By Erik Berg
That's right... oil boom. Many people know about the rich gold discoveries that brought waves of early prospectors to Yavapai County, but few realize that the area was also the scene of a brief, but intensive, oil boom during the First World War. For a couple years, the rolling hills of the Chino Valley were dotted with the wooden derricks of oil wells and the pages of local newspapers were filled with the advertisements of would-be oil barons. Now largely forgotten, the Chino Valley oil boom remains as one of the more unusual stories from Arizona's mining history.
Actually, the idea of oil under the Chino Valley was nothing new. As early as 1899, rancher John Brett had reported finding oil seeps along the upper Verde River. However, it was not until the arrival of a Mr. Joseph Heslet that anyone paid much attention. An engineer and part-time prospector, Heslet rediscovered the seeps and became convinced that a large oil deposit lay nearby. In 1902, he started drilling northern Arizona's first oil well near the current settlement of Paulden. Unfortunately, Heslet's equipment and drilling skills did not match his enthusiasm and he was soon thwarted by cave-ins and ground water. Never giving up hope, Heslet decided to try again in October of 1916, when he organized the Chino Valley Oil and Mining Company. He tried reopening the same well and reported finding traces of oil before water and cave-ins again brought him to a halt.
Although his second attempt did not produce any more oil than the first, it did generate a lot more attention. In nearby Jerome, the possibility of a local oil field quickly captured investors' imaginations and would soon begin reaching for their wallets as well. As word spread of Heslet's well, prospectors and speculators swarmed into the valley and by the end of 1917, they had formed over a dozen new companies. Selling stock that ranged from a few cents to several dollars a share, most of these start-ups existed only on paper. Among the first were the Arizona Del Rio Oil Company, the Arizona-Oklahoma Oil and Gas Company, and the Arizona Oil and Refining Company. They were soon followed by the Chino Central Oil Company, Chino Consolidated Oil Company, New York Chino Oil Syndicate, Chino Midway Oil Company, and the United Chino Oil and Refining Company.
Of all the new firms, none was more enthusiastic or vocal about its prospects than the Arizona Oil and Refining Co., which located its main office in Prescott's St. Michael Hotel. In addition to holding 640 acres near Heslet's well, the company also featured a master of promotion in the form of Dr. E. A. Edwards. In an interview with the Arizona Mining Journal, Edwards claimed a long list of impressive - if somewhat questionable - accomplishments, including the discovery of several major oil fields and a founding role in America's oil industry. Edwards concluded the interview with the observation that, "from my own personal examination and past experience, the Chino Valley oil fields will become to Arizona what the Whittier, Ventura and Taft fields, with which I was identified, have been and are to California."
Despite such grand predictions, the companies quickly learned that actually drilling for oil was considerably more expensive and time-consuming than simply talking about it. Purchasing the required equipment, assembling it at the well site, and then drilling to the necessary depths could often take months and cost thousands of dollars. Faced with such expenses, the promotion and selling of stock quickly became a major priority and often seemed to overshadow the actual business of drilling. In November of 1917, 'Colonel' Fred Bowler of the Arizona-Oklahoma group gave a series of talks to investors in Jerome and Clarkdale where he promised that the towns would have twenty new millionaires once adequate funds were raised to complete the wells. Around the same time, the United Chino Oil and Refining Co. ran large advertisements that proclaimed "You Owe It to Yourself, To Your Family, To Your Future, To Buy Shares In This Company."
One of the more unusual by-products of these promotions was the proposed formation of new townsites. In April of 1918, Yavapai Magazine reported that a settlement called 'Heslet' was being founded on the edge of the oil fields and would soon have several new buildings. In addition to providing homes and services, a new town could also be a source of income through the sale of lots. In May, the Arizona Gazette ran advertisements for the proposed townsite of Oil City. In exchange for purchasing fifty dollars worth of Arizona Oil and Refining Co. stock, new shareholders could select a city lot and receive "an agreement for a deed - when the ground is patented - after striking oil."
While predictions and promotions continued to run high throughout the first half of 1918, actual progress in the field was slow and tedious. The valley had yet to produce a single barrel of oil and the deepest well had reached only 200 feet. In fact, only a few of the companies had even begun drilling. Later that summer, several of the firms agreed to combine their resources and focus on a single well. However, this united effort succeeded no more than earlier attempts and as 1918, came to a close most of the companies quietly ceased operations and soon disappeared. Almost as quickly as it had started, the oil boom came to an end.
While the Chino Valley oil boom ultimately produced more advertising ink than oil, it did have a lasting impact on the state's fledgling petroleum industry. Like tales of lost Spanish mines, the boom spurred prospectors' imaginations. Rumors lingered that one well or another had actually struck oil before being lost to cave-ins, poor management or some other misfortune. Sporadic exploration attempts continued throughout the area into the 1960s. Today, all that remains of the boom are a handful of abandoned well heads around Paulden; their rusted iron casings stand as monuments to the time when the Chino Valley was hailed as the next great American oil field.
Erik Berg is going to be publishing a much longer version of this article in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Arizona History.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (m348pe). Reuse only by permission.
The first derrick for the Arizona-Oklahoma Oil Company was ready on October 24, 1917. Although several companies drilled wells, the Chino Valley oil "boom" probably showed a better profit from the printing of stock certificates than the drilling of oil.