In May of 1885, Lima was a bustling community of some 8,000 people with a new courthouse and, thanks to leading businessman Benjamin C. Faurot, an opera house. It claimed a soon-to-be-electrified city street car system, railroad connections in all directions and a handful of newspapers.
On Saturday evening, May 9, 1885, readers of one of those newspapers, the Daily Democratic Times, learned that the “first alarm of fire since the 15th of April” was sent in from Johns Grocery in South Lima, that a large hornet nest found in the woods by George Stevens was now on display in the show window of jeweler J.E. Putman on North Main Street and that things were about to get much more exciting in Lima.
Tucked in among the page two news items was this: “About noon today, an oil vein was struck in the well at the paper mill. It is a dark crude oil and was struck at a depth of 1,255 feet. They are still boring.”
The Lima Paper Mill, owned by Faurot, produced straw board and egg cases at its plant on the Ottawa River east of downtown. In February 1885, looking for cheap energy, Faurot brought in drillers from Pennsylvania to bore a natural gas well.
“The gentlemen who have the contract for boring the natural gas well at the paper mill are here, and are placing their machines in position, and will be ready to commence their operation in a few days,” the Times reported February 17, 1885.
By April 20, 1885, the well had reached 1,000 feet, and the Times noted “they are now drilling through the rocks which geologists say generate gas, and they expect to reach it in a few days.” Nearly three weeks later, they struck oil.
Lima’s Daily Republican quickly saw definite possibilities in this inadvertent discovery.
“The oil find has caused much excitement and those who are working at the well have been compelled to build a high fence around it to keep curiosity seekers from bothering them,” the newspaper reported the day after the oil was struck. “If the well turns out, as it looks now that it will, look out for the biggest boom Lima ever had.”
The Times, which had no Sunday edition, followed up on Monday. “Our city is still in a furor of excitement over the discovery of oil at the Lima Paper Mills, and all the attendant benefits to our city, should the quantity of oil prove sufficient to make Lima an oil-producing city, is the principal conversation about the streets.”
That same day, the Republican, noting that some of the gawkers were carrying off souvenir vials of the oil, which “could be scented afar off… The odor is not particularly pleasing.” That odor was caused by a heavy dose of sulfur.
“Charley Phinney received the first shipment of oil yesterday afternoon,” the Republican added. “When it was reported Saturday that oil had been struck, he said he would take a barrel of it. Accordingly, that amount was put up and consigned to D.E. Phinney, with the bill and sent to his hotel, French Hotel. He is a little like the man who bought the elephant at the circus. After he got him, he didn’t know what to do with him.”
Phinney’s barrel and all the souvenir bottles filled with the odorous oil didn’t put much of a dent in the amount bubbling up at the paper mill well, which was hindering the search for natural gas.
“Work on the well at the Paper Mill was discontinued this afternoon. The oil has accumulated to such an extent as to render further progress in drilling almost impossible. The oil will be either pumped out or they will ‘shoot’ the well, probably the latter…,” the Times reported May 13, 1885.
“The Paper Mill well was torpedoed yesterday afternoon, the explosion taking place shortly after 4:00. It became necessary to lower the drill into the well in order to force down the weight that ignited the cap, and this no doubt prevented the oil from being thrown as far out as it would have gone had the well been clear when the torpedo was discharged,” the Lima Gazette reported May 20, 1885.
“The majority of those assembled expected to see a stream of oil go up in the air a distance of several hundred feet, but these were disappointed,” the Times wrote.
The discovery, meanwhile, was being reported far and wide. The Upper Sandusky Union, noting that the drillers had “struck an ocean of oil,” asked, “Why not dive for natural gas or petroleum in Upper Sandusky. We’re not quite as greasy as Lima, but that’s no sign we haven’t any. Who’ll inaugurate the enterprise?”
In mid-June 1885, a company of Lima citizens decided to inaugurate an enterprise. Calling themselves the Citizens’ Oil Co., they limited membership to 100 and decided no member would be allowed to hold more than five shares of stock sold at $20 per share.
About the same time, pumping machinery for the paper mill well arrived. On June 16, 1885, the Times reported, “The pump at the oil well was kept in constant motion last night and the supply of oil does not seem to diminish. The iron oil tank which will hold 4,630 gallons of oil was received last evening and is now being filled, preparatory to being sent to Cleveland to be refined.”
The Allen County Democrat noted on June 19, 1885, that, after the initial excitement of the find subsided, “a vast amount of farm property was quietly leased in this county…”
The Citizens’ Oil Co., meanwhile, decided to drill their well on a half-acre of land on South Pine Street, just south of the Ottawa River. “Workmen on the Citizens’ oil well began drilling last evening and will push the work along as rapidly as possible,” the Republican reported August 27, 1885.
Meanwhile, in early August, the well at the paper mill was again “shot” with 100 pounds of nitroglycerine to get the oil and gas flowing.
“The paper mill was lighted with natural gas last night and the flow is much stronger than it was before the second shot. A tank of oil will be shipped from the well today,” the Republican noted August 12, 1885. The Times wrote that the explosion “tore a hole in the ground the size of an ox, and the concussion broke a number of windows.”
By now the oil fever was spreading, with the Republican reporting on August 22, 1885, that “the oil and gas well boom still continues throughout the country and Kenton has caught the fever and will begin to sink a well at once. A.C. Baxter Jr., was over there yesterday and took a contract for sinking a well … “
The Times on August 31, 1885, pronounced the boom here to stay.
“The people of this city are thoroughly aroused over the oil question, and all day yesterday the Citizens’ well on South Pine Street was surrounded with a large crowd of people looking at the derrick and machinery, which is quite a novelty to the average Limaite. Within the next six months, oil wells and their apparatus will be so common that they will not attract much attention, for Lima’s oil boom is real,” the newspaper wrote.
It was. Three weeks later, just as summer turned to autumn, the Citizens’ well struck oil. Derricks began appearing across the region like dandelions in the spring.
“A gentleman who is in a position of know, stated to us this morning that there would be at least 50 wells put down for oil, within the next 30 days. Let ‘er boom!” the Times declared December 2, 1885.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.