This year’s Wyoming Energy Summit, which will be held on May 23 at the University of Wyoming, will for the first time feature a look back at the beginnings of the energy industry in Wyoming. The American Heritage Center will be bringing a sampling from their extensive collection of energy photos and artifacts for attendees to enjoy.
Take the Salt Creek oilfield, for example. This key development north of Casper defined Wyoming’s oil industry as it evolved in the late 1910s and 1920s. During that boom, it was the site of the nation’s largest deposit of light crude, explained Leslie Waggoner of the American Heritage Center. Oil gushers were common, and oil was transported by horse drawn freight wagons.
The Salt Creek play was also the site of the Teapot Dome Scandal – where the then-Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome and two other locations in California to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. The Teapot Dome oil production rights went to Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil, a subsidiary of Sinclair Oil Corporation.
Fall was eventually convicted of accepting bribes, becoming the first Cabinet member to go to prison. Nobody was ever convicted of giving him the bribes, although Sinclair did serve six months in jail on the charge of jury tampering. President Warren Harding also found his reputation to be sullied because he associated with the wrong people. Before Watergate, Teapot Dome was regarded as “the greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics.”
But Teapot Dome would not have been so significant if the reserve had not been so fantastically rich. The American Heritage Center has photos of oil prospectors wearing rain slickers under a deluge of oil spouting from a gusher, and later photos showing a virtual forest of wooden oil derricks sprouting in the high desert. It also has the notes of Judge Kennedy, who ruled for the U.S. government in the scandal and got hate mail afterwards.
Then there were some of the very first attempts at fracking. Called at the time “Operation Plowshare” it referred to converting nuclear weapons of war to weapons of economic development in peacetime. It was thought that triggering a nuclear blast beneath the surface of what is now the Jonah Field might free the oil for collection. This luckily never happened, but the American Heritage Center has position papers arguing the merits and drawbacks of this extreme fracking method.
The American Heritage Center also has the family papers of three generations of the Donnell family – the three consecutive presidents of Marathon Oil. These files provide a glimpse into the Gatsby-like parties they threw as a way of lobbying for their interests. There is also a lot of material from Standard Oil (which was founded in Ohio by John D. Rockefeller).
The American Heritage Center has these records, Waggoner explained, “because we had a really aggressive former director from the late 1950s to the 1980s, who travelled widely, and wrote charming letters, and just asked people for their collections.”
Energy Summit attendees who have made their own history in Wyoming will be encouraged to donate their records to the American Heritage Center, whose collection – especially when it comes to energy – is one of the best in the world.
To attend the Wyoming Energy Summit, click here for tickets.