is extensively sold in nearly all the states in the Union." Its fame spread
abroad as well, for in World War I, soldiers from Cumberland County found old bottles with the words "American Oil" blown into the glass,
in antique shops in London.
The writer knew personally, in later years, one man who vouched for its curative powers for baldness. He stated that when he left the oil
field on Saturday night he always took his double handful of crude oil and thoroughly doused his head in it massaging it into his scalp.
When he reached home removing the crude oil. When he died at the age of 91 he had a beautiful shock of white hair!
At varying times between 1865 and 1899 attention was centered on the site of this well but no oil in quantity was produced at any time.
Major J. W. Ottley of Virginia came to Burkesville in 1899 and found the oil rights again legally in the family of Ed Baker, and obtained
leases on the site of the First American Gusher, and on many adjoining tracts. He drilled on land within a few feet of the original well and
got oil enough to take to a small refinery in South Burkesville. In 1903 W. T. Ottley, son of Major J. W. Ottley drilled near the Old American
Well and got a shallow producer which soon failed on the pump, and so came to an end the efforts of the modern oil world to revive the
Great Gusher. After one hundred years of oblivion and neglect, a revived interest because of the centennial of the Great American Oil Well,
an anniversary of the event was planned by W. T. Ottley and P. J. Keymel, a oil man of much experience. Keymel made a search for the
sand and mud covered casing of Civil War salt making days and found the oil soaked casing made of a cedar log which had been plugged
with the help of cedar chips and flax seed in the original holes for several decades. He removed the home-made casing and drilled out the
old well. But the same disappointment that had met the other drillers was the lot of Keymel. And so ended any efforts to bring back the
magnificent flow of 1829. The casing was drawn and photographed and went to an Italian lawyer of Detroit, to be placed in a museum
there. All that remains of the century and a quarter history of this great phenomenon are the few remaining bottles of medicinal oil, the
prined accounts as set forth in the foregoing, and the permanent marker erected by the 1934 General Assembly for the Legislature of
Kentucky. This marker, the foundation of which is a large mill stone is topped by a bronze tablet which reads:
MARCH 11, 1829 SITE OF FIRST AMERICAN OIL WELL IN AMERICA 210 FEET ACROSS RENOX CREEK MARKER ERECTED BY 1934
LEGISLATURE OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY
The history and subsequent events of the First Great American Gusher have been kept alive through a few interested citizens who have
never, for any length of time, let go this birth of what has come to be a necessary part of the world today.
The 50,000 barrel, Old Oil Well led the parade in 1829, and so it will continue to mark the spot where the world's greatest industry was born.