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Petroleum Placers



Petroleum Placers In Three Pines, Oregon

By Mike Walker, Secretary

Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society

May 17, 2001

There is a deep underground mystery in Bob and Barbara Athey’s well at Three Pines, Oregon. It has been there for a long, long time. The well was historically purported to deliver as much as 100 gallons per minute. Bob can corroborate it as a producer by showing a certificate that records 45 gallons per minute.

Their mystery well was drilled in the early 1930s; it had an 11" well casing at a time most rural Josephine County families dug their wells by hand, usually with the help of a windless. A windless had a rope tied to a wooden rod with a big handle on one end of the rod. A bucket was tied to the other end of the rope upon which a man would be lowered down into the well while another man would be working the handle, and he better hold on because there were no brakes on the windless. The man in the well would then use a pick and a short-handled shovel and dig the earth out. The earth would be put in the bucket and raised to the surface, pulled over the side and dumped. When the well was done the bucket on the windless would be used to bring water up to the surface. The dug wells in the Three Pines area were around six to seven wide and 40 feet deep. The wells might be boarded from the surface to about ten feet down; after that it was usually solid granite to the bottom of the well.

A 19-year old Verlin and 6-year old Doran Grimes, 10-year old Bernice Brazille, and 8-year old Clarence Kolkow lived the story of the Athey’s water well. The year was 1932, but the mystery actually started in 1912 in the Town of Three Pines about three miles north of Merlin, Oregon.

Three Pines was recently developed and a going concern in 1912 with over a hundred citizens; a brand new one-year old school, Three Pines Elementary; two stores; the Corliss Hotel; a post office; a planning mill that was connected by a 11.5 mile flume to the upper reaches of Jump-off Joe Creek and the lumber town of Mountain; and a railroad siding and small depot. The town was platted and there was the Three Pines Fruit Tracts just to the east. The new year was coming and the future was bright.

A Christmas puzzle developed at Three Pines and the inhabitants wondered just what was dwelling beneath the earth. The previous summer D. W. Davis had dug a well on his property for the Corliss Hotel. It was a good well as wells go, being six feet square in the clear and 41 feet deep. It was excavated the windless way through granite soil all the way, and at the bottom a water vein was struck that gave six feet of water in the well. For many months the well was on its good behavior, but a few weeks before Christmas a series of commotions disturbed it, passerbys heard noises that sounded as though some great animal were floundering about. Later other disturbances came from it, each one leaving the water murky and roiled. One of the commotions was so severe that it shook the Three Pines Hotel twenty feet away and awakened the sleepers within. The phenomena was repeated many times over the next few nights, the disturbance seemingly coming from the bottom of the well and forcing the column of water upward. It came with much force, but the volume of water within the well was not greatly increased after each "explosion." However, the upheavals from the bottom ruined the water for house use.

Mr. Davis proposed to put a gasoline engine on the pump at the well, pump it dry, and see just what there was at the bottom. He said that the vein of water was found in a narrow strata of yellow clay that cut across the bottom, and that the water came into the well very rapidly when that formation was first encountered. J. C. Randle of Grants Pass visited the well, and he found a mist rising from the surface of the water, the water itself being much warmer than that of neighboring wells.

The 1913 new year found the people of Three Pines trying to solve the mystery of the exploding well. An expert from the oil regions of Texas visited the phenomenon, and he said unequivocally that the well was over a body of petroleum, and that escaping gases were responsible for the grumblings and the mutterings, and the more violent eruptions that daily churned the six feet of water into mud. A thick scum of oil rose daily on the surface of the water in the well after the eruptions, and some samples were brought to O. Moore, the Texan, to investigate the well. He pronounced it petroleum and so positive was he of his diagnosis that an oil well drilling outfit was considered. The well would eventually become known in the area as the whistling well.

Three Pines is around 1,100 feet above the sea level, and Mr. Moore said that he expected to find a great body of oil lying below sea level, which still necessitated drilling 1,200 or more feet into the depths. For the purpose of exploiting this oil field, the Davis & Moore Oil Company was organized, and leases taken on 1,000 acres of land immediately surrounding the town of Three Pines. The Davis well was located near the center of the forty-acre townsite. Under the lease terms, the property owners were to have one-twelfth of the product of their property in case oil was found beneath it, leases of this kind having been signed to the new company. It was thought that stock in the company would probably be offered locally to raise funds for the development work that was anticipated.

The people of Three Pines were on the hunt for petroleum and all who had investigated the exploding well and the film of oil that covered its surface after each of its "tantrums," were confident that they had found the stuff that made Rockefeller’s name.

Investigation seemed to bear out all the first indications of oil, and eight locations of "Petroleum placers" were made by Three Pines residents February 1913. These placer locations were made the same as for gold placers. Twenty acres being allowed each locator and notices were posted in the same manner as in gold locations. The locations made included claims in sections 3, 4, 33, and 34, townships 34 and 35 south, range 6 west.; the locators were J. S. Whisman, Mary J. Leach. L. L. Perkins, Eliza J. Hefling, Fred C. Farwell, and Frank Whisman. Three Pines was surrounded by the Oregon & California railroad lands upon which petroleum placer locations could be made. When these lands were patented to the railroad company the government reserved all mineral rights except as to coal and iron, so that the these lands were subject to locations for all minerals except coal and iron, and it was under this reservation clause that the locaters acted. The Three Pines district had the oil bee and a whole lot of prospecting for the fluid was expected to follow.

The Davis well, that first attracted attention by its peculiar behavior the previous December, still had its periodical attacks of boiling and bubbling, the mysterious explosions being followed by the raising of a scum of oil upon the water’s surface. In February W. G. Vanderbilt reported that great interest still centered around oil and gas discoveries, and that the territory would be thoroughly prospected. The Davis well continued to explode at even more frequent intervals than at first. It was felt that arrangements were close to sinking the first prospecting well.

A committee, of which Mr. Vanderbilt was the chairman, its other members being Fred Wilson, and George Baer, was trying to interest investors in the development of the gas and oil possibilities. The committee expected active work before long. Experts had reported that the formation was favorable for the striking of a flow of either gas or oil. The oily scum that was found in the Davis well after its eruptions was now found in many wells and springs in the Three Pines country.

In April Lillie Wattenburg made a filing for an oil claim in the Three Pines district, and if there was anything in a name this one should prove the bonanza, as it had been christened the "John D. Rockefeller." April also found a number of Three Pines residents meeting in their city with a view to organizing a company and selling enough stock to secure the necessary funds for drilling a well to definitely determine whether that district could produce oil. The company was not formed, but it was expected that it would probably be formed later.

Almost 20 years later oil was drilled for at Three Pines, and reportedly at two other locations in Josephine County. September 1932 found the Grimes family, including 19-year old Verlin and 6-year old Doran, moving to the Sexton’s old place — the old Road House was painted white at the time (would have been located on north end of Oxyoke Road in 2001). They did this because the family had rented their Three Pines home to the oil company that was going to drill. The Grimes family lived in the Sexton place during the drilling for the next two winters until early 1934.

Six-year old Doran started first grade at the Three Pines Elementary School in 1932. As it was Mary Robbins was the single teacher for almost two dozen kids at the school: three Agees, six Brazilles (including Bernice), two Freemans, three Kolkows (including Clarence), four Ludwicks, three Turners, a Case kid, and Doran. The oil work, just south of their baseball diamond, became a part of the children’s lives.

The children knew of the well at the old hotel site and that it was being investigated by oil miners because they had been told that it was a whistling well. Verlin and Doran knew a whistling well had gas escaping from the water in the well. They and the other kids were fascinated while the oil miners drilled over on the Ludwick property, a few hundred yards south of the old hotel well. The noise of the oil drillers drilling with an old pounder drill at their derrick was a sight and sound to behold. The brothers heard the gossip over the two years the well was drilled to over a 1,000 feet down into the earth, but the oil company never did find anything as far as they knew. It had an 11" well casing.

The underground mystery is still on the Athey’s property. The people know it is not some great animal floundering about and they know that in the 1910s gasses and oils came out of the Corliss Hotel well, but they do not know why. Is there a lake of petroleum down there somewhere?


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