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Oil in Them Thare Hills?

5 September 2010 | Category: History
Early Autumn colors on the undulating hills of Southwest Wisconsin.
Is there black gold hidden in the hills of Southwest Wisconsin?

This ain't no lie: a long time back, before it was "America's Dairyland," Wisconsin was oil country — sort of. In 1865 and 1866, sixty-six "petroleum mining" companies were chartered in Wisconsin. This oil boom had its roots in the 1850s. That decade, a number of chemists perfected the process of distilling kerosene from crude oil, creating a combustible product far cheaper and more convenient than candles to light up shops and homes. In 1859, the first oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania. The fledgling industry was soon interrupted by the advent of American Civil War, but as the war drew down in 1864, a boom took place across Pennsylvania and the adjacent states as speculators looked to make a fortune in crude. Within a year, oil frenzy would spread all across the North.

Wisconsin, with its Appalachian-like hills in the southwest and its marshes and bogs across the middle, seemed to many untrained speculators like the ideal place to strike black gold. Appleton, a young city of 2,655 people near the marshy junction of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago, saw the creation of seven petroleum companies in 1865. The Appleton Crescent for April 5 that year noted that "Strangers keep flocking to town. There is a constant stream of visitors to the Northwestern Company's well. House room is becoming so scarce that the newcomers will soon be obliged to bring their tents with them, or sleep standing." Locals looked forward excitedly to the day when their region would become as busy and prosperous as the oil fields of Pennsylvania.

A hill covered in old wooden oil wells.
For a time, Wisconsin's hills looked set to become like this 1860s Pennsylvania oil field.

The western side of the state joined in the speculation by 1866. Sparta, a Monroe County village with 1,897 inhabitants, held the offices of upwards of ten petroleum companies with operations in the nearby Kickapoo River Valley. "Oil City, Wisconsin" (Google Map) sprung up around the site of a promising claim near Sparta. Two counties to the south, the larger city of Prairie du Chien (population 3,556 in 1865) witnessed the creation of four petroleum corporations in 1866, including the ambitiously named "American Petroleum and Mining Company." Influential Prairie du Chien residents including steamboat legend Joseph Reynolds, railroad superintendent John Lawler, and ex-fur trader B.W. Brisbois all jumped on the oil bandwagon with sizable investments. Still other oil companies were founded in nearby small towns like Bell Center. But was there any oil?

The reputable geologists of Wisconsin denounced the oil speculation as baseless from the beginning. The late state geologist Dr. James Gates Percival (1795-1856) had earlier declared it "impossible" that significant fossil fuels would be found in the state, and in 1865 his surviving friend Edward M. Hunter testified that "Many of our people, in different parts of Wisconsin, have been seized lately with the petroleum fever, and have been boring the earth and the public; but the Doctor's theory yet holds good, and the only oil we have here is the imported article." Other scientists pointed out that the sheen on Wisconsin's marshes, which caused much of the speculation, was simply organic decay, and that the peat in the bogs was not the right grade for making fuel.

The assertions of trained geologists didn't stop newspapers such as the Prairie du Chien Courier of July 7, 1865, from printing accounts like that of "Prof. L. H. Gano" who declared "I shall feel safe in saying the surface indications and natural developments of these lands are unsurpassed by any oil region in the United States, and I have no hesitation in saying that I sincerely believe that proper developments here will be rewarded by flowing wells, yielding in quantity equal to any heretofore developed elsewhere." It turned out that the sincere professor was actually an unscrupulous Chicago stock broker.

Despite their best efforts, speculators were unable to find oil in Wisconsin. When the lack of crude oil became evident by 1867, the state's residents had already sunk over a million dollars investing in local petroleum companies. A few of these businesses endured by drilling in other parts of the country. Most, however, faded into history, lost in the pages of the not-so-Great Wisconsin Oil Boom of 1865 and 1866.

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