The First North Dakota Oil Boom

The first North Dakota oil boom occurred at a difficult time in the history of the state. The boom raged from 1951 to 1960 so it appeared only briefly in the last few chapters of the Robinson’s History of North Dakota published in 1966. Of course, he had no way of knowing the subsequent impact of the discovery of oil on the history state, and, indeed, an honest historian today would be challenged to understand how and whether the most recent Bakken Boom will have a lasting impact on the state’s history. Moreover, the oil boom did not make an appearance in his wide ranging memoirs about his time at the University of North Dakota suggesting perhaps that boom did not dominate the headlines in the eastern part of the state during the 1950s.  

At the same time, Prof. Robinson did supervise an M.A. thesis in 1962 by Dominic Schaff titled “The History of the North Dakota Oil Industry.” I had the pleasure of reading his thesis this weekend and recommend it to anyone interested in the first decade of oil production in the state.

Here are some quick thoughts:

1. Schaff was a student of Robinson. Among the most telling aspects of Schaff’s work was his commitment to Robinson’s basic historiographic perspective on North Dakota summarized in Robinson’s famous “Themes of North Dakota History.” Schaff, for example, embraced the remoteness of the North Dakota and discussed at length how the logistics of shipping oil to market limited the opportunities for even the most well-funded companies involved in extractive industries. The construction of the Mandan refinery and the crude pipeline from Tioga to Mandan (and the refined oil pipeline from Mandan to Moorhead, MN) improved this situation to some extent, but the limited capacity of the Mandan refinery and the limited reach of the pipeline into the rapidly expanding oil field ensured that a substantial investment to move North Dakota crude and high prices on the global market.

Schaff makes brief mention of the workforce housing challenges associated with boom noting that, in Tioga, men were living in chicken coops and grain silos. He noted that Watford City schools, social services, roads, and housing stock also felt the crunch. These social challenges, however, formed an afterthought to Schaff’s predominantly technical and corporate discussion of the boom.  

2. Geography and Topography. As I work away on my Tourist Guide to the Bakken, I’ve begun to think a bit how to describe a productive landscape that is largely underground. Schaff’s thesis, as well as the work of other scholars, have helped me to understand the geography and geology of the Bakken counties better. I now think that any guide to Bakken would be incomplete without a discussion of such key geological features as the Nesson Anticline which runs in a north-south line south of Tioga, across the Missouri, and into McKenzie county. This formation attracted the attention of the first major investors in the North Dakota oil fields in the late 1920s and 1930s and saw several deep, exploratory wells. The first productive wells in the Bakken, like the No. 1 Clarence Iverson Well drilled by Amerada (which became Hess) near Tioga was into this formation.

On our trip out to the Bakken next week, I hope to be able to identify some of these formations visually so that a knowledgable traveler can at least see the surface manifestations of the  productive landscapes below the ground. 

3. Historical Markers and the Bakken Boom. As the first Bakken Boom of the 1950s is over 50 years old, historians naturally turn to thinking how to commemorate and mark this history in the landscape. The first wells and pumps that drew oil from thousands of feet below the surface are long gone, but it is nevertheless marked by a granite historical marker.  The gently rolling hills dotted with more recent wells and crops are hardly characteristic of tourist areas. At the same time, there is a global recognition of the challenges facing the communities, environment, and workforce in the Bakken. History and historical awareness provides one approach to mediating between global and local communities. Finding a way to mark the Bakken landscape with the evidence for the past oil booms embeds contemporary experience in a historic place. In particular, it recognizes that the landscape of western North Dakota has long been a place of booms and busts and its seeming isolation belies deep connections with global markets. The oil boom – as much as periods of agricultural prosperity – located the places and communities of Williams and McKenzie counties within a global context.

Would it be possible to prepare a North Dakota oil field for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places?    

For some information on the early days of oil exploration in the state, check out Clarence Herz recent North Dakota State University M.A. thesis and John Bluemle’s The 50th Anniversary of the Discovery of Oil in North Dakota (NDGS 2001).

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