Texas Tea: The short-lived Bellingham oil boom

‘Oil Fever’ gripped city after 1890 Happy Valley gusher made an unlooked-for appearance

Spectators squeeze-in to catch a glimpse of the newly discovered "Bellingham oil" at the corner of Orleans and Alabama streets on Nov. 6, 1929.

whatcom historical society
   While our nation looks to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by boosting domestic sources, let’s remember that the search for oil has not missed the backyards of Bellingham.
   During the autumn of 1890, Thomas Clark had finished building his "elegant residence" in Happy Valley. It was time for a well. Clark hired "Mr. Lee" to do the drilling and water was struck at 60 feet.
   As the two men congratulated each other, they heard a bubbling sound coming from the bottom of the new well and Clark assumed it was natural gas. He tested his theory by throwing a lit match down the hole. A flash of flame immediately roared up singing Clark’s locks and beard. He had Mr. Lee fill in the well and try again elsewhere. Clark later lamented having had the hole filled, saying he could have used the gas to light his home.
   Clark’s experience was recounted among neighbors for years, leading to popular conjecture that large deposits of natural gas, and presumably oil, lie beneath the fertile farmlands of Fairhaven. In 1900, Pacific Oil Wells Co. of Tacoma announced it would establish an exploratory oil rig in Happy Valley not far from the Clark property.
   At the time, before the automotive age, oil was chiefly distilled into kerosene for use in lamps and furnaces.
   Pacific Oil Wells was headed by William D. C. Spike, president and treasurer. A Pierce County booster, the energetic Spike had a reputation for championing long-shot enterprises. The company, "the pioneer in the exploration of Washington oil fields," already had a widely publicized well in Tacoma and had started a second in Des Moines, Wash.
   In January 1901, one of history’s largest oil discoveries was made in Beaumont, Texas, with the “Spindletop gusher.” The news primed local imaginations for the prospects of Pacific’s timber-framed oil derrick that appeared in Happy Valley only a few months later.
   Reporters and potential investors were given tours of the new oil rig by company reps who promised "the oil may come at any moment." Through the summer, Fairhaven families carried lunch baskets to the drilling site in hopes of being on hand when the geyser blew. The Blade, a Whatcom newspaper, spouted that "should the progress of the present drill downward bring about the expected result, Happy Valley will undoubtedly be studded with derricks."
   Mr. Spike opened a small office in both Whatcom and Fairhaven, successfully playing the rivalry between the two towns to the company’s advantage. What civic booster would leave their city out of a coming oil bonanza?
   Louis P. White was Pacific Oil’s biggest financial backer on Bellingham Bay. As president of the Bank of Whatcom, White directed a great deal of his institution’s coins into the wishing well. Though located in Fairhaven, the Happy Valley rig was dubbed the "Whatcom Well" in Pacific Oil’s promotional literature. Caulk one up for Mr. White.
   In its first year the Happy Valley well was drilled 725 feet and capable of yielding just enough oil to satisfy spectators. But mostly it sat idle, often for months.
   In May 1902, rumors spread that the well was abandoned and the company had quit. Spike arrived from Tacoma to rally his believers with meetings at the commercial clubs of both Whatcom and Fairhaven. He explained away the well’s inactivity as brief, the result of "breaking machinery and losing tools." Spike claimed Pacific had already put $38,000 into Happy Valley and that "the hole would be sunk until oil was struck or the company was all up." Stockholders, by all accounts, were as excited as ever by what the well might yet yield.
   Drilling reached 1,300 feet in 1903. At a moment’s notice the rig could be started for the benefit of press or potential stockholder and somehow always produce oil "of an encouraging hue." It was declared by the company’s on-site experts that the heavy drill was now encountering "a reddish-white sand" similar to that found in Pennsylvania oil fields, which was "almost conclusive evidence of the proximity of very heavy quantities below." Certainly a gusher was imminent!
   While away in West Virginia, L. P. White died in July 1903. Whatcom’s Daily Reveille newspaper kept the faith, pointing out that in the previous year alone ten counties of Indiana shared $6 million in wages and royalties from successful oil wells, and that "Whatcom County patiently and hopefully awaits a like prosperity" from the Happy Valley drilling.
   But investors can only be so patient when it comes to promises of instant riches. After nearly four years without the big strike, Spike’s continued assurances were sounding like so much hype. Pacific Oil Wells was geared to drill another 500 feet provided more stock could be sold. Many suspected the company knew that the Happy Valley well wasn’t going to pay, yet kept it going to tap investors.
   Late in 1903, just as Whatcom and Fairhaven voted to unite as Bellingham, Pacific Oil Wells pulled out. Without a local connection, few people here cared about the company’s projects in foreign King and Pierce counties. Mr. Spike turned to delivering coal.

For a few years the oil well in Happy Valley, seen here circa 1901, produced just enough oil to keep investors hoping for more.

   Bellingham’s second "oil excitement" began on Nov. 5, 1929, when City Water Dept. workers installing a valve-box struck oil at the corner of Orleans and Alabama streets. Oil seeped "as if from a spring" into the excavation that was a mere six feet below the pavement. More than 100 gallons were bailed from the hole by mid-afternoon. News spread fast that "Bellingham has struck oil" and hundreds of people hurried to the north end to get a look at the prospect.
   More than one bystander observed that the "incipient seepage" was adjacent to Morton’s Richfield station. Was the oil strike a mere leak from a nearby storage tank? The station’s proprietor, Harold Gronseth, denied any fuel had escaped his station, yet the substance was nearly pure gasoline. Others countered that it was remarkably high quality and could fetch as much as six dollars a barrel!
   To promote "Bellingham oil," the substance was filtered and poured directly into Bellingham Mayor John Kellogg’s automobile for highly-publicized trips to Mt. Baker and Seattle.
   Responding to the possibilities, two oil wells were started in the Roosevelt neighborhood in April 1931. After drilling about 200 feet both were abandoned as unpromising, though that same month there was a report of oil "gushing from a children’s sand box at a private residence in the 2400 block of Pacific Street." It never was resolved whether oil or a nasty leak had been discovered, but eventually everybody went home.
   In July 1953, City Water Dept. workers refueled the oil-fever when they again dug up the valve at Orleans and Alabama. The "near-forgotten oil well" once more generated a groundswell of public curiosity. This time, however, the oil found was not of the same fine quality. A dark bluehue, it was surmised to be "the result of two decades of crankcase dumpings from the service station" next door.


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