Happy 100th Birthday to the Boulder Oil Field

Title: Happy 100th Birthday to the Boulder Oil Field

Author: Matthew R. Silverman

Publication: The Outcrop, May/June 2001, p. 35

An oil field in Boulder? Tofu and granola, yes. Sandals and love beads, sure. Even Mork and Mindy. But an oil field?

First tanker car of oil from Boulder Field, 1902. Note misspelling of the name “McKenzie.” J.B. Sturtevant photo, A.A. Paddock Collection, from Smith, 1981.

One hundred years ago, in 1901, the Boulder Oil Field was discovered just northeast of the eponymous Colorado town. It is the second oldest field in the state and one of the oldest producing anticlines in the Rockies. The field was discovered the same year as Spindletop, and its early development shares some of that boomtown atmosphere and scandal. An effort is now underway to get landmark designation at the Boulder discovery, now ironically the site of the only well still producing in the field. A group that includes RMAG members Linda Flis, Michele Bishop and Matt Silverman is trying to get a historical marker erected on the site along Colorado Highway 119, also known as the Boulder-Longmont Diagonal.

Wells had been drilled in the area to follow-up oily odors and seeps as early as 1892. Dowsing by a group associated with Isaac Canfield, one of the pioneers of Colorado’s oil industry at Florence, led to the Boulder discovery, the McKenzie Well. Early wells were drilled with cable tools, and production generally came from depths of 800 to 3000 feet. Most wells were shot with nitroglycerin to improve production. About 100 wells were drilled in the first few years; nearly 200 have been drilled in all.

Boulder was the focus of a forgotten boom. Over a hundred oil companies sprouted up, and promoters promised “Oil or money refunded.” One University of Colorado professor (later to become the State Geologist) raised $500,000, equivalent to several million dollars today. A now-venerated pioneer photographer used doctored pictures to promote investment. Wells were drilled with “other people’s money” and with little or no financial reward for most investors. The wily Canfield got out early, in 1902.

Located at the western margin of the Denver Basin, the field is associated with one of the en echelon anticlines near the foothills of the Front Range. A nose, whose axis is roughly parallel to the mountains, controls the field structurally. Production is from sand lenses and fold-related fracture porosity in the Late Cretaceous Pierre Shale, which is also the source rock. Fractures parallel to the fold’s axis have contributed most of the production.

Boulder Field opened the oil industry of the northern Denver Basin. It has produced about 800,000 BO, but the Ione remaining stripper well, the #1-21 McKenzie, is slated for the salvage yard of history. Then the field will be gone and a peculiar chapter in the development of oil and gas in the Rockies will close.

For additional information on the effort to create a historical landmark on the site of the discovery well, please contact Matt Silverman, silvermanmr@yahoo.com or 303-449-3761.