Skip navigation

Michigan Oil and Natural Gas Exploration Before 1925

With the discoveries in Ontario at Oil Springs and Petrolia, it is not surprising that people of the time speculated about finding oil in nearby Michigan. According to Michigan Geological Survey Division geologists Garland D. Ells and Robert Ives " as early as 1860 it was recognized that oil and gas bearing rocks could be in Michigan." Former regional geologist for Sun Oil Company George D. "Josh" Lindberg said "The discovery of the Oil Springs Field, a few miles east of Port Huron, raised hope in 1869 that oil could be found in Michigan. Several wells were drilled in the Port Huron area shortly thereafter, with small amounts of oil and gas discovered." Between 1886 and 1898 additional drilling again discovered a number of small yield oil wells in the Port Huron area. Thousands of St. Clair County acres were leased by speculators from Chicago, Toledo, Milwaukee and places further away. But little oil was found and as a result, Michigan oil explorers lost interest in the area for two decades.

Beginning in 1886, when C.A. Baily brought in three Dundee producers at about 550 to 575 feet near Port Huron, each producing two or three barrels a day, there was a small amount of oil production in the Port Huron area. By 1910 the Port Huron Field had twenty-one wells producing less than 10 barrels a day each. The exact total production volume is not known. The Port Huron Field, located in Section 32-T6N-R17E, Port Huron Township, St. Clair County, was abandoned in 1921.

Later Geological Survey reports, printed sometime between 1914 and 1921 make reference to a few other wells in St. Clair County. Twenty-two St. Clair county wells were "grouped" in the report which listed their combined production of six to seven barrels per day. Another 21 wells drilled by G.B. Stock were bunched as having less than 10 barrels a day oil production cumulatively. Combined with the other wells that are mentioned in Geological Survey Reports, it appears that 80 oil wells were drilled in Michigan before 1925. Most of these wells were in St. Clair County, however at least one well was drilled on the western side of the state.

Interpreting the reports, however, can be quite difficult. In 1872, for example, the Mason Lumber Co. of Muskegon reported a "slight flow" of oil at 1,200 feet in a well it was drilling. Oil, however, was not the well's objective. The Company was interested in brine, which made the flow of oil a curse rather than a blessing since the presence of oil could ruin a brine well. The Company eventually abandoned the well after drilling to 2,627 feet without finding useful quantities of brine. The "slight flow" of oil was never reported in the local papers and only appears as a footnote in the State Geological Reports of 1901 and 1911.

If the Mason Company found oil a nuisance, others went looking for it. A well documented example of early oil drilling comes from Isabella County. In 1912, W. F. Bram of Pennsylvania, arrived in Mt. Pleasant and began to lease land for an attempt to find oil. Bram began drilling in March 1913 on the Riley farm south of Mt. Pleasant. The operation was the talk of the town and the local newspaper started a column headed "Oil and Gas Notes" giving a foot-by-foot report on the drilling. At ninety feet the well struck good drinking water. In April, beginning at 800 feet, drilling encountered slate, then salt, limestone and shale. In May, drilling at around 2,740 feet the well showed some oil and gas and excitement mounted. In July drilling reached 3,680 feet and struck water. This precluded any possibility of getting oil from this well. Braum said he was not discouraged and planned to drill another well, but he departed a few weeks later for West Virginia, never to return.

In 1911 Michigan's first commercial natural gas well began production. The tabulation of "Reported Discoveries of Gas in Michigan" in the Geological Survey Bulletins is longer than the oil well list and included 116 wells. These were mostly located in ­southeastern Michigan, including Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties as well as in Manistee County in western Michigan. Many of the early natural gas discoveries were most likely made not as a result of a search for oil or natural gas but were instead test wells drilled for salt or for fresh water. Strong flows of gas from water wells are not unusual in southeastern Michigan and sometimes the shallower rims of the basin can still provide a surprise. In the mid 1980s holes drilled to provide footings for a highway overpass in St. Clair County "blew out" with natural gas. The flow of gas from these early wells was usually quite small. The largest volume of natural gas was in St. Clair County were wells supplied "several families" in one case, "pumps, drills and two houses" in another case and "one house" in a number of instances.