Oil was produced from platforms on Grand Lake St. Marys as early as 1891.
As the turn of the century approached, oil producing Ohio wells drilled far out over a reservoir mark the beginning of America’s offshore petroleum industry, according to Mercer County historians.
America’s first offshore drilling once was generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – until researchers in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio said otherwise. The oil patch sleuths pointed to Mercer County documents recording wells producing oil above the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys at least 20 years before drillers ventured over the waters of Caddo Lake above the giant Caddo-Pine Island field.
Work on the Ohio reservoir that would become Grand Lake St. Marys — about 60 miles north of Dayton — began in 1837 to support water levels of the Miami and Erie Canal. Eight years of construction (1,700 men earning 30 cents a day) took place near the towns of Celina and St. Marys.
By 1845 the reservoir covered 17,500 acres to a depth of no more than seven feet. It was the largest man-made body of water in the world at the time and successfully supported the vital commerce of the Miami and Erie Canal. Forty years later Ohio’s first oil boom began.
In 1884, independent producers near Findlay discovered natural gas in a geologic formation known today as the Lima-Indiana trend. This formation stretched 260-miles across Ohio and Indiana. It would yield extraordinary quantities of natural gas and oil for decades.
Oil producers followed the Lima-Indiana Trend southwest to the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys near the Indiana border. Local exploration ventures, including Neeley-Clover Oil Company, Riley Oil Company, and Manhattan Oil Company, drilled successful oil wells to the reservoir’s shoreline, but going offshore presented a new set of challenges.
Ohio offshore wells and “Cribs”
Contemporary accounts of over-water drilling describe the practice of building 14 foot square “cribs” upon which traditional cable-tool rigs and their steam engines and boilers could be supported. Cribs had evolved as necessary engineering solutions to building bridges, dams, and other water structures.
By 1891 on Grand Lake St. Marys, oilmen built derricks atop cribs. New pipelines would carry the oil from these Ohio offshore wells to storage tanks hastily constructed on shore. The 1898 Auglaize County Atlas identified an abundance of oil wells surrounding the far eastern end of Grand Lake St. Marys and also shows wells built offshore. The 1903 Ohio Geological Survey recorded, “By 1890 the productive territory had been pushed to the eastern border of the Grand reservoir, and a year later wells were being drilled in that body of water.”
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes, “In 1891, at the beginning of production in the water of Grand Lake St. Marys, wells were drilled within the canal reservoir mainly by small local companies…In less than ten years, more than 100 wells were drilled within the shallow waters of the lake.”
In 1915 the state of Ohio determined that with the canal no longer in use, Grand Lake St. Marys was repurposed as a public recreation and pleasure resort area, which it remains today. A modern DNR map still plots the locations of the historic of the Ohio offshore wells over the lake.
The Neely-Clover Oil Company was an early driller on the lake that completed many successful wells. In Wildcatting from Pennsylvania to Texas, author Harold Neely writes, “Part of the leases they had were out in the lake that was known as the Grand Reservoir of St. Marys, and these leases were secured from the state of Ohio. They drove pilings and set the rig up on platforms and drilled these wells, one to ten acres, and quite a bit of this state land was productive.”
Riley Oil Company drilled more than 100 oil wells in the reservoir, including the Riley-Mosher well, which began producing in 1886 and still produced 35 barrels a day as late as 1910. By then, however, the Ohio offshore oil boom was over.
In 1913 the New York Times reported the reservoir contained more than 100 oil wells, but exploration companies had moved on. Production on the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys lost its economic incentive when the astounding production from oilfields at Spindletop, Texas, drove the price of Ohio crude below 15 cents a barrel.
The once plentiful derricks gradually disappeared into Ohio’s petroleum history.
Editor’s Note — Joyce L. Alig, president of the Mercer County Historical Society, has edited or authored 28 publications, including Our Post Card Past; Grand Lake St. Marys Ohio. She is working on a book about Mercer County’s petroleum history. Alig provided much of Ohio’s “offshore” history research for “The First Over Water Drilling: The Lost History Of Ohio’s Grand Reservoir Oil Boom,” a peer-reviewed article by Judith L. Sneed of Mooringsport, Louisiana.
Sneed originally presented her article in Shreveport during a 2003 Petroleum History Symposium, hosted by the Petroleum History Institute (PHI) of Oil City, Pennsylvania. Sneed’s abstract in the peer-reviewed 2005 Oil-History Journal notes:
In 1911 Gulf Oil Company’s Ferry Lake No.1 well was completed over the waters of Caddo Lake, Louisiana. It has long been touted as the location of the world’s first over water oil well. This accolade, however, is not correct. Stand alone oil wells produced commercial quantities of oil over a small lake in Ohio as early as 1891. How did we lose this bit of history?
Also see Offshore Petroleum History.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Ohio Offshore Wells.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/offshore-history/ohio-offshore-wells. Last Updated: February 22, 2020. Original Published Date: January 13, 2011.