Two years before Wyoming joined the Union, roughnecks drilled Casper's first oil well 3 miles northwest of town. It shut down a year later, but two others cropped up near Ervay – a ghost town south of Hells Half Acre.
Derricks dotted the ground at the Salt Creek oil fields not long after. By 1915, less than two decades after Wyoming’s statehood, Casper boasted 4,000 people. Two years later, a Casper Magazine article proclaimed “the oil boom was at its height.”
The Cowboy State has ridden and weathered 13 booms and 12.5 busts, according to historian and University of Wyoming professor Phil Roberts. The half a bust accounts for Wyoming’s current situation, which he’s not sure he would call a full bust just yet.
Most of those booms and busts were created by the rise and fall of the state’s volatile oil industry.
Agriculture padded Wyoming’s dependence on black gold at times. Coal kept the state afloat more recently. Natural gas filled Wyoming's sails during the first decade of the 2000s.
“We think, during the boom, the boom will never end. And during the bust, we think that will never end, either,” Roberts said. “And so rather than take advantage of the opportunities during the bust times, we tend to scale everything back for the future, and we tend to sock money away in a coffee can because we’re afraid we won’t have anything and the bust will never end.”
What Wyoming’s lawmakers, businessmen and planners should realize by now is that every boom will end and every bust will end. The only uncertainty is duration.
The Star-Tribune compiled a brief timeline of oil in Wyoming from the first sale to its current situation.
- 1863: “The first recorded oil sale in Wyoming, however, happened along the Oregon Trail when, in 1863, enterprising entrepreneurs sold oil as a lubricant to wagon train travelers. The oil came from Oil Mountain Springs, some 20 miles west of present-day Casper. ” -- Phil Roberts on wyohistory.org.
- 1883: Mike Murphy drills the first oil well in Wyoming south of Lander at Dallas Dome.
- Fall 1888: Casper’s first well is drilled 3 miles northwest of town.
- 1895: Pennsylvania Oil Company builds the first refinery in Casper.
- April 5, 1889: “The town was swarming with oil men. Something will evidently be doing soon.” – The Casper Tribune
- 1910: Franco-Wyoming Oil Co. is created. Construction on a refinery begins a year later.
- 1911: The Midwest Oil Co. begins construction of another refinery in Casper.
- 1914: Standard Oil moves into Casper, buying land to build a refinery.
- 1916 to 1917: "During the latter part of 1916 and for nine months in 1917 Casper experienced a wonderful oil boom,” according to a 1990 Gillette News Record article citing a historian.
- 1916: The Big Muddy Oil Field is discovered near Glenrock on a land grant section randomly chosen by a government surveyor for the University of Wyoming. Royalties from the oil field in the 1920s are used to build Half Acre, the current gymnasium, and the library, now the Aven Nelson Building. The building comes amid a statewide depression.
- June 17, 1921: A fire erupts at the Midwest Refinery Tank Farm in Casper, in what is widely considered one of the major disasters of the time.
- 1923: “The Producers and Refiners Company (PARCO) built a refinery and a complete town for its employees on the Union Pacific line in Carbon County. When the firm went into bankruptcy in the early 1930s, oilman Harry Sinclair bought the town on April 12, 1934, and renamed it ‘Sinclair’.” -- Phil Roberts on wyohistory.org.
- 1925: “It was 1925, the peak of the Salt Creek oil boom in Casper. ‘Smoke of prosperity hangs over Casper Refineries,’ said the headline in the 1926 annual ‘industrial edition’ of the Casper Tribune-Herald.” More than 23,200 people lived in Casper and Natrona County, beating Cheyenne and Laramie County by about 5,000 people. Some people predicted Natrona County’s population would reach 40,000 within a year. – “Boom overshadowed gloom in ‘25” by Irving Garbutt.
- Late 1920s: Crude oil prices peak in 1920 at $3 for a 42-gallon barrel before sinking to as low as 19 cents in 1931.
- 1940s: World War II boosts Wyoming oil production.
- 1946: Major oil companies move regional headquarters to Casper, which is, once again, coined “Oil Capital of the Rocky Mountains.”
- 1947: “Casper listed 55 oil field service, supply, and trucking companies. In 1953, this list showed 196 such firms. Stanolind Oil Company, with division and district headquarters in Casper, had 70 employees in 1947. In 1953, the company employed 316 people. Ohio Oil Company had increased from 104 employees to 167. The total number of companies and individuals listed as engaged in oil production and exploration increased from 27 in 1947 to 81 in 1953.” – “Casper, Wyoming, Oil Center of the Rockies” September 1954 edition of Out West Magazine.
- 1950s: Most small towns in Wyoming have their own refineries, including ones in Cody, Thermopolis, Torrington and Lusk.
- Late 1960s: Oil production continues to be strong, but Wyoming’s overall economy is in a period of “malaise,” said Phil Roberts. “By the end of the ‘60s, we were flat broke.”
“In 1968, Gov. Stan Hathaway discovered that Wyoming had the grand sum of $80 in the general fund. 'That scared the hell out of me,' said Hathaway. 'I had to do something.'” -- Sam Western, “Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul.”
- 1969: Wyoming creates a severance tax to build state coffers.
- 1973: Arab oil embargo. Prices skyrocket to $40 a barrel. Gas prices nearly double.
- 1982: World price of energy crashes.
- Early 1980s: Headquarters of major companies, including Chevron and Exxon, move from Casper to Denver and then many to Houston or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most small refineries, operating off of even slimmer margins, close.
- 1991: Amoco Refinery closes in Casper. “Had they stayed, they would have had to weather, how many years before it turned around? As a business decision, it was something they had to do looking down the road. But on the other hand, with the changing energy economy by the end of the 20th century, it would have been pretty profitable for them to stay in business.” – Phil Roberts
- Early 2000s: Enhanced oil recovery breathes new life into the Salt Creek Field. Horizontal drilling unlocks previously hard-to-tap shale reserves.
- Late 2014: Slow international growth and a rising tide of production from OPEC creates a slump in oil prices from $107 a barrel to below $50 a barrel in 2015.
* Historical information from Phil Roberts, a Wyoming historian and professor at the University of Wyoming, or the Western History Center at Casper College.