By Erik Berg

Many people know about the rich gold discoveries that brought waves of early prospectors to Yavapai County, but few realize that the area was also the scene of a brief but intensive oil boom during the First World War. For a few years, the rolling hills of the Chino Valley were dotted with the wooden derricks of oil wells and local newspapers were filled with the advertisements of would-be oil barons. Now largely forgotten, the Chino Valley oil boom remains as one of the more unusual stories from Arizona’s mining history.

The idea of oil under Chino Valley was nothing new. In 1899, rancher John Brett had reported finding oil seeps along the upper Verde River. However, it was not until the arrival of Joseph Heslet that anyone paid much attention. An engineer and part-time prospector, Heslet rediscovered the seeps and became convinced that a large oil deposit lay nearby. Around 1902 or 1903, Heslet started one of the first oil wells in Northern Arizona near today’s Paulden. Unfortunately, Heslet’s equipment and drilling skills did not match his enthusiasm. He was soon thwarted by cave-ins and water seepage. Undaunted, Heslet decided to try again in October of 1916, organizing the Chino Valley Oil and Mining Company. Water and cave-ins again brought him to a halt.

His second failed attempt generated much attention. Word soon spread to nearby Jerome of Heslet’s well. Prospectors and speculators swarmed into the valley. By late 1917 over a dozen new companies had formed, mostly on paper. Among the first were the Arizona Del Rio Oil Company, the Arizona-Oklahoma Oil and Gas Company, and the Arizona Oil and Refining Company. Many others soon followed.

Of all these firms, none was more enthusiastic or vocal about its prospects than the Arizona Oil and Refining Co., located in Prescott. It owned 640 acres near Heslet’s well and featured a master promoter, Dr. E. A. Edwards. In an interview with the Arizona Mining Journal, Edwards claimed a long list of impressive but questionable accomplishments, including the discovery of several major oil fields and a founding role in America’s oil industry. Edwards concluded that "from my own personal examination and past experience, the Chino Valley oil fields will become to Arizona what the Whittier, Ventura and Taft fields, with which I was identified, have been and are to California."

The companies quickly learned that drilling for oil was considerably more expensive and time-consuming than anticipated. Equipment costs, assembly and drilling could often take months and cost thousands of dollars. Faced with such expenses, the promotion and selling of stock quickly became the priority and often overshadowed the actual business of drilling. In November of 1917, the Arizona-Oklahoma group promised investors in Jerome and Clarkdale that these towns would soon have twenty new millionaires if adequate funds were raised to complete the wells. Another company ran large advertisements proclaiming, "You Owe It to Yourself, To Your Family, To Your Future, To Buy Shares In This Company."

While predictions and promotions continued to run high throughout the first half of 1918, actual progress in the field was slow and tedious. The valley had yet to produce a single barrel of oil and the deepest well had reached only 200 feet. In fact, only a few of the companies had even begun drilling. Later that summer, several of the firms agreed to combine their resources and focus on a single well. Even this effort failed, and as 1918 came to a close most of the companies quietly ceased operations and disappeared. Almost as quickly as it had started, the oil boom came to an end.

While the Chino Valley oil boom ultimately produced more advertising ink than oil, it did have a lasting impact on the state’s fledgling petroleum industry. Like tales of lost Spanish mines, the boom spurred prospectors’ imaginations. Rumors lingered that one well or another had actually struck oil before being closed. Sporadic exploration continued throughout the area into the 1960s. Today, all that remains of the boom are a handful of abandoned well heads around Paulden; their rusted iron casings stand as monuments to the time when the Chino Valley was hailed as the next great American oil field.

On Saturday, July 23 at 2 pm, Erik Berg will be at the Sharlot Hall Museum to present tales of tragicomedy surrounding the Chino oil boom through historic images and first-hand accounts. West Gallery, Lawler Exhibit Center. Admission is free.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.