NEWCASTLE -- Al Smith had a problem.

The federal government had given him permission to drill for oil on land just east of Newcastle, but time was running out on the go-ahead. It was either drill it or lose it.

Smith had no way of drilling into the ground near his house by U.S. Highway 16. He was an oilman with a drilling rig, but that rig was in use elsewhere.

So Smith took a pick axe, a shovel, a few sticks of dynamite, and dug a well by hand into what was likely very hard soil on a cold February day in 1966.

At 21 feet, Smith hit oil. It wasn't a gusher, but perhaps it could serve as a centerpiece for a tourist attraction near a bend in the highway.

That attraction, dubbed by Smith as the Accidental Oil Co., grew around the hand-dug well.

Smith dug several more wells, including one with a walk-down ramp where visitors could stop in a viewing room and watch as oil seeped out of the rock. Back on the surface, tourists could hand-pump their own oil out of Smith's first well.

Smith added old oil well equipment on the site and brought in a 10,000-gallon oil tank from Denver. He converted it into a gift shop, or "Gift Tank," as it was known.

The wells never produced much oil, certainly not enough on which to live. But that was never the point, said Smith's daughter, Deb. The attraction was meant to be more than a tourist stop. An educational experience -- that was her father's dream.

"He always wanted to show people what was involved in the drilling and recovery of oil," she said.

That dream died a year after Smith did in 2005 at 90 from complications of pneumonia. Now the site is both a legacy and an overgrown memorial. The retro-style billboards along the highway have grown shabby, trees gone wild flank the Gift Tank doors, and the tools Smith used to dig his well hang on the wall next a tunnel down into the earth that no longer echoes with questions or explanations.

It's an incomplete end for an attraction that struck it big and has now faded away. Governors of Wyoming and South Dakota were on-hand for the attraction's grand opening in 1970. In its heyday, several hundred visitors a day, some from all over the world, drove up the gravel driveway.

But tourists stopped visiting in the numbers they once did, said his daughter, who still lives at the site. The place is expensive to operate, she said.

"It was a heartbreaking decision to make," she said.

Deb Smith makes sure the place remains legal. Each year she pays $160 to maintain the federal mineral leases. Each month she files production reports to both state and federal regulators for her oil wells.

And she feels guilty.

"I feel horrible I wasn't able to maintain it," she said, sitting on a chair in the double-wide trailer home she shares with her husband, Gary Wilson. "It wasn't just my parents' dream. It has historical significance and I feel like I'm the only one who feels that way."

Deb began working for the family business at the age of 13. When she got older and her mother Edel died, she took over running the gift shop and the business. She kept the wells and the other mechanical objects in working order.

Standing in the middle of the Gift Tank, she is surrounded by what is still a gift shop's inventory: rocks, plates, jewelry, cookbooks and figurines.

Much of it still neatly lines glass shelves along the wood-paneled walls, while other items sit on tables and under the glass of the counter. Deb Smith stands near the center of the circular building, the center point of much of her life, as she shows the building to a couple of visitors.

"This was my store, this was my way of life," she said. "That's why it was so hard for me to come down here."

Her father is everywhere. Smith points out the storage tank that served as his shop, the Red Jacket-brand hand pump that sprouted from the well he dug by hand, the steam engine he had hoped to put into action, the battered and worn pick and shovel he used to dig the first well.

"He was amazing," she said. "He was quite a man."

And he's still at the Accidental Oil Co. He and Edel, their ashes mixed together, are scattered on the hillside above the attraction, as they requested.

The wells keep pumping small amounts of oil, dutifully recorded and reported by his daughter. Regulations dictate that she can't just walk away from the well or ignore it without plugging it properly. That would mean filling up the long ramp to the underground viewing room with concrete -- not a cheap solution.

Accidental Oil Co. might not be worth opening for tourists, but it's too precious to Deb Smith to disappear forever, even if it's closed for business.

"Not for lack of trying," she said. "I was trying to keep it all together, trying to keep it going."

She said she'll fill out the oil production reports until she dies. Then her daughter Anna will fill out the reports, she said, marking time from the day her father swung a pick axe into the dirt, and dreamed.

(2) comments


Sad to read this. The hand-dug oil well in Newcastle is a memorable part of a road trip I took in the summer of 1986.


It was an honor to work for the Smith Family at the Hand Dug Oil Well as a tour guide and I also worked in the Gift Tank in 1984 and 1985. I have many fond memories of those days with keeping the red shag carpet clean.

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